Lies, damned lies, and statistics. Isn’t that the saying? Well, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) has long set one statistic above all others. They knew they were in decline long before their membership numbers began to reflect that reality. Today, let me show you their ride-or-die statistic: how they arrive at it, what it means to them, and most importantly what it means to the rest of us.
(The SBC’s Annual Reports always cover the previous year’s activity.)
An Interesting Statistic.
Lately, we’ve been talking about the SBC’s 2020 Annual Report. And yesterday, I promised you an interesting statistic. Here it is:
As I mentioned, J.D. Greear grieves about his denomination’s baptism numbers, referring to the situation as a “50-year decline.”
A what now?
That “50” number really got my attention, so I headed to the stacks to figure out what he meant.
See, Greear can’t be talking about sheer membership numbers. I keep track of the SBC’s statistics. Thus, I know that they enjoyed a dizzying rise in membership at least since the 1980s. All through the 1980s to the 2000s, in fact all the way to about 2008, their membership consistently rose. In that period, membership rose from the mid-14M mark to mid-16M — before it began to fall. Now they’re back at the mid-14M mark.
But 2008 was only 12 years ago. Heck, 1985 was only 35 years ago! So he can’t possibly be referring to membership declines.
He can’t mean baptism numbers themselves, either. The SBC also enjoyed a more-or-less steady rise in overall baptisms during that same period. Amusingly enough, baptisms began to decline in number well before the SBC’s overall membership did, though that drop wasn’t consistent. Some years it’d increase a bit, others it’d decrease a lot. Overall, it certainly trended downward during the 2000s. By 2011, their numbers began steadily falling — and with no more back-and-forth.
So what did J.D. Greear mean when he talked about a 50-year decline? What statistics of theirs began to decline around 1970?
Well, I think I know.
The Golden Ratio.
I think J.D. Greear is talking about one particular figure that his denomination has decided to make its ride-or-die number:
Their ratio of baptisms per existing members.
SBC leaders think this ratio indicates their effectiveness in recruitment. When they refer to it, they mean how many members’ effort and money does it take for the denomination to bag ONE new SBC-ling?
So obviously, SBC leaders want that number to be low. They spend a lot of time talking about it and trying to improve it. When it rises, they know that they’re spending more money and time to capture fewer new members than they did earlier.
And this ratio been looking worse and worse since about 1970. Even while their baptism and membership numbers rose, this ratio has steadily gotten worse.
A Steadily-Worsening Statistic.
Here’s an (auto-downloading grrr) 2005 report about this ratio. The author of it, J. Clifford Tharp, Jr., describes the figure thusly:
Another measure of effectiveness in evangelism is the Baptisms-to-Membership Ratio. This ratio (based upon Total Membership) is one of the statistical items reported to the Convention each year and shows the number of members it “takes” to have one baptism. This ratio has been increasing over the 1950-2004 time-period (which is reflective of less evangelistic effectiveness). In 1950 it took 19 members to baptize one person, while in 2004 it took 42 persons to baptize one person. Thus the ratio has increased by 2.2 times over the period.
It’s quite an interesting look at a little-known figure. Tharp even briefly mentions how SBC leaders can juggle numbers around to make their ratio look prettier. (Here’s one such example. In this report, the writer goes for worship attendance instead of overall membership for his baptism ratio.)
In addition, he also reveals how missionary-started churches and church plants often seriously impact the denomination’s overall performance. That happens because new churches perform way better in recruitment than long-established churches, as one might expect for various reasons.
Hmm. I wonder if that’s why J.D. Greear wants to see more missionaries in action?
Of course, new churches also tend to close a lot more often than more-established churches, so the one hand giveth and the other hand taketh away, I suppose. When the game’s masters care about one particular statistic, the players quickly learn to game it.
The Tanking Golden Ratio.
Despite all this attention, though, the SBC’s baptisms-to-members ratio hasn’t been where they want it for a very, very long time.
Back in the 1950s and 1960s, this golden ratio dangled in the 1:25-1:30 range. One year, 1956, a humongous baptism drive the previous year even produced a 1:20 ratio. Oh yeah, these were happy Southern Baptists — even if that huge success meant serious drops in baptisms later, once that drive ended.
By the time I myself became a Southern Baptist (around 1985), though, that ratio had already tanked for good. The SBC dipped into the 1:40-1:44 range through the 1980s, only briefly coming back up to the high 1:30s again before dropping for good.
Even while they were gaining members and increasing their baptism numbers overall, their ratio told the real story — and their leaders knew it. Yes, they knew perfectly well what it meant. To make those sales, they were flinging more and more money and people at the sales floor. The product just wasn’t moving very well anymore.
(And by the way, y’all, I don’t think the troops on the ground were doing anywhere near as much personal evangelism then as they even do now. (Exhibit A: This wacky 1950s evangelism handbook.) The SBC’s leaders increasingly push for personal evangelism, sure, but I think they do that more to tighten retention metrics with their current flocks than to add to their number. See also: Beach Reach.)
2013: Time to Panic!
The ratio finally hit 1:50 in the 2013 report — at which point SBC leaders panicked.
Oh yeah, I saw a lot of Baptist leaders freaking out about that magic number around that time. That year, in their Annual Report’s President’s Address, Fred Luter, Jr. preached up a storm:
The question of the hour is: Have we been lights in a dark world and salt in a sodium, saltless society?
