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Baptism trends: in the Southern Baptist Convention and Baptist General Convention of Texas, 1950-2008.

According to Lifeway Christian Resources (Lifeway), Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) churches reported 342,198 baptisms in 2008. (1) It was the fourth year in a row that baptisms in convention churches had dropped.

The number was far short of the 414,657 baptisms reported in 2000, the last year that baptisms were greater than 400,000. (2) In fact, Southern Baptists have to turn the clock back thirty-six years to find the high point in baptisms: 445,725 recorded in 1972.

The Baptist General Convention of Texas (BGCT) is the largest of the forty-one Baptist state conventions and fellowships that cooperate at the national SBC level. Because of its size, BGCT baptism counts tend to mirror trends in the SBC. In 2008, the BGCT reported 36,158 baptisms, the lowest level since before 1950. (3) It was the tenth year in a row that baptisms had fallen. The 2008 total was about half the number reported at the height of BGCT records: 69,944 reported in 1955. It must be noted that more than 1,000 BGCT churches have realigned with the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention (SBTC) that was organized in 1998, and these realignments have impacted baptism counts in the BGCT. (4)

What are the trends in baptisms? What do the numbers tell us about Baptist growth and outreach? Can Baptists rely on baptism counts to provide an accurate picture of church growth? This article seeks to answer these questions by examining long-term baptism counts from 1950 to 2008 at both the SBC national level and the BGCT state level.

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

Trends

Each year Baptist churches are asked to report their annual church statistics on the Annual Church Profile (ACP). (5) Most Baptist state conventions compile their own data, using either the national ACP form developed by Lifeway or using some customized version. Data at the state level is submitted to Lifeway for inclusion in a national SBC dataset. Data published in state convention annuals may not match state convention summaries reported by Lifeway due to differences in reporting deadlines.

Since 1950, SBC churches have averaged 383,588 baptisms annually as reported on ACPs. During the past fifty-eight years, baptism counts have gone through a series of up and down cycles, but rarely rising or falling more than 10 percent from the average (See Figure 1). The first multi-year up cycle occurred during the "Million More in 54" emphasis adopted by the SBC for 1954 and carrying over through 1962. These years coincided with the coming of age of the first wave of the Baby Boom population that began turning eight years old in 1954.

Despite the presence of large numbers of pre-teen Baby Boomers, a multi-year downturn occurred from 1963 to 1970. Baptisms cycled back up in the early 1970s, hitting the fifty-eight-year high in 1972. The tail-end of the Baby Boomers turned eight years old in 1973.

Baptisms in SBC churches hit a fifty-eight-year low in 1978 when the count dropped to 336,050. The cycles continued with the last extended upturn running from 1995 to 2005. However, there was a consecutive four-year drop from 1999 to 2003 and again from 2004 to 2008, a disturbing trend compared with earlier downturns. Do these numbers point to a change in Baptist outreach or could other factors be at work? To help answer this question, a Baptist state convention data set in which greater detail is available must be explored.

Figure 2 provides the 1950 to 2008 baptism trends in BGCT churches as reported in convention annuals. The cycle of upturns and downturns is similar to those at the SBC level, although the BGCT churches experienced more years in which the counts rose or fell more than 10 percent from the fifty-eight-year average of 58,827.

[FIGURE 2 OMITTED]

The portion of Figure 2 that stands out is the precipitous fall from 69,266 baptisms in 1998 to 36,158 baptisms in 2008. This drop, however, is not a true picture of baptism trends in the BGCT because of the effect of the formation of the SBTC in 1998. During this ten-year period, 1,069 BGCT congregations chose to sever ties with the BGCT and align with the SBTC. This change made a significant impact because most of the disaffiliating churches were mid- to large-sized Anglo churches--96 percent were predominantly Anglo congregations with average worship attendance of 174. (6)

Consequently, a more accurate examination of long-term baptism counts in Texas will combine reports from both the BGCT and the SBTC (while omitting duplicate counts from approximately 270 churches that are affiliated with both conventions). Figure 3 provides such a view, based on unpublished tables from Lifeway. (7) The 1998 to 2008 trend is still steep, although not as severe as the picture based on the BGCT alone. Additionally, a slight upturn in baptisms occurred from 2007 to 2008, a change that may point to a bottoming out of the recent slide.

