Every year the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) releases a longform report of their previous year’s performance metrics. Very recently, they dropped their 2023 numbers—and those numbers paint a disturbing picture of a business whose membership is still shrinking and possibly becoming more polarized. But there’s one number that really caught my attention. Perhaps coincidentally, it is the SBC’s ride-or-die statistic (archive). So let’s go through that report to see what it tells us about America’s still-largest Protestant denomination—and what they’d rather we never find out.

(Annual Reports are the full report of the SBC’s Annual Meeting. They always cover the previous year’s performance. Lately, the SBC releases a Book of Reports ahead of the meeting. They contain reports and metrics, but not the votes, elections, and other stuff that happens at the meeting. I use the terms “Annual Report” and “Book of Reports” interchangeably when discussing metrics, since they don’t change from one to the other. Currently, the SBC has just released its 2024 Book of Reports. The Annual Report will probably be out in late summer.)

(From introduction: The UPCI’s 2022 Senior Pastor Survey; A trickle of their sex abuse crisis. This post went live on Patreon on 5/17/2024. Its audio ‘cast lives there too and is available now <3)

First and foremost: Yes and once again, the SBC lost a lot of members last year

Of course, the big headline here would be another huge drop in membership for the denomination. In 2022, they had 13.2M members. Last year, they counted just shy of 13M, for a drop of 241k. Whoof. I mean, it’s not as bad as the losses they’ve seen in the very recent past:

  • 2019: 14.8M to 14.5M (-287k).
  • 2020: 14.5M to 14.08M (-435k)
  • 2021: 14.08M to 13.6M (-409k)
  • 2022: 13.6M to 13.2M (-457k)
  • 2023: 13.2M to 12.9M (-241k)

Compared to 2022’s dramatic drop into the heart of a volcano, 241k must seem like a breath of cool spring mountain air. It’s a fall of 1.8%, which the SBC’s leaders are leaning heavily on as a figure to make the drop sound less drastic.

Where’d these SBC-lings go?

We don’t know exactly where all of these people went.

Some certainly belonged to churches that have disaffiliated from the SBC, as one North Carolina megachurch, Elevation, did last year (archive). And the SBC’s leaders have recently kicked out others, like Saddleback Church (archive), another megachurch, for being fine with women pastors. They kicked out some churches for for not GAFF about sex abuse, and others for thinking that gay people are fine.

Once a church leaves the SBC, it takes its stats and its donations with it. The loss of these two particular megachurches hits the SBC particularly hard. Out of all their churches, megachurches tend to have the best growth and financial health. Often, they are the only kind of church actually growing at all. Indeed, Ryan Burge has noted that between them, Saddleback and Elevation accounted for 2.5% of the denomination’s entire baptisms in 2021.

The SBC’s internal drama likely led to this sharp drop in membership. Some congregations are furious at them for not taking a stronger stand against sex abuse and for alienating women and their allies at a time when the denomination needs them more than ever. At the same time, others are furious at them for not drilling down even harder on their culture-war stances.

(It almost doesn’t matter what kind of politics pastors preach from their pulpits. It’ll cause disaffiliation either way if they’re not exceedingly careful. [See this Paul Djupe paper for more.] The same wisdom appears to hold true for the relationship between a denomination and its member churches.)

As well, some of these lost members will have disaffiliated from Christianity itself. That part’s a little harder to track, though, since there aren’t any none-of-the-above groups to question. And alas, not many churches ask the people leaving their ranks for an exit interview.

Also not a surprise: Fewer SBC churches this year

It must have been a huge shock to SBC-lings to see fewer churches recorded in the 2023 Annual Report. The SBC has a long-standing tendency to come out in the positive there, mostly through a strategy of scattershot founding churches everywhere. That’s a big part of why most of their churches are quite small—and often struggling hard to stay alive.

Once the SBC sets those new churches’ opening against the ones closing or disaffiliating or getting kicked out, they end up in the positive.

Well, until recently, anyway.

In the past 50 years, the SBC has had a net negative count of churches exactly twice before the pandemic. But both of those previous times, the drop was tiny—less than -20. These declines also occurred decades apart. The one the SBC experienced just a few years later in 2022, however, was huge at -416. And it would be followed the next year by another sharp decline:

  • 1997 to 1998: 40,887 to 40,870
  • 2017 to 2018: 47,544 to 47,530
  • 2021 to 2022: 47,614 to 47,198
  • 2022 to 2023: 47,198 to 46,906

Last year, the SBC’s number of churches declined again. And it’s another big decline at -292.

As I mentioned earlier, the SBC’s drama likely led to a lot of this movement. Though I expect most of those churches closed their doors due to lack of funds, many will have simply left.

The big surprise: Baptisms bounce back a little more than expected

Somehow, the SBC managed to dunk 226k people last year. That’s still less than their 2019 pre-pandemic figure of 235k, but not much less. That was a surprise.

