Before the conclave of believers from over 47,000 congregations nationwide in the Southern Baptist Convention, Lifeway Christian Resources released its Annual Christian Profile (ACP) detailing the decrease in SBC overall membership despite areas of steady ecumenical growth in most states.

A quote from the ACP says, “[Southern Baptist Convention] membership declined for the 17th straight year, dropping below 13 million for the first time since the mid-1970s. However, the decline of less than 2% was the smallest in recent years.”

Southern Baptist Convention church membership drops below 13 million

The 2023 ACP graph tracks the total membership of Southern Baptist-affiliated congregations at 12,982,090. That number marks two significant metrics: almost 250,000 believers dropped their membership in one year, and the dip below 13 million is its lowest in decades.

Jeff Iorg, the president-elect of the SBC Executive Committee, shared that the drop in overall membership will be addressed at the 2024 convention, but “it’s also good to pause and celebrate the global good Southern Baptists are accomplishing.”

Dropping Membership May Be Related to Women Leadership Expulsion

Four women praying together in church
Growth in an SBC church isn’t a problem; it is caused by female leadership. (Image credit: Rosie Sun via Unsplash)

The Southern Baptist Convention made headlines during its 2023 annual conference because of a ruling that has caused several ripples in its membership.

Last year, in New Orleans, the SBC voted in formidable fashion to remove women from all leadership offices within its member churches.

Michael Law, a pastor at Arlington Baptist Church in Virginia, addressed the official motion. He attested to the Southern Baptist Convention constitution’s current rhetoric and said that the oversight document “does not affirm . . . a woman as pastor of any kind.”

Law referred to a letter he submitted to the SBC Executive Committee, which over 2,000 pastors and professors cosigned.

Personally, I felt the need to offer this amendment because five Southern Baptist churches, roughly within a five-mile radius of my own congregation, are employing women as pastors of various kinds, including women serving as ‘Sr. Pastor.’

Many others have found that a number of Southern Baptist churches appoint, affirm, or employ women as pastors in their areas, too. These churches often use a modified title—co-pastor, worship pastor, women and children’s pastor, discipleship pastor, or youth pastor—but all trade on the office of ‘pastor.‘”

Before the vote to remove female leadership from SBC churches, Rick Warren, best-selling author and pastor of the 40,000-member Saddleback Church, took strong objection.

Warren, who appointed Andy and Stacey Wood to succeed him following his 2021 retirement, appealed to those in attendance to “act like Southern Baptists who have historically ‘agreed to disagree’ on dozens of doctrines to share a common mission.”

Following the resounding 9,437 versus 1,212 votes to his appeal, Warren informed the Southern Baptist Convention that Saddleback Church would remove its membership.

In support of Warren’s dissent from the SBC, Elevation Church, another of the country’s most prominent churches, stood firm. Led by Steven Furtick, Elevation Church has been a part of the SBC since 2006 but shared an official statement with the Baptist Press.

“We would like to thank the Southern Baptists for the privilege of partnering with you, especially through the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, for nearly two decades.

This letter is to inform you that Elevation Church is withdrawing its affiliation with the Southern Baptist Convention, effective immediately. You will find that our Statement of Beliefs on our website is very much in line with the Baptist Faith and Message — we have no intention of changing those core beliefs.

We have no plans to make a public announcement on this decision — we have too much to do in reaching a world that needs the love of Jesus.”

Two churches with 60,000 members left one of the nation’s most influential religious organizations in two days. Yet, for this year’s SBC convention, leadership hopes to have a different result and reason to gain hope.

Despite Controversy, SBC is Looking Up in 2024

Gothic Baptist Church stained glass windows
With SBC church numbers in recovery, leadership has reason to keep their heads up. (Image credit: Lea Fabienne via Unsplash)

The areas of growth within member churches show people are still hungry for righteousness.

During 2023, the Southern Baptist Convention reported the following numbers via the ACP.

  • Total baptisms climbed to more than 226,000, a 26% increase from 2022
  • For the first time in three years, in-person weekly worship service average attendance topped 4 million
  • Mission expenditures of Southern Baptist churches or affiliated member churches increased by 9% to reach almost $800 million
  • In-person small group average attendance reached nearly 2.5 million

According to the ACP, recovery is coming locally, as 43 of 50 state conventions reported church membership growth. Colorado, Texas, Virginia, Michigan, and Alaska noted the most substantial increases last year.

Additionally, five states—Texas, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee—averaged over 250,000 worshipers in their congregations.

Worship membership across the country according to the SBC

Since 1991, SBC-affiliated churches have experienced steady increases. In 2008, average state worship attendance peaked at 6.2 million. From 2009 to 2019, that number has dropped.

The rebound for local churches began in 2021 when worship attendance averaged 4 million at the state level. Scott McConnell, executive director of Lifeway Research, shares the reason for being more optimistic going into the 2024 annual convention.

Outreach and discipleship are difficult today. They require time and commitment when our culture offers numerous distractions and alternatives,” he said. “But as people have re-engaged and new people are participating, there is much to celebrate in Southern Baptist churches today while we invite more to join.

The Southern Baptist Convention’s annual convention will be held in Indianapolis this June 9-12.


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