The nation’s largest Protestant denomination saw membership decline for the seventh straight year in 2013, according to an annual report released Wednesday.
The report by the Southern Baptist Convention’s publishing arm, Lifeway Christian Resources, puts total membership in the Nashville-based SBC at 15.7 million. That’s down from 15.9 million in 2012, a decrease of a little less than 1 percent.
Weekly church attendance decreased more than 2 percent last year, falling to 5.8 million as a weekly average for the year.
The report also notes a 1.5 percent decrease in the number of baptisms, falling to 310,368. Baptisms are an important measure for the denomination because of its strong commitment to evangelism.
The convention has been concerned about the membership and baptism trends for several years. After 2012 saw a drop in baptisms of 5.5 percent, a task force was convened to study why. The group of pastors released their report earlier this month and recommendations included praying for a “spiritual awakening in our churches and our nation.”
Lifeway President and CEO Thom S. Rainer said in a news release about the 2013 declines, “I am grieved we are clearly losing our evangelistic effectiveness.”
David W. Key Sr., director of Baptist studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, said the declines are not surprising. They mirror an overall decline in Protestant church membership that has been going on for a couple of decades.
Key said the Southern Baptists have resisted the trend until recently, but the numbers reflect the fact that the denomination is no longer in sync with the dominant culture, even in much of the South, the SBC’s traditional stronghold.
Russell Moore, president of the SBC’s public policy arm, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, has said recently that Southern Baptists can no longer pretend to be the moral majority and should instead seek to be a “prophetic minority.”
Despite the membership decline, the total number of SBC-affiliated churches increased slightly in 2013 to 46,125.
The report was released on Wednesday, just ahead of the convention’s annual meeting June 10-11 in Baltimore.