The Southern Baptist Convention lost nearly half a million members in 2022 — the latest sign of what historians say is a decades-spanning turn among Christians and other believers away from denomination-based spirituality.
The membership drop — unparalleled in recent memory — partly reflects churches culling membership rolls as they regrouped after the pandemic, said Scott McConnell, executive director of Lifeway Research, which conducted the study. Yet just because the reporting was delayed does not mean the drop is not real, he said by phone Friday.
A collection of thousands of churches so loosely banded together that some say it's not really even a denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention has for decades been the face of the U.S. Evangelical movement.
Experts say declining church membership, hardly limited to the Southern Baptists, reflects several social forces, including to varying degrees the disruptions of the pandemic, suspicion toward authority, the mingling of religion with partisan politics and widespread spiritual yearnings that churches sometimes fail to satisfy.
Southern Baptist membership in 2016 topped out at 16.3 million people. It has shrunk every year since, and now totals 13.2 million, according to the study from Lifeway Research, which has been working for decades with the convention to trace its key trends and figures.
Reported membership figures are not always reliable. But it's not the only measure of church vitality. Baptism rates, for example, can portend greater attendance in the future, McConnell said, and the Lifeway study found that across the convention, these grew 16% from the previous year while actual worship attendance grew 4%.
Still, other metrics bode poorly for the convention. Hundreds of churches no longer exist. Minor increases in charitable giving haven't kept up with inflation, McConnell said, and other key metrics of participation are far lower than in past decades.
"I don't think it's a coincidence that in the years where the Southern Baptist Convention has been declining in membership, there's been a lower and lower percentage of their worship attendees involved in small group Bible study or Sunday school class," he said.
Today, about 61% of Southern Baptist worship attendees are involved in something like a Sunday school class, he said.
"Roll back the clock to the early '90s, we were at 85%," he said.
It is commonly said that the headquarters of the Southern Baptist Convention is not in Nashville but in the highly autonomous local churches.
Tennessee has roughly 3,000 Southern Baptist churches claiming about 870,000 members, according to Lifeway — about 10% of the state's population. Georgia's 3,300 Southern Baptist churches claim 1.1 million members, comprising just over 12% of the state's population.
The Southern Baptist Convention has roots in the 18th and 19th century Great Awakenings, which emphasized not just a religion of the head but the heart — and a faith in a nearby God who worked miracles not just in history or the future, but whose interventions could be perceived in day-to-day affairs, said the Indiana religion historian Candy Gunther Brown, who co-edited the 2016 book "The Future of Evangelicalism in America."
As the United States settled into place, denominations gave form to these different groups, she said by phone Friday. But in recent decades, scandal and cultural movements have eroded trust and loyalty in traditional centers of authority, including religious denominations. By the 1990s, independent churches were on the rise, and today, many Americans don't identify with any religious group at all.
The U.S. has also been shaped by forces abroad. Christianity worldwide is on the rise, Brown said, boosted in particular by ascendant Pentecostalism in the Global South, where old cosmologies maintained a close connection between the spiritual and material realms, Brown said.
Meanwhile, many Americans today say they're seeking spirituality without religion — from one vantage, a return to the original revivalism of centuries' past, Brown said, when people clambered for something that rote church attendance wasn't seeming to provide.