Well, according to the latest statistics issued by Dr. Thom Rainer of LifeWay last week, we’re not making much of a difference at all. According to the numbers reported by our churches, we are down in every category. Membership is down in our churches; attendance is down in our churches; and baptisms are down in our churches. As a matter of fact, baptisms in Southern Baptist churches are the lowest since 1948! Let me do the math for you. Baptisms in our churches are the lowest in 65 years! Oh, what a tragedy!
But as rousing as his sermon undoubtedly was for his audience, it didn’t make any difference. That golden ratio they so treasured only continued to decline. The denomination hit 1:60 in 2019, just six short years later. And this time I heard very little panicking at all. In fact, everyone was really, really quiet about this milestone.
Now, with the 2020 report, they’re sittin’ pretty at 1:62.
And absolutely nothing they do seems to affect this trend in any positive way.
What This Statistic Means to the SBC.
More to the point, let me show you their basic statistics in their 1970 report (p. 109; also, remember report statistics always cover the previous year’s activity):
Total members: 11,489,613
Ratio of baptisms per total membership: 1:31
Here’s where they’re at in the 2020 report:
Total members: 14,525,579
Ouch. They aren’t even close to the number of baptisms they scored in the 1969 report. It now takes the resources of sixty-two Southern Baptists to score one new SBC-ling, where it once took those of thirty-one members.
In a very real way, these numbers represent many millions of dollars and many labor-hours’ worth of effort to sell a product (SBC group membership) that their target market increasingly rejects. Southern Baptists are spending way more of both resources to get nowhere near the results they got 50 years ago. And now that their donations are also starting to suffer, they just don’t have the money to pay for all of this stuff.
When we see SBC leaders flinging new churches around willy-nilly and crying out for more people to become missionaries, we might just be witnessing their last wild attempt to improve this one tanking statistic before it becomes just absolutely impossible.
At the very least, this passion for church planting and increased missionary activity likely reflects their desperation to at least keep their decline from completely overwhelming the flocks.
What This Statistic Means for the Rest of Us.
It means the god-botherers are not winning, to ever-so-slightly adapt the groundbreaking 2007 essay’s title.
But more than that. Yes, more than that:
The SBC’s baptism ratio predicted their decline in the years to come. And it did so in a way that their leaders could not miss. It sonorously spoke of their future in funereal tones of loss.
SBC leaders have known for decades that it takes more effort and money with every passing year to maintain their behemoth organization — much less to gain members, much less to extend their reach. By their own wackadoodle standards, they are not actually “the winning team” and have not been so for decades. Worse, their leaders certainly knew the moment this assertion stopped being true.
Unless the SBC can yank that number back into shape, they will continue to hemorrhage money to barely-not-quite-muddle-through their decline. The worse that number gets, the more their product gets rejected by the rest of their culture.
So ultimately, this one statistic tells us that the SBC has lost its dominance — and has no hope of recovering it, whatever their Dear Leaders might say to the contrary.
Money Makes the (Fundie) World Go Around.
When I talked a moment ago about the SBC hemorrhaging money to barely maintain themselves in their current slowly-declining state, that’s really the most important part of this whole ratio statistic shebang.
Maintaining all these zillions of churches and missionaries J.D. Greear wants the flocks to open and start and do and support?
It takes money, folks.
Paying for individual pastors for each itty bitty new church, for advertisements and “free concert” functions, for visiting big-name evangelists to rock their cities for Jesus?
It all takes money.
Nobody in Christian-Land’s professional ranks works in those white-unto-harvest fields for free.
Add on top of that all their political maneuvering. They must deliver what I am certain is an agreed-upon, expected level of support to the Republican politicians now pandering to them.
Of course, we must also add in the cost of appeasing and pleasing the big-money donors that almost every church has. Church leaders shower these “whales” with ringside sportsball seats and backstage concert passes and more, all so those donors grudgingly write those big-ass checks every year that form the bulk of every church’s yearly take.
Running Christian-Land takes money.
Money is not infinite.
And Now the Money’s Walking Away Faster Than Ever Before.
People who leave the SBC’s ranks take their wallets with them.
The people rejecting their sales pitches never become resources to be exploited in the first place.
Yeah, I’m sure SBC leaders are starting to get downright frantic.
The SBC runs like a giant corporation — albeit a very poorly-run one. Its leaders know the importance of keeping the money trains running on time.
And yet in the middle of all their money-grubbing and chest-beating and imperious demands and even belligerent law-breaking, here’s this one little statistic. All along, their baptism-to-members ratio has been quietly telling everyone who can perceive it the real deal with this massive denomination — and foretelling its future as well.
NEXT UP: A brief history of evangelical-style discipling. What it is, why evangelicals officially like it so much, and yet why they have never, ever been able to actually do it — even though most of ’em have been convinced for years that it’s for realsies the only effective way to end their retention problem.
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Last note: Check out this evangelical guy’s theory about what’s behind the baptism ratio’s decline. Spoiler: he blames the North American Mission Board, or NAMB. I’m starting to realize that there’s a lot of political infighting in the SBC over NAMB. A lot of SBC members don’t like them at all. Also, here’s an interesting 2016 report – starting on p. 96 we find a wealth of baptism and attendance stats for Arkansas SBC churches.