And some really interesting stuff is happening in what SBC-lings call their baptism ratio. This is the hands-down most important statistic in the entire denomination.

This ratio represents how many SBC members’ efforts and resources are needed to capture one baptism. It compares the number of baptisms to the total number of members in the denomination. The SBC’s leaders want that second number in the ratio to be as low as humanly possible. But it’s been steadily rising for about 50 years now. Here are the recent metrics there:

  • 2019: 235k baptisms; ratio of 1:62
  • 2020: 123k baptisms; ratio of 1:114
  • 2021: 154k baptisms; ratio of 1:88
  • 2022: 180k baptisms; ratio of 1:73
  • 2023: 226k baptisms; ratio of 1:57

This ratio dropped a teeny little bit in 2009—from 1:47 to 1:46—but after that, it has done nothing but rise. Ignoring the pandemic wackiness of 2020-2022, I did expect it to lower a bit more. But I did not expect it to nestle back down in the 1:50s ever again.

Yet here we are—at a baptism ratio more comparable to 2017 than 2022. And they did it with 2M fewer members than they had then.

For real, the SBC should elaborate a little on this

A little tiny bit of this interesting baptism ratio comes from having fewer members, of course. The ratio is the number of baptisms compared to the total number of members, after all. But that doesn’t account for the whole story. If we put the number of baptisms in 2023 against the members they had the year before in 2022, we get a ratio of 1:58—just a bit higher than 2023’s actual ratio of 1:57.

I would really, really like to know how a denomination that baptized 226k people last year and still recorded a net loss of 241k managed to squeak into a much nicer-looking baptism ratio.

I already know the answer isn’t an omnimax god who cares enormously about how his human ant farm fares. If he cared that much about improving the SBC’s baptism metrics, I’d certainly expect him to do something definitive about sex abuse and predatory pastors. A god who encourages recruitment while not lifting a single divine finger to ensure those recruits’ safety is an evil god. Such a one is not worth humans’ worship.

(Once again, we come face to face with a fact that SBC-lings themselves cannot bear: Jesus’ nonexistence is the best-case scenario for humanity. If he existed, hooooboy would he have some explaining to do!)

Segue: Whither Beach Reach?

Years ago, we talked about Beach Reach (archive). That’s an annual evangelism effort the SBC holds for college students on Spring Break. Over three weeks, various churches take part in hauling college-aged SBC-lings to the beach in Florida for week-long volunteer stints. During their stints, these SBC kids feed hungry Spring Breakers cheap carbs and drive them home from bars.

Of course, they do all of this for an opportunity to slide some evangelism into those Spring Breakers. They’re not just being kind. They want to recruit these partiers.

For years, the SBC’s Annual Reports included glowing writeups about Beach Reach. It began around the 1980s, with the first mention I found in the 1986 Annual Report. They were always cagey about exactly how many conversions they recorded, but for a while at least we got mentions of how many volunteers had served and how many churches were involved. In 1985, 240 volunteers and 190 churches cooperated in the effort. In 1986, 205 volunteers and 138 churches got involved. (The high church-involvement figures likely mean these churches simply donated money or supplies.)

Then, we heard nothing for over a decade. Then, in the 1997 report, we learn that 811 volunteers and 47 churches cooperated the previous year. And they bagged a sum total of 80 new recruits. In the early 2000s, we only got recruitment counts: 106 in 2002, possibly 75 in 2003, maybe 100 in 2004. Those numbers did not improve much over the 2010s.

Beach Reach isn’t really about recruitment, though. Well, not about successful recruitment. It’s much more about revving up the volunteers and teaching them to feel pity and disgust toward heathens (archive). And the number of volunteers each year at least tended to stay high, at least, even if their success rates tanked worse every year.

The 2024 Annual Report does not contain any mention of Beach Reach. But I did find some stats elsewhere. And with those stats, I found a possible answer to our questions about this year’s baptism ratio.

A potential answer from the SBC’s own writeups about Beach Reach

Check out this Facebook post from NAMB. That’s the North American Mission Board, which is the SBC’s domestic recruitment arm.

Aside from the circle that’s so big nobody can hear anyone on the opposite end, we see NAMB excited about “310 salvations this year,” which they tell us is “over 100 more than the same time in 2023!”

Really, it’s mysterious indeed to notice that NAMB doesn’t even mention this amazing evangelism run in the 2024 Annual Report. (Their report begins on p. 77.)

A volunteer for the 2024 recruitment drive, Caleb Welch, excitedly tells us some other numbers (archive). These pertain to just one week of the whole three-week shebang:

For our week of Beach Reach, there were 74 vans and 628 Beach Reachers from 20 different ministries. We gave 1,902 rides with 9,094 total riders and served 432 plates of pancakes. We prayed with 4,526 people and had 5,233 Gospel conversations. By the end of the week, we witnessed 101 salvations with 3 of those being Beach Reachers.

