NASHVILLE, Tenn. — In 2008, the Southern Baptist Convention showed a net loss in total membership for the second straight year and baptized the lowest number of new members since 1987, according to annual statistics compiled by the denomination's pubishing-and-research arm.
LifeWay Christian Resources' Annual Church Profile for 2008 showed baptisms -- a traditional marker of church vitality -- totaled 342,108 in 2008, 3,743 fewer than in 2007. Total membership of Southern Baptist churches was 16,228,438 last year, down nearly 38,400 from the year before.
"The numbers simply tell us that Southern Baptists are not reaching as many people for Christ as they once did," said LifeWay President Thom Rainer.
Last year the SBC lost nearly 40,000 members, the first decline since 1998 and only the second since 1926. Baptisms peaked in 1972 at 445,725, but observers say baptisms have been essentially plateaued since 1950 -- despite an overall membership base that has increased almost every year since then. In 1950 it took 19 SBC church members to baptize one person. In 2008 the ratio was 47-1.
Rainer said Southern Baptists need to experience a "Great Commission resurgence," a reference to the "conservative resurgence" that reformed the convention's theology during the 1980s and 90s, but failed in its aim to make the denomination more evangelistic. The Great Commission is Jesus' command to go and make disciples found in Matt. 28:16-20.
Despite the economic downturn and membership decline, the report also showed, Southern Baptists gave 2.3 percent more to missions last year over the previous year.
"Southern Baptists are among the most generous and mission-minded people in the world," Rainer said. "They will give even when they’re hurting so the spiritual and physical needs of others are met."
Bob Allen is senior writer for Associated Baptist Press.