Southern Baptist Membership, Baptisms Decline In 2007

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - The number of people baptized in
Southern Baptist churches fell for the third straight year in 2007
to the denomination's lowest level since 1987, and membership
dipped slightly as well.

The president of the Southern Baptist Convention blamed the
decline in part on a perception that its followers are
"mean-spirited, hurtful and angry."

Baptisms last year dropped nearly 5.5 percent to 345,941,
compared with 364,826 in 2006, according to an annual report
released Wednesday by LifeWay Christian Resources, the convention's
publishing arm.

Total membership was 16,266,920 last year, down nearly 40,000
from 2006.

The dropping number of followers in the nation's largest
Protestant denomination reflects a trend in other mainline
Protestant churches, while non-denominational churches are gaining
and the ranks of the unaffiliated are growing.

But for a denomination that places winning converts at the heart
of its mission, the continued slide is troubling and disappointing,
said the Rev. Frank Page, the convention's president.

Part of the blame can be placed on a notion that Baptists have
been known too much in recent years for "what we're against" than
"what we're for," Page said.

"Our culture is increasingly antagonistic and sometimes adverse
to a conversation about a faith in Christ," he said. "Sometimes
that's our fault because we have not always presented a winsome
Christian life that would engender trust and a desire on the part
of many people to engage in a conversation on the Gospel.

"All Southern Baptists should recommit to a life of loving
people and ministering to people without strings attached so people
will be more open to hearing the Gospel message."

The Nashville-based Southern Baptist Convention adheres strictly
to conservative beliefs, including the inerrancy of the Bible. The
denomination is second in size in the United States only to the
Roman Catholic Church.

In the past 50 years, the number of annual baptisms per church
member - a key indicator of church growth - has dropped sharply.
Southern Baptists baptized one person for every 19 church members
in 1950, a ratio that dropped to 1 baptism for every 47 church
members in 2007, according to the report.

Baptism is a public act administered by a church in which
followers are immersed in water, symbolizing believers'
identification with Jesus.

To counter the decline in baptisms, former SBC president Bobby
Welch led an ambitious effort to baptize 1 million people in the
year beginning Oct. 30, 2005. Church records show there were
371,850 baptisms in all of 2005.

The denomination's baptisms peaked in 1972 at 445,725, based on
statistics Lifeway has collected from Southern Baptist churches
since 1922.

While baptisms and membership were down in 2007, the number of
Southern Baptist churches grew by 1.1 percent to 44,696 and worship
attendance increased slightly to 6.15 million, according to the

David Key, director of Baptist studies at Emory University's
Candler School of Theology, attributes the declining numbers on
Baptist parents having fewer children than in years past. He also
believes Baptist leaders haven't been aggressive enough in
attracting nonwhite members.

"It's not just about parents not having enough children, but we
also haven't adjusted our youth programs to target multicultural
youth," he said. "It's still a very white Southern experience as
opposed to incorporating African-Americans, Hispanics and Asians."

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