Ah, and there it is: Our potential answer.

Did you catch that bit at the end, “with 3 of those being Beach Reachers”?

I cannot even conceive of any way for a non-evangelical, much less a non-Christian to end up volunteering for Beach Reach. It is a thing that evangelical college-aged people do because they super-wanna convert others. They actually pay money to do this, too, which makes a heathen’s presence even less likely. But apparently if a Beach Reach volunteer decides they haven’t been Jesusing nearly fervently enough, that counts as a “salvation.”

Perhaps that’s why, despite this claim of stunning and record-breaking success regarding every single conceivable metric, Beach Reach did not merit a mention in this year’s Annual Report.

It certainly seems as if the SBC’s leaders are more than willing to move recruitment goalposts so far they’re in another team’s entire stadium, as long as doing so means being able to report success.

These SBC goalposts are in orbit

Now let’s return our attention to the SBC’s current baptism ratio.

Knowing what I do about the SBC’s leaders’ desperation to show better metrics to the flocks, a big part of me is wondering if a few thousand SBC preachers decided to dunk toddlers in double-time.

Ever since the mid-2010s, we’ve known that the literal only age demographic whose baptism rates looked good were children under five. There’s really nothing I can say that could possibly make that fact sound more damning. For a denomination that once rejected the idea of baptizing anyone below about their teens, they’ve gone ’round the bend.

(I still laugh about finding a recent SBC writeup about a church that baptized a bunch of people this year. Of the 10ish people pictured getting baptized or waiting to be dunked, only one was an adult. I’m not a fantastic judge of children’s ages, but the rest were all little kids under the age of like 8. The adult looked thrilled to be dunked, but the kids all seemed bewildered more than anything else.)

Speaking of teens, though, for at least the past 8 or 9 years now we’ve also known that the all-important teenager baptism rate in the SBC is doing nothing but falling. In 2020, I wrote an update to the situation that found nothing but bad news for the SBC on that count. They just cannot capture the teen demographic. And I don’t think they managed it last year at last. With every year, kids and teens float further out of reach of these stalwart old fogies.

(See also: The 4-14 Window is Christianity’s demographic time bomb.)

We also know that adult evangelicals get re-baptized at the drop of a hat. It’s a public rite of purification, after all. They get re-baptized if they were too lax for a while, or if they did something especially or strikingly naughty, or even if they’re simply switching denominations or joining a new church.

Even with these two bits of sleight of hand, almost half of SBC churches didn’t baptize anyone at all in 2022 (archive), with much the same percentage in that mid-2010s report. That probably didn’t change much in 2023, either. Interestingly, very large churches tend to baptize more people. So do brand-new churches, even if their survival is in doubt.

So I’m betting that this vast increase in baptisms does not come from vast numbers of heathens converted to Christianity for the first time. They were poached from other churches—including other evangelical churches—or persuaded to become fervent after a long period of laxity, or they were far too young to understand what they were doing.

However, I doubt the SBC will tell us many details about exactly who’s getting dunked, much less anything about their reasons.

And a big potential reason

Because my brain doesn’t stop nibbling at questions, another possible solution occurred to me:

Church reporting is voluntary in the SBC. The mother ship does not require its member churches to report on anything. Even if a church submits a report, the SBC doesn’t require it to be completely filled out.

The director of research at Lifeway, Scott McConnell, was very careful as he described the situation:

“For 2023, 69% of Southern Baptist churches reported at least one statistic on the ACP. That is the same percentage as 2022,” said Scott McConnell, executive director of Lifeway Research. “This represents a massive amount of cooperation among churches and the local associations and state conventions that collected most of the data. But this also means there is more church membership and attendance, baptisms and giving beyond these totals.”

Here’s the rule: If an evangelical doesn’t flat-out say something, assume the worst. That goes double for churches. If they ever get something to brag about, they never shut up about it. So if they aren’t specifically saying something, it’s bad news.

Thus, it’s unlikely that there are members and baptisms galore hiding “beyond these totals.” A church that is doing gangbusters numbers will definitely want everyone to know. They won’t forget to fill out the report form. If a church has some good numbers but a bunch of bad ones, all they have to do is fill out only the parts they want the SBC to know. And if a church has nothing but bad news to report, I wonder if they submit a report at all.

I say that because we know that a solid 1/3 of the denomination’s churches aren’t submitting a report. Of the ones that submit reports, all we know is that they reported “at least one statistic.” We don’t know how many reported their baptisms—or anything else. Lifeway knows without a doubt, but they aren’t talking.

