Reading Time: 9 minutes (Martin.) A broken window is clear twice a day?
Reading Time: 9 minutes

The big Annual Meeting for the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) approaches quickly! Before their convention every year, SBC leaders like to offer up some sneak peeks at what the denomination can expect from their Annual Report. As usual of late, the news is not great for them. Today, let’s explore the sparse information they recently released about last year. We’ll see what the SBC has revealed–and what they’ve carefully hidden away out of sight.

(Martin.) A broken window is clear twice a day?

Every year, the SBC’s leaders seem to count more and more on their members not having enough critical thinking skills to pierce their bluster. But we’re about to. Strap in–let’s dig in and see what these numbers reveal–and conceal.

A Continued Decline.

For years now, the SBC has suffered what they call a baptism drought. That’s nothing new. Baptisms represent their most important metric.

And that metric has sucked for years.

That’s what they mean by “baptism drought.” For some wild, wacky reason that nobody can possibly understand, for many years their baptism rate has been dropping like a rock punted off a footbridge. Oh sure, they’ve tried to artificially shore up their numbers by dunking their members’ tiny little kids. (They considered that idea anathema when I myself briefly joined that denomination in the mid-1980s, but hey, needs must when the devil drives.) And sure, they freely allow members to get re-dunked if they feel the need to do so–like I did upon joining them. These policies have provided much-needed (albeit artificial) boosts to their baptism rate.

You’ll see absolutely no fine-detail examination in their reports about just how many baptisms happen to first-timers over the age of 18, of course. We know it’s happening, but we don’t know exactly how many of their baptize-ees fall into those categories.

There’s likely a mighty fine reason why the SBC doesn’t like releasing that information. 

Speaking Of the Annual Report.

Okay. So every year, the SBC’s leadership team likes to release little sneak peeks at their numbers as they gear up for their Yearly Bigotry Jamboree and Snipe Hunt Annual Meeting. That’s normal; they do that a few times around this time of year, every year. LifeWay maintains a blog called Facts & Trends where they release news and all that (scare-quotes) “research” they do. Afterward, the news filters out to the big Christian news sites so Christians can fawn all over the SBC’s roaring successes. (Sorta!) Then, the Convention occurs. A month or two (or three) later, we get to tear into the Annual Report. The Annual Report covers the SBC’s performance over the previous year. Wash, rinse, repeat.

I’ve talked many times in past years about how authoritarian Christians really like thinking of themselves as being on what they call “the winning team.” The SBC functions no differently. Over many decades, ever since evangelicals became the hyper-politicized culture warriors of their leaders’ dreams, they’ve been carefully coached to pursue dominance at all costs.

So now, the SBC finds itself painted into a corner.

They are decidedly not #winning. In fact, they are #losing–in a lot of ways. Their decline doesn’t even show any signs of leveling-out anytime soon. But they really need to keep up that cardboard-cutout facade of #winning, so the flocks don’t defect to other hucksters.

Indeed, they must work harder every year to keep the facade going. By now, their analyses read like absurdist literature.

The Receipts.

A couple of days ago, Facts & Trends released this little peek at what we can expect in the 2019 Annual Report. They titled it, “Giving Increases in 2018 for SBC, Baptisms, Attendance Continue Decline.” They thoughtfully included a quick reference table along with it.

If I wrote for LifeWay’s blog, I’d have subtitled their post about 2018’s Annual Report like this: “Well, Guys, Like Maybe It’s Not Totally 100% Completely Bad News.”

Here are the basics:

  • The total overall number of churches declined by 88, to a total of 47,456. (-0.19%)
  • Also, the number of “church-type missions” (basically, church plants) declined by 291, to a total of 4085. (-6.65%)
  • Total membership declined by 192,404 people, to a total of 14.8 million members. (-1.28%)
  • Average weekly attendance declined as well, to 5.3 million people attending on average each week. (-1.28; it was about 5.3M last year too.)
  • Total church receipts and undesignated receipts were both slightly up. Total receipts increased .7% to USD$11.8 billion, while undesignated receipts increased .87% to $9.6B.
  • The Big Kahuna: Baptisms declined by 7680, to 246442. (-3.02%) 

They lost one State Convention, five Associations, and almost 100,000 Sunday School attendees. Meanwhile, their ratio of baptisms to total members tanked a little harder, hitting 1:60. (Years ago, I remember them panicking about the idea of it plunging to 1:50!)

