August 19, 2020
Gov. Kay Ivey’s plea for Alabamians to fill out the 2020 census forms (see page 13) has me thinking about stats and analytics and why the numbers matter.
The constantly flickering meter at census.gov/popclock/ shows the current world population topping 7.67 billion. Statistical information reported by worldpopulationreview.com indicates a similar number.
Both reports agree China tops the list of individual countries with around 1.4 billion people, and India comes in second with 1.3 billion people.
A far third is the U.S. with more than 330 million people, give or take 100,000.
Of those 330 million in the U.S., about 4.5% — 14,525,579 — are members of Southern Baptist churches, according to the latest Annual Church Profile report released June 4.
Nearly 900,000 Southern Baptists are in Alabama, and according to population estimates and projections coming out of the 2010 Census data, Alabama’s population currently hovers near 5 million.
Assuming all numbers are close to accurate, roughly 18% of Alabamians claim to be Southern Baptist, down from 25% a decade or so ago.
And with Southern Baptists’ membership numbers down nearly 2 million from our denomination’s high of 16.3 million reported in 2006, that means the national denominational decline is down a full percent as well since U.S. population numbers in 2006 landed at a little more than 297 million.
Dropping 1% in 14 years may not sound like much, but that is nearly a quarter of all SBC members. A continual decline at that rate officially takes the denomination to extinction well before the end of this century.
Opportunity to update
And with all that has happened in 2020 related to the COVID-19 pandemic and social distancing guidelines, can you imagine trying to obtain accurate data for this year’s church numbers?
Southern Baptists’ historical data may forever be unfairly skewed for 2020, but we also may look back to find this year providing the opportunity needed to update and simplify analytical reporting for churches.
Ronnie Floyd of the SBC Executive Committee expressed concern in a June 4 Baptist Press article about the fact that 25% of churches affiliated with the SBC declined to provide any statistical data for 2019. He also noted frustration with the length of time it took to obtain reports.
“It is past time for us to rethink and re-innovate the SBC Annual Church Profile process,” he said. “In our high-tech world, our processes cannot have this much lag time. It simply cannot take this long and be this complicated.”
Will simplifying the process help with participation?
I’m sure it will to some degree, but if Alabama’s super simple process for filling out the 2020 Census form is any indication — only 60% of Alabamians have completed it so far — I’m not sure it will be a magic bullet.
Still, studying the numbers helps us know how we are doing with our purpose as faithful believers, and Floyd and others must try to find the best solution for gathering those facts.
Why such a decline?
A straight-line decline for more than 50 years should sound an alarm, something several ardent researchers and ministry leaders in the SBC have been attempting to do in various ways for many years.
We will share more in upcoming issues of TAB on the denominational decline. In the meantime, we all can think on what’s at play.
Did we get so caught up in growing the numbers for numbers’ sake that we forgot to focus on making disciples?
Have we spent most of our energy recruiting church members rather than sharing Christ with those who don’t know Him and helping individual believers grow in their faith?
Do we use the church statistical data to judge each other unfairly and thus push people away?
Have we overcomplicated and overextended what it means to be part of a church family?
In his 1997 book “What’s So Amazing About Grace?” author Philip Yancey noted, “In the 1950s and 1960s, mainline denominations moved away from proclaiming the gospel toward a more political agenda, and the pews began to empty, cutting membership by half.
“Many of these disaffected churchgoers sought out evangelical churches, where they heard messages more directed to their spiritual needs. It would be ironic indeed if evangelical churches repeated the error.”