[FIGURE 3 OMITTED]

Impact of Non-Reporting Churches

What is not seen in the foregoing description of baptism trends is a significant change in ACP reporting by churches. The SBC and most Baptist state conventions have three types of church reporting categories: (1) churches that complete the current ACP; (2) churches that do not complete the current ACP but have data from an earlier year that are carried forward; and (3) churches that have never reported. ACP data carried forward for category 2 includes basic membership and enrollments but does not include baptisms or additions by letter. Operationally, both categories 1 and 2 are considered to be reporting congregations. However, when working with baptism data, counting category 2 churches as reporting congregations is not appropriate. (8)

A decline in the number or percentage of reporting congregations clearly would impact the number of total baptisms. Have there been changes in the number of reporting congregations? If so, what is the extent of the change, and how does it affect the recent downturn in baptism counts?

In the absence of detailed reporting statistics at the national SBC level, data from the BGCT will be used to demonstrate the effect of non-reporting. Over the past ten years, the percentage of BGCT-affiliated congregations completing ACPs has dropped from a high of 82 percent in 1998 to only 50 percent in 2008. This severe erosion of consistent year-by-year reporting means that many churches now report every few years rather than submit ACPs on an annum basis. (9)

While other state conventions may have experienced a decline in reporting, it is unlikely their percentages have fallen as much as those of the BGCT. The presence of two Texas state conventions with two different reporting processes certainly have influenced churches and associations (that take primary responsibility for distributing and collecting ACPs) to take a laissez-faire approach to the reporting process. Other factors contributing to the decline could be: the success of starting new non-Anglo congregations, (10) changes in the ACP form and collection processes, and the presence of a new generation of pastors who may not be committed to denominational reporting.

No matter what the exact reasons for non-reporting are, 36 percent of the 2008 BGCT congregations have data that were carried over from a previous year. None of these show any baptisms because that statistic is not carried forward. To estimate the impact of non-reporting, the minimum number of baptisms and the maximum number of baptisms from the previous five years were summed for the BGCT category 2 churches. If their 2008 baptism counts were similar to the past five years, they would have contributed between 9,541 (sum of minimum baptisms reported in earlier years) and 17,567 (sum of maximum) baptisms to the total. Instead of showing 36,158 as the total baptism count in 2008, a more complete report might show 46,000 to 54,000, a number closer to the fifty-eight-year average.

Baptism Trends in Churches That Report Every Year

The only way to get an accurate picture of baptism trends is to examine churches that report every year. There are 1,137 BGCT churches that have submitted ACPs every year from 1980 to 2008. This group represents larger, older, predominantly Anglo churches. It comprises 20 percent of all congregations affiliated with the BGCT in 2008 and makes up 34 percent of the total 2008 baptism count, 46 percent of the total 2008 additions by letter, and 39 percent of the total 2008 average Sunday School attendance.

Figure 4 shows the baptism trends of these 1,137 churches for the past twenty-eight years. The pattern is dramatically downward. In the early to mid-1980s, these churches were baptizing approximately 24,000 people every year. By the mid- to late-1990s, the annual totals had dropped to 18,000. From 1997 to 2008, the declines were steadily downward, totaling 12,231 in 2008, half the number reported in 1980.

Baptisms were not the only statistic in decline for these churches. Additions by letter totaled 46,070 in 1980 but dropped by half to 22,708 in 2008. Because baptisms and additions by letter are the two ways that churches grow, it is not surprising that overall attendance in these 1,137 churches also declined. Sunday School attendance averaged 232,833 in 1980. Attendance reached its maximum at 256,995 in 1986 but fell steadily to 199,717 by 2008. Between 1980 and 2008, 72 percent of these churches declined in Sunday School average attendance while only 27 percent grew; 1 percent remained unchanged.

