penguins milling around
Reading Time: 7 minutes A scene from the last SBC Annual Meeting. (Martin Wettstein.)
Reading Time: 7 minutes

Hi and welcome back! For the past few years, we’ve made a tradition of checking out the Annual Reports of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). Today, I want us to whisk through the main points of this year’s Annual Report. Let’s see how the SBC’s doing lately!

penguins milling around
A scene from the last SBC Annual Meeting. (Martin Wettstein.)

(The 2020 SBC Annual Report can be found here. If you want a different year, just substitute the year you want for the “2020” part of that URL.)

Shock of Shocks: the Decline Continues.

We begin on page 64 of the report, where their main statistics can be found. And yes, it’s some dismal stuff — for them.

Remember, the 2020 report captures the SBC’s performance in 2019.

First and foremost, baptisms dropped again — from 246,442 to 235,748. That’s more than 10,000 fewer, or a 4% decrease. This is important because the SBC measures its success as a denomination by this one figure above all others.

The previous year, baptisms fell by 7680, which represents about a 3% decrease. And notably, this year’s slightly-worsened statistic occurred despite J.D. Greear doing every single thing he could to push his flocks into doing more recruiting. Their ratio of baptisms per total members has now dropped to 1:62, from 1:60 last year.

We’d already heard that the SBC’s having particular trouble convincing teenagers to get baptized. That’s particularly bad news for these folks because if they can’t get a child indoctrinated between the ages of 4-14, then they probably never will bag that child as a lifelong member of their tribe. As I mentioned in April, as well, chances are good that they aren’t getting a lot of teen baptisms because they already dunked any willing kids years ago.

In 2014, a big task force of theirs discovered that the only age group that most churches were reliably baptizing was children under the age of five. That report appears to have vanished off the face of the earth by now, perhaps just as a casualty of their site redesign. In response to their findings, the task force made a set of recommendations that absolutely nobody cared about, and thus the “baptism drought” continues.

it always went like this with Biff
The life cycle of all SBC Initiatives.

Other Bad News in the Report.

(“Last year” means figures from the 2019 Annual Report, which covers the SBC’s performance in 2018.)

Total Membership Still Falling: Last year, total members fell from 14.8M to 14.5M, a loss of about 278K. Last year, they lost 192K members (and tumbled into the 14M range, a place they haven’t been since 1990).

Church-Type Missions Decrease: Last year, the SBC lost a net of 291 of what they call “church-type missions.” These are like home churches for the most part, like church plants.

The Money Train Slowing Down: Undesignated receipts and total receipts both fell this year compared to last year. Neither fell by that much, but any decline has to be worrying for SBC leaders. Last year, J.D. Greear managed to slightly increase both figures. But as I suspected, that momentum could not continue indefinitely.

Beach Reach Bust: For those interested in the SBC’s “Beach Reach,” a short-term mission trip thing they do every year for Spring Break, they flung “almost 800” college students at the task last year. They didn’t give us ANY figures from the year before, so I’m guessing it performed so poorly they couldn’t even pretend it did any good for anyone. That said, in the 2018 report we learn that they persuaded 900 students (to pay) to participate. As for success, this year these earnest missionaries talked “some 42” victims into joining their tribe. The 2018 report tells us they had 51 converts that year. That’s a slight decrease in effectiveness, but overall and in-my-opinion Beach Reach has never been a successful recruitment effort anyway, nor is even meant to be one.

F@&% the Poor: As well, the SBC continued to gather smaller and smaller amounts of money for their various charity efforts. The decreases in charity giving this year were not as steep as the ones they saw last year, but the decline certainly continues.

Hilarious Increases of Effort.

The 2020 Annual Report contains some unexpected amusement, too.

Church Numbers Continue to Grow (Barely): The SBC added a net 74 churches to their roster this year, going from 47,456 member churches to 47,530. They don’t tend to tell us how many churches folded, but we know it’s a lot — so this net figure represents spaghetti flung at the wall. They lost a net 88 churches last year.

Gaining Associations: The SBC also added a net 10 “associations” to their membership rolls. Last year, they lost a net of 5. This addition likely reflects growing polarization on the part of evangelicals themselves.