This is tinfoil-hat speculation, of course, done with very incomplete information. But it fits the data and explains a serious anomaly in this year’s Annual Report. Other than the baptism ratio, everything else forms a reasonable pattern: A denomination still struggling to recover after the pandemic. But its baptism ratio is a piece that fits into a whole other puzzle.

And yet again, one important SBC metric is missing

For many, many years, the SBC’s Annual Reports listed something called “total receipts.” This number comprised undesignated and designated receipts. These are donations which are either earmarked for specific projects or not. The vast bulk of SBC donations aren’t earmarked. Though the total figure has fluctuated in the past decade, it’s stayed consistently around $11.6Bn. Here’s what it has looked like for years in the reports (p. 64 of the 2020 report):

But then suddenly in the 2023 report last year, we stopped getting that number. Instead, we got only the undesignated receipts (p. 121 of the 2023 report):

I thought it might just be a glitch, but it’s missing from the 2024 report as well. The notes for this table do not include any explanations. But I think the people who made the report know it’s missing, because on p. 197 we get this curious bit of info:

However, Southern Baptists saw a rebound in giving and baptisms compared to 2020. Congregations reported an increase in total receipts of $304 million and a 25.61 percent increase in baptisms to 154,701.

So if total receipts rose by $304M, that’d put them at about $12.1Bn in 2022. Alas, we get no similar information about rises or falls in total receipts in 2023 in this year’s report.

I can’t find any reason for this omission. It could be a shift in accounting practices, or perhaps reporting laws have changed. I don’t think that number has taken a steep nose-dive, though. The undesignated receipts certainly haven’t tanked. In fact, they rose a bit last year. So I’m just mystified.

(I’m annoyed as well because now I have to add another line to my SBC database for undesignated receipts. I keep track of the total from year to year, but haven’t felt the need to break it down that far.)

The SBC may be winnowing out less committed members, too

In terms of total membership, the last time the SBC stood at 12.9M members was 1976. That year, they baptized 384k people, for a baptism ratio of 1:34. In 1972, their total receipts rose to $1Bn for the first time. According to an inflation calculator online, that equates to about $7Bn today.

Nowadays, the mother ship gets to play with somewhere around $11Bn a year. Alas, I don’t think they’re using their money nearly as efficiently as they did in the 1970s.

But they might not need to.

By winnowing out/driving out/alienating members who don’t want to SELL SELL SELL WITHOUT MERCY, that leaves more members willing to engage more with the denomination’s projects—which certainly include recruitment drives like Beach Reach.

But they’ve also been winnowing out/driving out/alienating members who care about the damage SBC pastors wreak through predation, sexism, and racism.

Their big sex abuse crisis dropped in 2019. Their racism crisis began slightly earlier. Meanwhile, their sexism-for-Jesus crisis about women pastors is a much more recent kerfuffle. I must wonder if the SBC’s leaders contrived that last one to distract the flocks from the other two crises, which are both still nowhere near resolution.

(On p. 89 of the current Annual Report, NAMB reports: “Since the pandemic began, anecdotal evidence suggests more men and women are leaving ministry leadership than entering ministry leadership.” I’m not surprised. As above, so below.)

SBC-lings vote with their butts

Chances are good that any SBC-ling who was going to leave over those crises has already left. Most of the ones remaining have voted through the planting of their butts in SBC-affiliated pews. (BIPs are an important measure of evangelical leaders’ power.)

In this manner, SBC-lings have implicitly declared that they are okay with their denomination shielding predatory pastors from accountability, shuffling those predators around, and silencing their victims. They are okay with vicious racism hiding behind big white smiles and claims of “racial reconciliation.”

Most of all, the remaining 12.9M members of the SBC have demonstrated that they’re willing to let their denomination bumble around for five years and counting to begin to start to consider what possible changes they might maybe make to sorta start making headway on potentially resolving their problems.

Compared to those distinctly hypocritical positions, sexism-for-Jesus must feel like a breath of fresh air. Finally, something sensible that all (remaining) Southern Baptists can rally ’round. Finally! Cuz they can all agree they hate the idea of women having real power in their denomination!

As Christa Brown has often hashtagged on Twitter, #ThisIsTheSBC. If their god actually existed, the SBC’s leaders would have more to fear from him than any heathen ever could.

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Captain Cassidy

Captain Cassidy is a Gen-X ex-Christian and writer. She writes about how people engage with science, religion, art, and each other. She lives in Idaho with her husband, Mr. Captain, and their squawky orange tabby cat, Princess Bother Pretty Toes. And at any given time, she is running out of bookcase space.

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Evangelism Hammertime: The bareknuckle desperation of the Southern Baptist Convention - Roll to Disbelieve · 05/27/2024 at 4:00 AM

[…] week, I showed you the latest Book of Reports from the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC; link to report). It contains a wealth of information from the various subgroups within the […]

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