The 2023 Book of Reports contains several key takeaways: a devastating membership drop, huge losses of member churches, and nowhere near enough bounceback in their baptism metrics.
Of note, the report also provides a little information about an ongoing federal investigation into possible criminal charges over their ongoing sex abuse crisis, as well as some distressing information about their summer recruitment drives for children.
Despite its troubles, the Southern Baptist Convention remains the largest Protestant denomination in America. Every year ahead of its big Annual Meeting, their leaders release a sneak peek at the previous year’s metrics. And this year, that sneak peek has been spectacular. Let’s go over the numbers they’ve just released in their 2023 Book of Reports to see what this beleaguered denomination behemoth is dealing with nowadays.
(Author’s note: The figures I’m citing in this post come from Southern Baptist Convention Annual Reports, which are all available here. Each report covers the previous year’s performance.)
Takeaway 1: The worst-ever Southern Baptist Convention membership drop
Most of the significant metrics can be found on page 8 of their 2023 Book of Reports (page numbers reflect the pages of the PDF file itself). As with all Southern Baptist Annual Reports, these figures cover the previous year.
And last year, their total membership fell from 13,680,493 to 13,223,122. That is a drop of 457,371. That number represents the biggest drop in total membership in the entire history of the Southern Baptist Convention. Since their decline began in earnest in the 2000s, they’ve usually faced drops of about 200k. For example, from 2014 to 2015, they lost 204,409 members. Their previous contender for biggest drop ever came in 2020, when they lost 435,632 people from the previous year’s count.
The last time they stood at 13.2M members was around 1979, when they recorded 13.3M. But those were their halcyon days of explosive growth, as we’ll see in a moment.
Takeaway 2: Baptisms
The 2023 Book of Reports does contain smidgens of good news for Southern Baptists, and their small bounce-back on baptisms is one of those smidgens. Long ago, Southern Baptist leaders decided that their most important focus would be on recruitment. And they’d measure recruitment effectiveness by baptisms. With baptism, new members make a formal statement of affiliation and obedience to both Southern Baptist Convention rules and ideology.
So when baptism metrics falter, Southern Baptist folks get twitchy.
Of course, the pandemic completely destroyed most churches’ and denominations’ performance metrics. This one is no different. Indeed, in 2019 they claimed 235,748 baptisms. But in 2020, they record only 123,160—a precipitous drop indeed. In the two years since, they’ve bounced back by inches: 154,701 in 2021, and now 180,177 in 2022. They are still nowhere near the slow-but-inexorable decline in baptisms that they’ve seen over the past 15-ish years, but they’re hyping this slight increase with all the gusto they can muster.
I’d really love to know exactly who’s getting dunked here. Around 2014, a Southern Baptist baptism task force admitted that 80% of their churches weren’t baptizing more than 1 young adults (age 18-29) per year, and that “the only consistently growing age group in baptisms is age 5 and under.” I also know that evangelicals do love to be re-baptized for various reasons (joining a new church, sliding from one denomination to another, wanting to reconfirm their vows to Jesus after periods of laxity, etc).
Takeaway 3: The all-important Southern Baptist baptism ratio
Ever since they began calling themselves the Southern Baptist Convention, these evangelicals have tracked what they call their baptism ratio. This is their ride-or-die, make-or-break statistic. It’s simply a ratio that expresses how effective Southern Baptist recruitment attempts are: the number of baptisms according to the total number of Southern Baptist members overall. It tells us how many Southern Baptist members’ resources it takes to bag one baptism.
If someone doesn’t understand this ratio’s drastic importance, not much else about Southern Baptists will make sense. It’s how J.D. Greear could claim that the Southern Baptist Convention has been in decline for forty years: Their baptism ratio began to tank in the mid-1980s. Even though their membership continued to grow by leaps and bounds, their baptism ratio told the true story: their recruitment simply wasn’t as effective as it’d once been.