Missionary Work Still Apparently Pays Decently Well: In addition, the SBC continued to gain net increases in missionaries both in the United States and abroad. Years ago, we noticed that the Mormons are flinging increasing numbers of missionaries to achieve fewer conversions than ever. I’m sure evangelicals are now doing the same thing.

And They Sure Hope Pastoring Does Too: Enrollment at the SBC’s various seminaries stayed more or less steady as well. Last year, they added about 400 hundred full-time-enrolled seminary students, while this year they lost about 70. Interestingly, the number of non-SBC students increased by 710. When we’re talking about a grand total of 23K students in the whole seminary system, that matters. These schools exist to churn out what my ex Biff used to call professional Christians, so these students very clearly hope to find paying jobs within the denomination somewhere after they graduate.

In their dreams, they are free indeed.

Curious Details in the Report.

Hilarious: On page 130 of this year’s Annual Report, LifeWay’s new leader, Ben Mandrell, talked up LifeWay’s founder, James Frost. He does not even mention his predecessor, Thom Rainer, or the absolute mess Rainer made of LifeWay as he bungled his way out of the organization.

Also Hilarious: On page 189, though, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary talks about how thrilled they are that Thom Rainer will be teaching a course for them in “Church Revitalization.” Considering how spectacularly inept Thom Rainer seems to be at this exact task, I foresee many more years of failure ahead for SBC churches.

The Executive Committee Sure Ain’t Losing Money: On page 70, we see that despite the SBC’s other declines their Executive Committee (EC) ain’t suffering. Their operating budget increased by about $600K.

Whew, the Abuse Crisis Seems to Have Passed: J.D. Greear spares some time to talk about the SBC’s shocking and far-ranging sexual abuse crisis, which the Houston Chronicle named “Abuse of Faith.” But he doesn’t tell us exactly what the denomination’s leaders are doing to address it, really. He mentions background checks for trustees, new policies and survey questions for church leaders to follow, and asking seminaries to train up-and-coming pastors in dealing with sexual abuse. He’s very happy to report that “thousands” of Southern Baptists have “taken the Caring Well challenge.” Wow, that’s out of 14M members! He super-promises to “stay vigilant.”

(Also, see p. 86, motion #3, where the Executive Committee flat refuses to develop any kind of plan or offer funding for churches to use in investigating abuse accusations. The EC already gave them Caring Well. What tf else do the peasants want?!?)

Bad News for Racist White (Supremacist) Evangelicals: The entire SBC was founded to defend slavery as a practice. That’s it. That’s why Southern Baptists broke from their original group in the first place. Their biggest leaders were all slave-holders. And their culture wars all come down to evangelicals’ desire to enshrine white male supremacy into law. (Even their fight against legal abortion? Oh, yes, especially.) But now they’re realizing that almost all of their growth comes from people of color (POC). Oops!

(Ronnie Floyd, one of the SBC’s biggest names, recently commissioned a big report along those lines. Holy cow, it’s eye-opening to say the least.)

Reckoning Without Their Hosts, As Usual.

So overall, it looks like the SBC’s decades-long decline is in no danger whatsoever of ending. It hasn’t even bottomed out yet. Oh, I mean, the SBC is still signing up new churches, missionaries, and pastors — as well as training new staff to fling at their various enterprises.

But all this frantic effort wins them fewer and fewer converts. It’s all happening from within the scheme, much like how almost all of the sales within multi-level marketing schemes (MLMs) come from their own distributors.

At a guess, most of their additions come from churches and individual evangelicals who are switching denominations. The product the SBC sells — membership in their groups — just isn’t worth what they’re asking potential recruits to pay for it. Worse, that product is proving increasingly unpopular with the newest generations of Americans.

As we’ll see next time, J.D. Greear thinks the answer to all of the SBC’s problems is more personal evangelism. But the flocks are even less willing to do that than they are to obey any of the SBC’s other behavioral rules. They didn’t sign up to do work. And they’re not about to change now, no matter how loudly their Dear Leaders demand it.

NEXT UP: LSP! Then, we check out J.D. Greear’s hilarious action plan. Oh yes, he would do anything to fix the SBC’s decline. But he won’t do that.

See you tomorrow, friends!

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...