Where Did the Southern Baptist Convention Lose Ground in the Last Decade?
A deep dive into the 2020 Religion Census
Back in May, I wrote a post about the newest data released by Lifeway Research that focused on the membership statistics related to the Southern Baptist Convention. It got a lot of attention and people still want to talk to me about it. The long and the short of it is this: the SBC has seen a monumental decline in membership the last couple of years. How bad? Well, here’s the first graph from that post.
Membership peaked in 2006 at 16.3 million Southern Baptists. The number of members kind of just sat there for five years until it fell below 16 million in 2011. Then, the declines started to mount. Below 15 million in 2018. Then, below 14 million by 2021. Current membership is now 13.2 million. The SBC is shedding over 3% of its membership annually now.
As an aside: I don’t think we will ever see a Protestant denomination cross the ten million members threshold in my lifetime. For one thing, there’s no denomination even close right now. The United Methodists technically have the second most members in any Protestant denomination, but they are going through a terrible schism and will probably be half their current size a decade from now. The only other denomination that is large-ish and growing is the Assemblies of God at about 3.5 million, but the data they report indicates a slow down in membership increases as I detail here:
Last week, I read a piece about data released from Lifeway Research that detailed where the Southern Baptists were growing and where they were declining. The headline is pretty surprising: there are more Southern Baptists in the Northeast today than a couple of years ago. Not exactly what one would assume about a denomination with headquarters in Nashville, Tennessee and a training center outside Atlanta, Georgia.
I wanted to take a deeper dive into that whole world. I have a different data set: the Religion Census. I don’t know how it exactly differs from Lifeway’s analysis of the Annual Church Profile, but I know that the folks who run the Census contact denominations directly and ask for data about congregations and members at the county level. Which means that I can get really narrow in my focus for this bit of analysis.
Let’s just start with a side by side map of the share of the population who identified as Southern Baptist when the 2010 Census was conducted, then again in 2020 at the county level.
Pretty surprising how little these maps differ, honestly. If you just glance quickly it seems that I just replicated the 2010 data to the map drawn from the 2020 data, but that’s not what happened. I checked my work several times. There are differences here, I promise.
For instance, you can see a couple of counties in Florida where the share of Southern Baptists did increase and the same is true in parts of Tennessee, as well. To put some actual numbers on this:
2010 vs 2020 - Percentage of Counties in each Category
More than 30%: 14% vs 11%
25%-30%: 12% vs 11%
10%-25%: 14% vs 15%
0%-10%: 44% vs 46%
Definitely not cataclysmic, but clearly some signs of erosion in this data. The counties who were at least 30% SBC, have dropped by about three percent. The counties that are between 0% and 10% are up about two percentage points. By the way, ~17% of counties are excluded here because I don’t have data in one or both data sets.
Let’s make this a bit easier to compare, though. I subtracted the percentage of the county that was Southern Baptist in 2020 from the share who were SBC in 2010 and mapped the difference onto a county level map. I coded any county that had shifted less than 1% either way as no change.
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