Southern Baptist leaders used to really like seeing that ratio in the 1:20 range, but 1:30 was okay in a pinch. It ranged in the 1:20s until the mid-1960s. Then, it ranged in the 1:30s all the way until 1985, when it hit 1:41 for the first time. The denomination flirted with the high 1:30s and low 1:40s until 2001. After that point, they never saw the 1:30s ever again.
If you’re now suspecting that this ratio’s decline is accelerating, you’re quite right. In 2012, it hit 1:50. At the time, I saw a lot of Southern Baptist leaders fretting hard about that and spilling great amounts of digital ink lamenting it. None of it mattered, though, because it just kept getting worse. In 2018, it hit 1:60 (and Southern Baptist leaders were generally silent about it this time). Then, the pandemic walloped them with 1:114 in 2020. They clawed their way back to 1:88 in 2021, and now it sits at 1:73 in 2022.
To put this into perspective, remember that 1979 membership figure, 13.3M? That year, they recorded 368k baptisms for a ratio of 1:36. Had they been operating with 1:73, as they did this past year, that would have given them only about 172k baptisms. That’s less than half what they managed in 1979 with far more effective recruitment. And even then, they already knew their baptism ratio told a story of dwindling effectiveness.
So yes, the denomination’s leaders are trying very hard to celebrate a small bounce back. I don’t think it’ll bounce much further back; most evangelicals seemed to forget all about the pandemic last year and were living life on normal mode again. So I think Southern Baptist leaders will be very lucky indeed if they ever see the high end of the 1:60s ever again.
Takeaway 4: Possibly the biggest-ever drop in Southern Baptist member churches as well
In 2022, the Southern Baptist Convention went from 47,614 to 47,198 member churches. That’s a net loss of 416 churches.
I’ve never seen such a huge drop in member churches. Most reports proudly point to an increase there, not a decrease. In 2018, they lost 88 churches, but normally they gain a few hundred. Even in the sheer chaos of 2020, they added 62 new churches. In 2021, they added only 22, but that’s still a teeny tiny bit of growth.
As I said, this is, of course, a net total. Churches always open and close in the Southern Baptist Convention. Even during their last schism, the Conservative Resurgence that saw almost 2000 churches leave the denomination in 1990, they consistently saw their member church totals do nothing but rise. In the past, I’ve even found specific strategies used by this denomination’s leaders to keep the number of churches growing overall by flinging new churches everywhere to keep pace with closures. Keeping that number rising is a big priority for them.
(Related: Wait, HOW many churches close each year?)
But this past year, nobody could work around or massage that tally into positive net growth.
That drop tells us quite a story on its own
Back in 1979, 13.3M Southern Baptist members squeezed into 35,605 member churches. Now, 13.2M Southern Baptist members spread out comfortably among 47,198 churches. We don’t know what attendance looked like in 1979, since the denomination wasn’t tracking it in their Annual Reports. But since they started recording it around 1992, attendance has fallen from 40-45% of membership to about 35% of it. That’s all perfectly normal. Even the most devout evangelicals can barely be arsed to show up in church every few Sundays. (It’s probably for the best. If the number of Christians claiming rock-solid every-Sunday attendance actually did it, churches couldn’t possibly hold all of them.)
At least, that’s how things looked until the pandemic.
The pandemic decimated attendance figures. In-person counts dropped from 5.2M in 2019 (36.1%) to 4.4M in 2020 (31.5%). So for their 2022 report, Southern Baptist leaders decided to wrap online church participation in with in-person headcounts for their 2021 figure. That got them 3.6M in-person attendees plus 1.4M claimed online participation, for a total of 5.05M (36.9%). For 2022’s counts, they got 3.8M in-person attendees and 1.06M online attendees, for a total of 4.86M (36.7%).
For the past couple of years, though, I’ve been hearing about how the pandemic has destroyed church finances across the board. At the same time, it’s crushed the spirits of many evangelical pastors who began seeing a darker side of their flocks that they really hadn’t known existed. So it’s not just the Southern Baptist Convention’s twin crises of racism and sex abuse that are alienating evangelicals en masse. It’s also the general toxicity of evangelicals and the sheer financial difficulty of operating a church—even with the incredible tax breaks churches get from our secular government.
