Ahead of next month’s annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention in Birmingham, Alabama, the denomination has released its Annual Church Profile showing that the membership of its churches has dropped to 14.8 million, the lowest it has been since 1987. A report published Friday by Christianity Today draws on data from the General Social Survey to show that the biggest reason for this decline is that fewer individuals raised in Southern Baptist churches have stayed with the SBC as adults. The percentages is down from 71.6% in the early 1990s to 56.3% in the most recent period. Reporter Ryan P. Burge explains
Taken together, these results do not paint a positive picture for the future of the largest denomination in the United States. While very few people actually leave a Southern Baptist church, an even smaller number converts to the SBC. Therefore the changes in overall size due to conversion and defection are relatively minor.Ryan P. Burge, “Holy Half of Kids Raised Southern Baptist Stay Southern Baptist” Christianity Today, May 24, 2019.
However, where the real worry comes is related to a generational shift in the American population. In the 1980s and 1990s, Southern Baptists could count on a huge majority of the children born and raised in the church to become committed and active members of the congregation as adults. That has eroded over time. Now, it’s likely that half of the children being raised Southern Baptist today will not maintain that identity into adulthood.
Compounding that fact, the average Southern Baptist is now nearly ten years older than they were in the mid-1980s. The water is leaking out of the bucket at an ever-quickening rate and the amount of water that is being added is slowing to a trickle. There is little reason to believe that the SBC won’t sustain serious declines in the next 10–20 years.
If there is any silver lining to be found in these results it is this: Half of youngest Southern Baptists (those between the ages of 18 and 35), attend services at least once a week. That is the highest rate of attendance of any group aside from those 65 and older. This is a strong foundation to build upon.
The Situation at Samford
I wonder how the tendency of many churches to downplay denominational identity shapes this trend. I teach at Samford University, a school founded by Alabama Baptists in 1841. The school is now independent of the Alabama Baptist State Convention and stopped receiving annual allocations from the convention in 2017, but in most other ways remains strongly oriented to a Baptist ethos and to maintaining strong ties with Baptist churches. Yet several of the Birmingham-area churches which are most popular with students do not carry the word “Baptist” in their name. This includes some that are members of the ABSC and some that are not.
Each fall, Samford publishes the number of its undergraduates who identify with various denominations in its “Quick Facts” report. In 1999, 1,513 students were reported as Baptist. Last fall it was 1,194. This is a decrease of 21%. Since the school has experienced strong enrollment growth from 2,630 to 3,535 over the same period. The total percentage of students reported as Baptist has declined.
From my perspective teaching religion courses to Samford students for 20 years, this decline in Baptist identity doesn’t reflect a great change in the overall theological beliefs or religious commitment of the students. The vast majority were and are southern evangelicals. They just are less oriented to the Baptist name and to Baptist institutions. In recent years, Samford has reported that a large number of students as not affiliated with a denomination but simply as “Christian.” They numbered 755 last fall, or 21.4%. The university itself is also less committed to the Baptist name than it once was. To my knowledge there is no longer a student ministry with “Baptist” in its name. There was still a Baptist Student Union Choir in 1999. On the other hand, there is a Catholic Student Association, a Episcopal Campus Ministry, and a Reformed University Fellowship on campus.
Aside from Baptist, the two largest denominational identities reported in Quick Facts over the past nineteen years have been Presbyterian and Methodist. Unlike Baptists, the whole number of students reporting these denominations has risen. Presbyterians increased from 256 to 317, Methodists from 251 to 301. Of course since overall enrollment has risen, both groups have declined in percentage terms. The stronger connectional polity of these denominations may be a reason why at Samford they have not suffered the same decline. (Of course, as the Christianity Today article shows, nationally United Methodist decline has been similar to that of Southern Baptists.)
The decline in Baptist numbers detailed above may be somewhat enlarged, because the number of students giving no response is much greater than in 1999. This seems to be partially due to how Samford has collected the information. The no response number was as high as 1417 in fall 2015. Evidently changes in data collection have been made so it was just 554 last fall. The decline in “no response” has paralleled a modest increase in “Baptists.” Since this data is collected when students enroll, I expect “no response” number may be even lower this fall.
As Russell Richey and other scholars of American denominationalism have noted, the character of denominations has changed markedly over American religious history. In a 2005 essay, Richey identified six stages in the history of American denominations, or which I think the last four apply to the history of Samford and the Southern Baptist Convention (both foundedin the 1840s): purposive missionary association, confessional order, corporate organization, and post-denominational confessionalism.
In the last phase, congregations participate in a large number of networks, their historic denomination which its national, state, and local structure is just one of them. They receive educational materials, engage in missions, and at times even are regulated by various groups. The denomination is often not the most important network. Yet, for those who are charged with leading those organizations and those who are strongly invested in them, the denomination is still the most important. This places denominational colleges like Samford in an important and difficult position.