“The SBC reports 15 million members but no one can find 10 million of these.”
“SBC membership figures are a total fraud and they should repent.”
I like a good, indignant gripe as much as any SBC pastor and I haven’t been above figuratively slapping my beloved denomination around for the differential between reported membership and average attendance. I’ll confess to having said something along the lines of the second quote above: “The SBC reports 15 million members but no one can find 10 million of these.” If LifeWay offered a $1 per head bounty on these “lost” members I bet some could be found. But on the subject in general of ‘inflated’ membership numbers, no one can argue with the righteous SBC preacher in high dudgeon over the assumed disgrace of church membership.
But this is mostly a phoney war.
No one argues that the SBC is slightly declining as a denomination. Every SBC leader I know of will say this. There’s no spinning it. Baptisms, the best indicator of future membership trends, have been declining for years. Church membership has dipped below 15 million in the last reporting year. But no one should confuse declining baptisms and membership with the way churches report their numbers. (The figure for average worship average attendance has only been asked of churches in recent years.)
Here is total membership reported followed by weekly worship average attendance for selected years:
2018: 14.8 million 5.3 million
2016: 15.2 million 5.2 million
2013: 15.7 million 5.8 million
There is a wide differential between total membership and weekly average attendance, about 10 million.
Are these “lost” members, folks no one can find? Does this differential represent a total disgrace to Southern Baptists? Is the figure a symptom of all that is wrong with us: lack of evangelistic fervor, lack of concern for and committment to “meaningful church membership,” or abject capitulation to civil religion and cultural christianity?
I think not. It is probaby more of an indicator of a mature church with untidy lists.
We are reporting numbers about like we always have. That is, there has been no dramatic change in the differential between membership and average attendance. Both are declining. And, there has to be some differential between membership and average attendance for no other reason than folks don’t attend church every Sunday. Is twice a month the standard now for being called “regular” at church? I think so.
When I arrived at my first church as a pastor, a 188 year old rural church, I had exactly zero experience with a median sized SBC church, a rural church, or a congregation where the pastor relates to all of the membership. The membership rolls in that church were lists kept in the church safe along with the antique common communion cup in which real wine used to be sipped by congregants, one after another.
I had sense enough not to launch into a crusade to tidy up the membership rolls but I did examine them closely, pray for all of the folks on them regularly, and attempt to contact all of them. Some had moved on to other churches. Some had moved to other places but never moved their membership. Some lived away but would support the church occasionally with a donation. Others loved to come back for special events. Given a chance to meet with any of these ‘inactive’ members, I would listen to their stories and generally encourage them to get in a good church where they lived. Some had already done this and we didn’t know about it. Some had done this but liked maintaining a membership in their childhood or ancestral family church.
An untidy membership roll didn’t hinder me or the church from being evangelistic. It didn’t slow down the church from having missionaries called from among us and from enthusiastic support of our overseas workers. I can’t think of a single negative impact from the church’s preferred method of maintaining a membership roll.
Our autonomous churches handle membership according to their own unique history and circumstances. It’s their business, not anyone else’s. If your church likes a strict roll, fine. If your church is unorganized or lax about mainting good rolls, it’s none of my business.
In the SBC as a whole, I’d offer the following observations on this:
- The SBC isn’t “lying” about numbers. They are reporting the numbers churches give them.
- The gap between average attendance and membership is about what it has been for years. Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe it’s bad. But it’s not new.
- How my church keeps its membership roll is none of your business.
- I’m seeing pastors and churches who don’t care the least about any type of membership roll and aren’t interested in filing statistical reports to the denomination.
One anecdote that provides an exception to the point that no one is lying about numbers. When lists of megachurches in the SBC began to be publicized there were an unexpected number of churches that reported their attendance at the threshold number, 2,000. I’m guessing that figure was provided just to get the church into the category of ‘megachurches.’
I’d add that if the church is small and a handful of people, folks who have all but ghosted the church, could show up and swing a vote then the pastor and church might be wise to address their constitution and by-laws.
This isn’t as sexy a topic as, say, complementarianism. I’m betting on 3 comments. Seems the crusade for “meaningful church membership” has foundered but I’d be interested in your level of concern for your church rolls, pastor, and what you did about it.
“Phoney” vs “Phony” I’m writing for vast numbers of international readers. Consider SBCV to be very progressive in this regard.