When a Southern Baptist church closes, then, all of its claimed members vanish along with it. The denomination’s leaders have known for years that large numbers of churches are closing, and their go-to solution has always been to drown out that truth with tons of new church plants. This time, there’s no drowning out a voice that loud and insistent. Even with them adding 917 new congregations to their member rolls (as we see on p. 93), they ended up with that net loss of 416 this past year.
And one interesting omission from the 2023 Book of Reports
Various news articles online about this year’s reports cite an increase in “undesignated receipts.” And yes, they did rise somewhat over last year, from $9.7B to $9.9B.
What’s so strange is that the 2023 Book of Reports doesn’t list total receipts.
They’ve always listed both together before. Even in the 2022 report, we see total receipts ($11.8B) right under undesignated receipts (again, $9.7B). As far back as I can find, they’ve listed total receipts. Even with the pandemic’s devastation, they’ve listed both amounts.
But for some weird reason, the 2023 report doesn’t include total receipts. It’s not happening because this isn’t the full Annual Report, either. In 2021, we had a similar situation with the Book of Reports coming out ahead of the formal Annual Report released after the Annual Meeting. However, Total Receipts is definitely in that report in several places.
Page 77 indicates that total receipts increased by $304M in 2021. That is true. They recorded it in the 2022 Annual Report. But they also don’t tell us what last year’s total receipts were in this current year’s report.
We can make some educated guesses here. If Southern Baptist reports omit figures they usually include, there’s usually only one reason for it.
Also, on page 7 of the PDF in the 2023 report, we can see that Total Cooperative Program donations fell about $500k from the previous year. Though it’s a tiny drop (.11%) percentage-wise, that drop could function as an editorial comment or vote of no confidence, since churches have in the past threatened to withhold funds from that program over squabbles.
So yes, I am intensely curious about this total receipts situation.
Other interesting takeaways
Back in 2013, Southern Baptist leaders realized that almost no members left anything to their churches in their wills. They dearly wanted to get some of that free money. Page 47 of the 2023 Book of Reports proudly reveals that their action in this area has produced luscious fruit. The Southern Baptist Convention went from $23M in future gifts in wills in 2013 to $628M in 2022.
On page 50 of the PDF, we learn that their Ministers’ Financial Assistance program paid out $11.6M in assistance in 2022. That’s a sharp rise from $8.8M in 2021. That money goes to retired ministers in financial distress, as well as their spouses and widows. About 2/3 of recipients are pastors’ widows. This program sets age and tenure requirements, as well as poverty income requirements for larger amounts of help. Someone living under the program’s poverty level cutoff with 25+ years of ministerial service (or marriage to someone who had it) gets a whopping $550/month if single.
However, at the same time, 748 fewer people participated in their personal life insurance plans and 400 fewer participated in their medical and disability insurance plans. Group employee life insurance plans saw an increase in participants.
These are all absolutely awful numbers. Group employee life insurance plans had about 30k members covered. The personal plans cover almost 13k more members. But with 47,198 member churches and who even knows how many paid ministers and staffers beyond just pastors and their spouses to consider, I’d guess that barely 1/3 of Southern Baptist ministers and spouses are covered by any life insurance plans. The medical insurance plans fare even worse, covering about 25k members between group and personal plans.
I also note that most of their seminaries are struggling with declines in enrollment.
A bright spot of better news from Lifeway
On the plus side, Lifeway’s new president, Ben Mandrell, reports that the organization had “revenue growth” last year (p. 62). After how much Thom Rainer, the previous president, apparently mucked things up, I bet Southern Baptist Convention folks will be glad to hear that news.
Of course, in 2019 they closed all of their brick-and-mortar stores. That’ll lower expenses with a quickness.
On page 69, we also learn that Southern Baptist denominational and church leaders unabashedly consider Vacation Bible Schools to be evangelism opportunities. That means they are completely okay with indoctrinating and recruiting children, especially the children of unaffiliated adults who clearly don’t know that these recruitment events are far more than fun, supervised summer activities with a slight frosting of Jesus-ness to keep their kids busy.