The Facts & Trends post also notes that the SBC had a 9.49% decline in baptisms in 2017, and a 4.89% decline the year before that in 2016. So they did manage to pull back a little–but that slowdown is not as exciting as they’re making it out to be. In 2008 (just to pull a year at random because I have that one open right now), they reported a drop of 5.46% in 2007 over 2006’s numbers.

Southern Baptists, Reporting In! (Or Not!)

Thing is, though, this set of numbers suffers from exactly the same weaknesses that we expect with evangelical-run and -designed studies and surveys. In this case, it’s what didn’t get asked or answered that becomes the problem.

I’m not even surprised that their members never seem to notice these glaring omissions.

But we did, in the commentariat.

The first big problem that Infinite Automaton noticed was that a way big number of SBC churches did not report in for this report. In fact, almost 25% of their churches didn’t report any information at all. The remaining 76% of churches responded, but the SBC counted them even if they only filled out one item on their questionnaire.

In the fine print in their summary table, we discover that some states and member conventions did not even ask all the items the head office wanted. That tells us that the SBC doesn’t even have a standardized question list for their member churches and state conventions.

The SBC loves to crow about how its member churches function autonomously (until they step out of line with the culture wars, at least!). However, by not requiring detailed reports from their churches, they in effect create biased and completely untrustworthy analyses of those reports.

And I think they like it that way.

Incompleteness Is Next to Godliness?

We also have no idea exactly what the SBC did with incomplete reports. We don’t even know how complete each item on their report is. Neither, it seems, does the SBC. They don’t even know exactly how many churches operate within their denomination!

The report informs us:

“Part of the Annual Church Profile process is for associations and state conventions to connect with each congregation and to confirm they still exist and are cooperating together in ministry,” said Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research. “This year several states put extra effort into identifying and confirming cooperating churches, revealing the decrease in the number of congregations.”

So the few states that did try to establish precise numbers discovered that they’d lost congregations every time. However, most states did not even go to that trouble.

And we can trust entirely that this lack of completeness and accountability is either accepted joyfully by the SBC itself, or at the least welcomed as a pleasing side effect of their dysfunctional organizational system. If they really didn’t like having biased, incomplete, untrustworthy reports, they could change that situation. But they do not. Thus, this situation does not exist by accident.

Who’s Not Answering?

Remember, the SBC Jamboree is not open to all members of the denomination. Only churches that contribute a certain amount of money to the SBC’s Cooperative Program (CP) can attend. (The CP funds a bunch of SBC denominational programs, including some missionary projects.) The amount of money required can be quite onerous to raise for a small church in a poor area.

Even then, those churches can only send a certain number of representatives–and yes, they do pay for that privilege. The SBC does not fly them to the convention for free, put them up in hotels, or anything like that. Bear in mind as well that if a church can’t send anybody to the Annual Meeting, they can’t influence the denomination’s decisions through votes, which get tallied at each year’s meeting. They are, in effect, silenced.

Thus, if a church isn’t able to attend the convention anyway, they might not care much about providing detailed information to the denomination. For all I know, being too forthcoming might even land pastors in hot water with their head office. Conversely, a thriving church likely wants everybody to know it–and happily provides requested information. Thus, I’m betting that churches that didn’t answer, or that left out crucial information, probably aren’t doing too well.

Either way, of course, it’s not like the SBC would tell anybody if it involved bad news.

Gaming Stats With Donations.

The SBC has always emphasized evangelism and missionary work. So they track donations for those causes within the denomination’s member churches.

Last year, total mission expenditures reached USD$1.18B. In 2017, total mission expenditures hit $1.17B, so yes, that’s a bit of an increase. Meanwhile, Great Commission Giving totaled $572M in 2018, which is a decrease from 2017’s $593M total.

A couple of our more accounting-proficient community members, particularly Cynically Inclined, noticed that slight increase total church receipts. That 0.7% increase stands against the SBC’s losses of 1.28% of their membership. Thus, that increase may actually represent a decrease, once the denomination accounts for inflation.

