Rarely do media report about the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) without mentioning its 16 million members. That's a problem SBC president Frank Page wants to correct.

"I never talk about 16 million. That is ridiculous," Page said. "I teasingly say the FBI could not find 5 million of our members."

As America's largest Protestant body, Southern Baptists boast political influence and media prestige. But convention records indicate that fewer than 6 million people attend Southern Baptist churches each week. The SBC has plenty of company with bloated statistics. Some denominations would rather not think about the problem, reporting the exact same numbers year after year. Could these churches have grown but forgotten to count?

The slide into fudged numbers begins innocently enough. Every number tells the story of a life we believe God has transformed. Maybe some wayward church members just need a little encouragement, rather than to be cut from the rolls. Besides, impressive numbers draw attention to the gospel in this American culture that demands results. Mainstream media coverage of religion has improved since legions of "values voters" received credit for reelecting President Bush.

Once rationalized, it's painfully difficult to reverse course on swollen statistics. During the annual SBC meeting in June, messengers debated a resolution that encouraged the convention to stand by the historic Baptist emphasis on "regenerate church membership," in which pastors hold church members accountable in belief and practice. But the resolution failed, just as it did the year before. Opponents cited Baptist polity and said the convention had no authority to tell churches how they should regulate membership and report those numbers.

The failed ...

Subscriber access only You have reached the end of this Article Preview

To continue reading, subscribe now. Subscribers have full digital access.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.