[FIGURE 4 OMITTED]

Impact of New Churches

If many older churches are experiencing declining numbers of baptisms, to what degree are new churches offsetting the losses? This is a significant question for the BGCT in which one-fourth of its 5,622 congregations (2008) have been established since the year 2000. The answer to the question is: "Not much." Current BGCT congregations that were part of the convention in 2000 reported 48,657 baptisms that year. In 2008, they reported 32,759 baptisms, a drop of 15,898 baptisms. The 1,329 BGCT congregations added since the year 2000 reported 3,399 baptisms in 2008. The contribution of the new congregations made up only one-fifth of the decline.

The problem is non-reporting. Only half of all BGCT congregations reported in 2008. Non-reporting for the new congregations in 2008 was 76 percent. Non-reporting among new congregations is so high because so many of the new churches are non-Anglo churches that do not have a knowledge or understanding of ACP processes. Of the 1,329 new BGCT congregations, 30 percent were predominantly Hispanic, 29 percent were African American, and 10 percent were some other non-Anglo group. Twenty-two percent were predominantly Anglo, and 9 percent were Western Heritage or Cowboy churches.

Even if all new BGCT congregations had reported in 2008, the total baptism count from this group likely would not have made up the decline in baptisms from older churches because new churches are small compared with older churches. The average new congregation in 2008 had 42 persons in average Sunday School attendance. The average older congregation had 155.

Baptism Rates and Percentage of Churches By Number of Baptisms Reported

One measure of church outreach is baptism rate, defined here as number of baptisms per 100 persons in Sunday School attendance. While larger churches account for the majority of baptisms reported each year, smaller churches have higher baptism rates. Figure 5 shows how rates have changed from 1973 to 2008 in BGCT churches.

Overall, baptism rates for the past thirty-five years have hovered between ten and twelve baptisms per 100 persons in Sunday School attendance. Only in the past few years have rates dropped below ten. Baptism rates dipped to a thirty-five year low of 8.7 in 2007 but climbed to 9.3 for 2008. The recent drop in baptism rates can be attributed to churches running 100 or more in Sunday School attendance. Larger churches, those with 200 or more in Sunday School, show the lowest rates. Over the past nine years, rates in the larger churches have dropped from 9.7 in 1999 to a thirty-five-year low of 7.3 in 2008. During this same period, churches with 100-199 in attendance saw rates drop from 12.3 to 9.1 (the thirty-five-year low of 8.7 was recorded in 2007).

[FIGURE 5 OMITTED]

[FIGURE 6 OMITTED]

Baptism rates in the smallest churches, those with less than 100 in attendance, have remained consistently high: about fourteen baptisms for every 100 persons in Sunday School attendance. In fact, rates in the smallest churches rose to sixteen in the late 1990s, the period of the BGCT Texas 2000 emphasis.

One final statistic is the percentage of churches by number of baptisms reported. Figure 6 provides additional insights into the most recent decline in number of baptisms. From the early 1970s to the early 1990s, approximately 14 percent of BGCT churches reported zero baptisms, one of every seven churches. (11) The percentage of churches with no baptisms rose above 15 percent in the 1990s but climbed to 20 percent by 2005.

Perhaps the most significant change is the drop in percentage of churches that baptize ten or more. From the early 1970s to the early 1990s, 40 to 50 percent of BGCT churches baptized at least ten people each year. The percentage in this category dropped below 40 percent in 1993. From 1999 to 2008, the percentage fell to 31 percent.

The percentage of churches baptizing six to nine persons has remained consistent at 15 percent. The percentage baptizing one to five has risen over the past ten years from 29 percent in 1999 to 34 percent in 2008.