The only moral recruitment is their recruitment. And every accusation is a confession. I hope non-evangelical parents are paying attention here.
Personally, I find Southern Baptists’ eagerness to hard-sell their religion to defenseless little kids to be downright sinister. I know they sense that 4-14 window closing fast on Gen Alpha, the children coming up next after Gen Z. However, that doesn’t excuse their desires. There’s nothing divine at all in Christianity, but there’s even less divine about the sheer Machiavellian nature of evangelicals’ intense focus on childhood indoctrination.
And a letter addressing that federal investigation
On page 11, we find a section titled “Significant actions of the SBC Executive Committee.” The Executive Committee is the denomination’s top-ranking group. They make the day-to-day decisions of the denomination all year long, as well as crafting budgets for the various denominational endeavors (like seminaries). In addition, the presidency of this committee has become the most recent battleground between the two current political factions of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Every year, this section runs after the metrics page. In previous years, it offered staffing news. It talked about people retiring, people getting hired or elected. It recounted lists of who occupied the committee’s top roles. Very rarely, we see important votes recorded—like in 2020, when the report discusses the vote the committee held in March 2020 to cancel that year’s Annual Meeting due to COVID-19.
But this year, the #1 item on the list concerns the Department of Justice’s decision to investigate the Southern Baptist Convention for possible crimes committed in its shielding and shuffling-around of sexual predators in ministry.
I looked, but have seen absolutely nothing about this investigation since August last year. But if the January 6 situation has taught me anything, it is that the wheels of justice grind very slowly—but exceedingly fine.
Of course, the letter in the report expresses complete cooperativeness with the federal investigation, as well as ongoing dedication to fully implement reforms to prevent future sex abuse. I’d expect nothing less, though I wonder how they’ll explain that their sweeping investigation has so far seen only one Southern Baptist church (Freedom Church of Vero Beach, Florida) kicked out of the denomination recently for not cooperating with a sex abuse investigation.
Maybe they need to consult their own secret abuser database for more churches to question.
(By contrast, between Fall 2022 and early 2023 they also kicked out one church for being too nice to gay people, as well as five churches for being okay with women pastors. And that first church had voted to leave the Southern Baptist Convention back in 1999. So they were surprised to hear that the denomination had formally kicked them out last year.)
Interestingly, this letter is not signed by any Executive Committee members—except for Willie McLaurin, its Interim President. Since the list is arranged alphabetically, he appears near the end. Drowning out his name, we see various other big-name Southern Baptist officers: seminary presidents, missionary organization presidents, the president of their financial planning group, leaders of important groups like Lifeway, and even the president of the Southern Baptist Convention himself, Bart Barber.
I understand why the denomination felt it was important to show their biggest names supporting the investigation to the hilt, but it’s still such a strange look.
About that Southern Baptist sound bite going around
It’s easy to see why even secular news sites have talked about the 2023 Book of Reports. All of them mention a sound bite mentioned in Lifeway’s article about the report:
The 457,371 members lost is the largest single year numerical drop in more than 100 years.Lifeway, May 9, 2023
That little bit of info appears in almost every article I’ve seen on the topic.
However, I genuinely don’t know where they’re getting that information. All of their Annual Reports are right online. Anybody can look at them and compile information from them. (In fact, every year I do exactly that.) So I went back over their reports from 1920-1925.
There was no membership dip. They grew from about 2.9M members (from the 1920 report) to 3.5M members recorded in 1925, all without a hiccup.
At most, they lost about 800 churches in 1924, 700ish of which were dropped due to an ongoing lack of contact for three year, they said. That same year, they recorded almost 30k fewer baptisms. Otherwise, it was another typical growth year in terms of membership and donations.
That said, I don’t think they’re lying. They’re just not being very specific. Maybe they’re thinking further back, around when a similar pandemic, this time of influenza, decimated communities around the world. If Lifeway mentioned that 100-years figure hoping people would connect their current difficulties to the pandemic we face now, it was a clever move—but I’m not sure that most people would make that connection.
