by Bob Smietana
NASHVILLE (RNS) The nation’s largest Protestant denomination continues to get smaller.
There were 14 million Southern Baptists in 2020, according to a new report released Thursday (May 20) by Lifeway Christian Resources, which compiles official denominational statistics. That number is down 435,632 members since 2019 and 2.3 million from 2006, when the Southern Baptist Convention reached 16.3 million members.
Worship attendance was also down about 15%, with 4.4 million people attending in-person services on a weekly basis. That figure was likely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, where churches around the country shut down in-person services to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
“COVID-19 clearly impacted in-person attendance,” Scott McConnell, executive director of Lifeway Research, said in a statement announcing the report. “Throughout much of the year, churches tried to find the right balance of both in-person and online events.”
Southern Baptists, long known for denominational infighting, have seen several high-profile departures of leaders in the past year, including Bible teacher Beth Moore, ethicist Russell Moore, and a number of Black pastors. The SBC has also faced controversy over revelations of abuse, disputes over support for Donald Trump and a debate over critical race theory.
The biggest decline in the report was seen in baptisms, a key measure for the evangelical denomination. In 2020, baptisms were down by about half, to 123,160, the lowest number since 1919.
“The last year Southern Baptists saw this few people follow Christ for the first time was 1918 and 1919, when the influenza pandemic was sweeping the world,” said McConnell.
Ronnie Floyd, president of the SBC’s Executive Committee, said the report showed a need for a renewed focus on evangelism, missions and church planting.
“It may take years for us to know the full effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on our churches,” Floyd told Baptist Press. “There are lessons to be learned from 2020 as we put it behind us — such as the vital need for corporate worship, the value of being creative in developing ways to share the Gospel, and how much local communities need our churches to minister in difficult circumstances.”
Total giving to Southern Baptist churches, according to the report, was $11.5 billion dollars, with a reported $1 billion being given to missions.
The report was based on data from 69% of Southern Baptist churches, down from reports in previous years, which drew on data from three-quarters of churches.