Once inflation enters the picture, the SBC’s donations per member look like they didn’t change much at all last year. And aside from an anomalous uptick in donations from 2016 to 2017, going from $1.14B to $1.17B, that may account for the tiny increases in total donations for the past few other years.

Showing Us the Money.

That educated guess tallies well with what I’ve been noticing for years:

Money represents a finite resource. Members only have so much of it–and evangelicals aren’t exceedingly wealthy in the first place. The SBC loses members by the year, both to death and disaffiliation, and they take their money with them. If remaining members can’t or won’t pick up the slack, then their leaders must start making some difficult decisions about what to stop supporting.

That’s why I thought that the big drop in “church-type missions” was so interesting. These congregations fell in number from 4376 to 4085–a loss of 291 (-6.65%).

The SBC defines church-type missions as ones that are “not fully independent or self-sustaining.” In a way, these groups function like colonies; their parent churches, associations, and congregations help support them. Southern Baptists have thought for years that these groups tend to be way more effective at recruitment than older, more established churches. In 2007, according to their 2009 Annual Report (p. 110), they had 5254 of these groups, which reported more success than established churches had at convincing children to seek baptism, at least.

Consequently, church-type missions represent a very important part of the SBC’s growth process at present–and yet they declined roughly twice as much as overall baptisms did.

Did their parent churches have to quit supporting them? Was that one of the difficult decisions churches made last year with their money?

I Guess We Got One Answer At Least.

So overall, the member churches that actually bothered to send in at least semi-completed church profiles reveal a portrait of continued decline.

Donations remain flattened; churches continue to close faster than the SBC can crank them open; and members continue to walk away. Baptisms, that all-important metric, continue to fall. Their most successful evangelistic congregations are closing even more quickly than ever, outpacing the decline in baptism numbers. And the ratio of baptisms per total members hit its lowest since at least 1985, which is my personal tracking spreadsheet’s first year.

And y’all, nobody in the SBC has any idea how in the world to fix the hole they’re in.

Their president, J.D. Greear, ran on a campaign platform of evangelism. He told them that he had this great campaign idea that he’d already used in his church to resounding success. It all sounded new, shiny, and Jesus-y. Better yet, it didn’t require Southern Baptist leaders to change anything about their broken system or their toxic message. So he won his second attempt at the presidency with that proposal.

It was laughably ineffective-sounding as well as quite creepy and invasive-seeming. When I investigated his claims regarding his proposal, moreover, I discovered that it was also way less effective than he’d claimed.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but despite a couple of years of solid hounding by SBC leaders very little changed. They slightly slowed their decline in some key areas. Others, like Sunday School attendance, tanked compared to 2017–they gained about 40,000 attendees in 2017, then lost almost 100,000 in 2018. (They’ve been tanking about like that for a long time; the 40k uptick looks like an anomaly. I wonder what 2019 will bring, with that sex abuse report.)

The Importance of Slogans.

In just over two weeks at the time of this writing, a bunch of SBC donors will head to Birmingham, Alabama for the denomination’s 2019 Annual Meeting. Like pretty much all of these conventions, this one bears a theme. And this year, that theme is “Gospel Above All.”

There, those donors will be “in the room” to hear various addresses, sermons, and business reports. They will also vote on various motions that affect the denomination. Their denominational leaders hope that this meeting will rejuvenate the attendees and give them purpose and direction over the coming year.

Last year the theme was “Testify: Go. Stand. Speak.” This reflected the denomination’s laser focus and buckling-down on recruitment. What are we then to make of this one?

I don’t know about anybody else, but to me this theme speaks to a cracking down on the flocks, a new emphasis on hardline adherence to the SBC’s culture wars, and a demand that Southern Baptists not worry too much about the humongous sex-abuse scandal that got exposed earlier this year.

It’s hard to imagine the SBC messing up harder than they have over these past few recent years, but that’s one thing we can always count on with wingnuts: wingnuttery, uh, finds a way.

NEXT UP: We examine an abusive new push by multi-level marketing schemes. See you soon! <3

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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,...