Southern Baptists are often heard bragging about their numerical size as “the largest group of protestants in America” even though they are quite anxious these days about the seemingly irreversible reality of their numerical decline.
It may be impossible to arrive at a completely reliable accounting of how many Southern Baptists reside in America. The statistics gleaned from the most recent Annual Report of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) are helpful but they do not tell the whole story. That report may, however, hint at a steeper rate of decline than that which Southern Baptists are presently admitting. There perhaps is no intention to mislead in this annual report but there most likely are nowhere near 15.7 million Southern Baptists in America.
Ask any Southern Baptist pastor about their church membership roll and he (ordained women are verboten) will tell you that many listed on that roll that are no longer associated with their congregation. Usually he will reluctantly tell you, if you press, that perhaps only about half of the people on the church roll are considered to be currently classified as active members of their congregation. For this reason most Baptist churches have formal membership classifications of “active” and “inactive.”
Southern Baptists are loathe to remove names from their church membership rolls. They rarely clean up or purge their rolls for fear of angering their local community. The attempt to do so also typically results in an internal church conflict over the question of qualifications for church membership.
The typical SBC church roll lists names of people that cannot be located. It has names of people who have moved and left no forwarding address. Sometimes the names of congregants are duplicated on the rolls of other Baptist churches where they formerly were members. Sometimes the rolls contain names of people who have joined another denomination. Many listed on church rolls have dropped out of the institutional church altogether. On some rare occasions, either by neglect or because of a lack of information, the roll contains names of members who are deceased
For these reasons the 5.8 million weekly average attendance statistic in the annual report is an important indicator in determining a reasonable membership figure. It should be noted that not all active members attend regularly and that the collective attending membership rarely gathers together on any given Sunday. Even taking into account those members who are not able to attend for reasons such as physical infirmity, this statistic is an important indicator that informs a sincere effort to identify a reliable membership total. It should also be noted that some Southern Baptist congregations do not submit an annual report and this adds to the uncertainty over accurate statistics.
Taking all of these factors into consideration, I would suggest that a fair and somewhat generous estimate would be that there are 9-10 million Southern Baptists in America. This must be qualified by the admission that there is little available research that would allow for a complete resolution of the question of a reliable Southern Baptist census.
So what do Southern Baptists and the LGBT community in America have in common? The percentage of people who identify as LGBT in this society is most likely about the same as the percentage of practicing Southern Baptists in America. The percentages of both are somewhere in the 3-5% of the national population range.
The undeniable reality of numerical decline is forcing Southern Baptists to begin to think of themselves as a minority. For many Southern Baptists this requires adopting a new and foreign mindset. Last year, Russell Moore, president of the SBC’s public policy arm, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, candidly stated that “Southern Baptists can no longer pretend to be the moral majority and should instead seek to be a “prophetic minority.”
Some Southern Baptists are focused on the cause(s) for their decline. Most are publically attributing their dilemma to a loss of passion for evangelism. Few are willing to entertain the notion that their decline is a consequence of Southern Baptists’ internecine conflicts that led to a formal schism. Some cautiously attribute numerical decline to the SBC’s aggressive involvement in the prevailing culture wars and society’s subsequent association of Baptists with intolerance. Some see these declines as early warning signs of a coming persecution. Many Southern Baptists merely shrug this reality off and comfort themselves by saying that this period of decline is sadly a common experience for all mainline denominations.
Meanwhile, SBC leaders have been busy building political coalitions with other socially conservative elements within the Mormon and Roman Catholic communities. These alliances will, they hope, mitigate the effects of cultural marginalization that will likely diminish Southern Baptists’ political and religious influence in the new American social landscape. In the meantime, it would be best if they would be honest about their numbers when they are tempted to throw their political weight around.