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SBC Membership Falls to 47-Year Low, But Church Involvement Is Up

Amid the continued declines, Southern Baptists are celebrating back-to-back years of growth in worship attendance and baptism.
SBC Membership Falls to 47-Year Low, But Church Involvement Is Up
Image: Kevin Gonzalez / Unsplash

Despite years of record-setting declines shrinking the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) to its lowest membership in nearly half a century, Southern Baptists have begun to see some signs of life within their 46,906 churches.

Worship attendance, small group attendance, and baptisms were up last year in the SBC’s annual statistical report, released Tuesday, while membership fell below 13 million.

2023 marks 17 straight years of decline for the country’s biggest Protestant denomination. It’s down 3.3 million from its peak, with the steepest drops coming during the pandemic. The SBC lost 1.3 million members between 2020 and 2022 alone.

Beyond COVID-19 disruptions, Southern Baptists have recently confronted some contentious issues within their convention, responding to sexual abuse and clamping down on female preachers, which have led some congregations to leave the SBC (including prominent megachurch Saddleback Church).

But statistics indicate that church departures aren’t a significant driver of membership decline; the SBC was down 292 churches last year, just 0.63 percent of its total.

In 2023, membership fell by 241,000, its smallest decrease since 2018. Yet attendance at SBC churches increased 6.5 percent, reaching above 4 million a week for the first time since the pandemic.

Attendance at small groups and Bible studies ticked up 4 percent to 2.4 million.

With fewer Americans than ever attending church and religious disaffiliation on the rise, leaders see even small increases in engagement and discipleship as worth celebrating.

It’s the first time in over a decade that SBC worship attendance has grown two years in a row, though it still lags behind pre-pandemic numbers. Back in 2019, SBC churches saw over 5 million show up each Sunday.

“Outreach and discipleship are difficult today. They require time and commitment when our culture offers numerous distractions and alternatives. The pandemic was discouraging as fewer people engaged in these activities,” said Scott McConnell, executive director of Lifeway Research, which releases the annual report.

“But as people have re-engaged and new people are participating, there is much to celebrate in Southern Baptist churches today while we invite more to join.”

Baptisms, the key metric for Southern Baptists, also grew for the second year in a row.

“God has been stirring the waters, and an upswing in baptisms has solidly begun,” wrote SBC president Bart Barber, a pastor in Texas.

“Not only have we experienced a second year of increased baptisms, but we have also witnessed a year-over-year gain—25.94 percent more baptisms than in 2022—that leaves no room for doubt about what God is doing among our churches.”

Kevin Ezell, president of the North American Mission Board, said the baptism trend is widespread across regions. Out of 41 state conventions, 35 reported more baptisms in 2023 than 2022.

“Pastors are the difference makers here,” he said in a statement. “Despite all the distractions and challenges out there, they are keeping the focus on evangelism and encouraging new believers to follow up with baptism.”

The report’s release falls about a month before the SBC’s annual meeting, which gathers over 10,000 messengers in Indianapolis in June. They are slated to address new mechanisms for overseeing abuse reform and reporting as well as clarifications to cooperation agreements and guidance around women in ministry.

The SBC’s current membership of 12,982,090 is the lowest since 1976. The membership size peaked at 16.3 million in 2006.

One bright spot, leaders say, is the generosity of members and churches, who spent nearly $800 million on missions last year, up 9 percent.

“We are sharing the gospel with more people, gathering for worship and Bible study in increasing numbers, giving billions to support churches serving communities across our country, and sending millions to support mission enterprises around the world,” said Jeff Iorg, the SBC Executive Committee president-elect.

“Southern Baptists are not a perfect people,” he added. “But we are a movement making a positive difference in our world, and our most recent statistical report underscores this reality and motivates us to press forward.”

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