Ed Stetzer posted a lengthy article today on some apparently troubling stats about the Southern Baptist Convention, SBC 2011 Statistical Realities-- Facts Are Our Friends But These Are Not Very Friendly Facts. Ed looks at a number of statistical measures like baptisms (dropping), "membership" numbers (declining) and number of baptisms per member which purports to show how many Southern Baptists it takes to reach one person (a number which has been rising for years). With around two baptisms per 100 Southern Baptists, the message is clear. Southern Baptists are an evangelical denomination that doesn't evangelize. I would bet that a huge proportion of the 300,000 some baptisms performed each year are the children of Southern Baptists so that number looks even worse. By most any measure this looks like really bad news.
Is it? Well certainly there is a lot of negative statistical information here. The reality though? The SBC has millions of "members" who haven't attended services in years. We showed up on the membership list of a church in Kentucky for a number of years after we had moved away and after multiple notes letting them know that we were a) not in the state and b) part of other congregations. The SBC, since it insists on the archaic and extra-biblical tradition of membership rolls, needs to at least be honest about who is and is not a member. I would rather see the SBC with 10% of the "members" it has now if those "members" were actual born-again believers being equipped to evangelize.
The issue in the SBC with declining numbers and baptisms is really one of the culture catching up to reality. I don't think the SBC has ever had 16 million born-again believers at any time or even a fraction of that. As being religiously unaffiliated has become more sociably acceptable, fewer people see a need for "church". The bigger issue for SBC leaders with these declining numbers has to do with money. With thousands of buildings worth tens of billions of dollars, thousands more employees that rely on offerings at the local, state and national level, six seminaries that churn out vocational ministers and depend on a steady supply of churches to employ them and the rest of the machinery of the SBC, declining numbers on a trajectory like this are reason for concern or even outright panic. It certainly doesn't help when the old school faction starts an internal theological jihad against those scary Calvinists, a jihad that almost assuredly is going to drive the SBC numbers down further.
While the decline of the SBC is nowhere near as precipitous as the decline of "mainline" denominations, the changing religious landscape makes this decline inevitable. Instead of trying to cling to the past ways of doing things, Southern Baptists need to start thinking right now about how to minister in a far different America. Simply building more churches and hiring more professional ministers is not going to get it done. There needs to be a radical shift in the SBC, starting today. Otherwise the convention might as well save the ignominy of a gradual decline and just shut the doors right now.