Attendance and membership numbers, and institutional dishonesty.

by K.W. Leslie, 13 May 2023

The Southern Baptist Convention is the largest Evangelical denomination in the United States. That’s why I pay attention to its goings-on: What the Southern Baptists are up to, is usually what a lot of Evangelicals are up to. Even though Christians are supposed to follow Jesus, not the crowd, we have a bad habit of following the crowd, and the SBC makes up a big chunk of this crowd.

Lifeway Research is the SBC’s research firm. They do surveys and find out what the current trends are in the SBC and United States. It’s data you can use—assuming you don’t immediately go into self-defense mode or denial when it tells you what you don’t want to hear.

And this week Lifeway Research reported how things are going with Southern Baptist numbers. Attendance is up by more than 5 percent, baptisms are up by more than 16 percent, and giving is up by almost 2 percent. All welcome news. Membership, however, is down about 3 percent—and that was their headline. As was Religion News Service’s headline, when they summarized Lifeway Research’s report.

Attendance is nice, but membership is a bigger deal to Baptists. Because the common belief is members commit. Attendees visit the church, but we’ve no idea whether they’ll still be around after the summer, or if they’re not visiting four or five churches in town at once. Attendees might volunteer to pitch in here and there, and might put money in the offering buckets, but we can’t really count on them to be there every month like members.

Well, that’s the expectation. It’s not been my experience. I’ve been to churches where some members haven’t attended in years. They became members because we were having a membership class, so they went, took the classes, signed the papers, and officially joined. Then they got “too busy” over the summer, or over Christmas, or over tax season, or whatever. They left to go somewhere else. Exactly like the “attendees” supposedly will.

These mayfly members really oughta be removed from the church rolls, but aren’t. Usually because the church bylaws say they can only formally quit, or have to commit some sort of mortal sin, followed by due process… or not. Or they do get automatically removed after a certain period of non-attendance, but it’s an awfully long period, like years. Or there are no official rules, but leaders keep ’em on the rolls because maybe they’ll be back. But they won’t.

And of course there are always dishonest leaders who keep ’em on the rolls so they can claim, “I pastor a church of 500!” when it’s really more like 300 on our better Sundays.

So membership’s in decline. Has been in decline since 2006. There were 16.3 million SBC members back then; there are 13.2 million members now. Last time it was this low was 1978.

Okay, but attendance is up! That’s good news, right? How many attendees did the SBC churches have in 2022? Let’s see… 3.8 million?

They’re fretting about only 13.2 million members, but nearly TEN MILLION MEMBERS ARENT COMING TO CHURCH. Shouldn’t that be the headline?

Okay, to be fair, we just had a pandemic, and a lot of people have been watching their church over the internet instead of attending in person. But by now, if they haven’t come back, if they’re not making any regular effort to stay in contact with fellow church attendees, they’re gone. They quit. Hope they’re going somewhere, but they’re clearly not going to your church. Heck, my church had a board member who did that.

Remember what I said about dishonest leaders? That’s what Lifeway Research’s numbers are revealing. The Southern Baptist Convention is not 13.2 million strong; they’re less than a third of that. The attendance number is the real number. The rest is padding.

Yeah, okay, some of it might be justifiable. Shut-ins who simply have to watch the services over the internet, who stay connected with their churches through email and texts and Facetime and active social media interactions, should still totally count as members. Depending on how interactive they are, I’d even count them as in-person attendees: They’re participating in the service nearly as much as the in-person folks. Sometimes more! But even if we generously add a million of them to the attendance total, we’re still talking about a third of the reported membership number.

What Lifeway Research’s data unfortunately reveals… is that Southern Baptist leadership, beginning at the local church level, is not honest about the real number of people in their church bodies. Maybe this dishonesty is the result of a technicality—“But the bylaws say we can’t get rid of these 200 non-attending members!”—but it’s dishonesty all the same. And if the church is institutionally dishonest about something as small as attendance… what else is going on with them?

Well, a lot actually. The SBC has had a lot of scandals lately. Google ’em. It’ll depress you.

It’s not just the SBC, of course.

Lest you snipe at me for picking on the Southern Baptists, I’ll totally admit this is not just a Southern Baptist problem. I’ve been to plenty of churches which fudge numbers like this.

An Assemblies of God church which regularly overreported the number of kids in the Royal Rangers meetings. A nondenominational church where the pastor liked to round everything up to get perqs, and round everything down to get discounts. A Baptist church (not SBC) where they didn’t like reporting weekly attendance, so they just wrote the same number every week, whether that’s how many people were actually there or not. A Foursquare church which loved to talk about all the baptisms they held that year, but a big part of the total came from a Mexico missions trip they went to, and they added the Mexican church’s number as if these were their baptisms. That’s just off the top of my head… and I haven’t even got to the jiggery-pokery they played with finances. It’d curl your hair.

Because numbers are a big, big deal to humanity. Not Jesus; corrupt, depraved humanity. We, and our churches, gauge success by them. Jesus does not. We allocate resources based on those numbers. The Holy Spirit does not; he grants resources based on faith in him.

Unfortunately, since Jesus doesn’t care, too many Christians feel it’s okay to have great lapses of integrity when it comes to numbers. After all, they’re not important to Jesus, so why should they be important to us?… But if that were truly an honest rationalization, the problem would be that we never bother to report the numbers at all, and it’s driving the Christians who do wrongly care about numbers, bonkers. Instead what’s happening, all too often, is we inflate numbers. Instead of apathy, we lie. We do care about numbers—because we’re hypocrites.

You wanna know why church attendance isn’t doing so great in the United States lately? Two simple, obvious reasons. One is we’re largely preaching about culture-war stuff instead of the gospel of Christ Jesus, which is alienating all the Christians. The other is the hypocrisy, which is alienating all the pagans. (And the Christians.)

And solving the problem of making church relevant to Christians and pagans alike, is not gonna be achieved when we lie to ourselves, and everybody else, about our numbers.