Besides, their Annual Reports from 1916-1920 don’t record anything but membership growth, so that can’t be whatever they’re using as an example.
I’m really curious about what their biggest drop was, if 2022 wasn’t the gold-medal winner there.
I don’t think this Southern Baptist membership drop is just recordkeeping ‘finally catching up’
The director of Lifeway’s research division, Scott McConnell, theorizes that the drop in membership happened because “the record keeping is finally catching up” with long-inactive members. I’m not so sure that’s the reason.
In reality, several factors are contributing to that alarming drop.
First and foremost, churches are closing like whoa. As I said, when a church closes, all of its members leave the rolls. Churches are the ones reporting all of these numbers to each Annual Report. If nobody’s at the church to report those figures, their previous count zeroes out.
Second and almost as important, reporting is purely voluntary and seems to be entirely done on the honor system. The Southern Baptist Convention gathers these numbers through their Annual Church Profile (ACP), which isn’t at all mandatory. Entire state conventions don’t even ask for some of the information appearing in their summary tables.
For example, the Florida Baptist Convention didn’t ask for a total membership count in their ACP, while the state conventions of Florida, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, the Pacific Northwest, and one of the Texas conventions didn’t ask about online worship participation. Moreover, if a church has nothing but bad news to report, nothing stops them from deciding maybe not to report it.
Even back in 2014, that baptism task force lamented that “[m]ore of our SBC churches in recent years fail to see the value of the annual reporting of statistics (Annual Church Profile),” which makes accurate assessment much more difficult. (However, they’re quick to add that their “statisticians” said there was still a baptism decline even if churches weren’t reporting.)
Third, yes indeed, churches are disaffiliating from the Southern Baptist Convention. In the vast majority of cases, they aren’t leaving over the denomination’s entrenched racism (as happened in 2020) or its slow response to its sex abuse crisis. (That said, I’ve found one former Southern Baptist church that appears to have disaffiliated in fear of its abusive pastor being discovered.)
Rather, they’re upset over what they view as an absolutely unacceptable drift toward liberalism. Yes, really.
However, the current Southern Baptist stronghold of ultraconservatism, the Conservative Baptist Network (CBN), still fights hard for control over the denomination. Their officially-stated reason for fighting is simple:
The Conservative Baptist Network believes the United States follows the SBC, seeing the SBC as “one of the few remaining roadblocks keeping liberalism from overtaking the United States.”Editorial in Baptist Standard, April 20, 2022
What a hilariously overblown sense of narcissistic importance! But I’d sure like to learn their second reason, because I’m certain they are even more motivated by the $10B+ dollars the Southern Baptist Convention still rakes in every year.
The upshot of the 2023 Southern Baptist Book of Reports
In this age of Christianity’s decline, the Southern Baptist Convention remains one of the few denominations issuing reports like this every year. They aren’t actually humanity’s Designated Adults except in their dreams, but they do act as a bellwether indicating future priorities and strategies of the Christian Right in general. That’s why I find it useful to keep an eye on them.
With this year’s firecracker of a report, we see a still-failing denomination struggling to find good news to report. Its leaders are trying their hardest to put a brave face on endless waves of bad news. They still haven’t recovered from the pandemic, and they probably won’t ever see their pre-pandemic numbers again.
But at the same time, they’re squeezing more money out of fewer churches. They can also look forward to way more money from dead Southern Baptist members’ estates. All of that extra money helps them stay hyper-politicized. It also helps them fling more and more money at recruitment efforts. They need to be spending more there, too. As their recruitment efforts become less and less effective, it takes ever-increasing amounts of resources to bag each baptism.
Amid it all, though, their factions are still at each other’s throats, there’s that scary federal investigation to look forward to, and they’ve got almost a half million fewer members and over 400 fewer churches total to deal with it all.
Their Annual Meeting next month is going to be interesting. I have no doubt about it.