Specific Emphases during High Baptism Years

The last factor to be considered concerns the up-cycles in baptism counts. Table 1 lists the top sixteen years in baptisms in BGCT churches. In each of these years, a unique SBC and/or BGCT evangelistic emphasis was in place. (12) Were these emphases the major contributors to the increase in baptisms? No research has been done to substantiate or deny the influence of denominational programming. However, it is interesting to note national and state cooperative efforts to reach people with the gospel message along with the number of baptisms that accompany those efforts.

The highest year for BGCT baptisms (69,944) occurred in 1955 when there was a national SBC emphasis called "A Million More in '54." The plan in Texas was called "Evangelism in Action." Revivals and simultaneous crusades were a large part of that plan. The years 1954 and 1956 are also in the list of top years. The next year to make the list is 1959 when simultaneous revivals were also promoted.

Lay Evangelism Schools were key efforts that correspond to high years for baptisms in 1971 and 1972. The SBC Bold Mission Thrust program was instituted and carried out in the years 1980-1984. The BGCT had its own emphasis, Mission Texas 1980-1985, during the same time frame. In the midst of these two programmatic emphases, baptisms were at a high level in 1980, 1982, and 1983.

In 1986, the SBC initiated national simultaneous revivals called "Good News America." The baptism count in Texas that year ranked fourth among all years. National simultaneous revivals were again promoted in 1990, called "Here's Hope," and this year, too, ranked among the top years for baptisms.

Finally, the BGCT "Texas 2000" emphasis, during the years 1995 to 2000, corresponded with the largest number of baptisms over a multi-year period. Four of those six years make the list of top baptisms with 1998 ranking second, 1999 ranking third, 1997 ranking fifth, and 2000 ranking thirteenth.

Discussion and Conclusion

Believer's baptism is one of the chief hallmarks of Baptist life and identity. This article has described how the number of baptisms reported by churches has cycled up and down since 1950, at both the national and a state level. Special evangelism emphases by both the SBC and the BGCT may have played some role in the up-cycles. Certainly, the theme of simultaneous revivals is common to many of the top years in baptism totals. Church revivals are not as prevalent today compared with previous generations, and yet nothing has taken their place, perhaps a factor in today's lower baptism counts.

Based on SBC and BGCT ACP counts, baptisms in Baptist churches show a downward turn over the past ten years, a trend much longer than downward turns in previous years. This trend may be explained, in part, by understanding the decline in the percentage of churches that report on an annual basis.

Alarming is the twenty-eight-year trend of decreasing baptisms among churches that have consistently reported. Of the 1,137 churches in the BGCT that have reported, these churches baptized only half as many persons in 2008 as they did in 1980. The majority of these churches are no longer growing. This condition may be tied to the aging of Baptist membership, perhaps in communities that are aging as children have grown and moved from home. Further research is needed on these churches and their church fields.

On the subject of church fields, this article has not examined the possible impact of ethnic population change. The pool of Anglo children and youth in Texas is now declining. (13) To the extent that Anglos comprise the majority of Baptist membership, the natural opportunities to reach the children of church members are moderated. While there are still millions of Anglo children and youth to be reached with the gospel, Hispanic children and youth in Texas will outnumber Anglo children and youth by over one million in the year 2020.

Church age and church size both play a role in the annual baptism reports. New congregations are typically small and do not exert a large impact on baptism counts. The full influence of new congregations is not known because three-fourths of them do not report or have not reported consistently from year-to-year. If these new churches grow in size in coming years, their contribution to the baptism totals could be quite significant since they already account for one-fourth of all congregations in the BGCT.

Smaller churches are the most effective group in terms of baptisms rates per 100 persons in Sunday School average attendance. These churches will grow by virtue of their evangelistic outreach. Their future baptism counts most likely will rise though their baptism rates will fall, based on long-term statistical measures.

How many baptisms will future ACPs report? Will totals climb, level off, or continue the recent downward slide? There are so many questions that potentially affect the numbers. Are Anglo Baptists aging and thus losing a pool of children and youth with whom the sharing of faith has been so natural? (13) Will Baptists be able to reach new generations? Will they be able to reach non-Anglos who are growing so rapidly? Has population diversity, enhanced by culture as experience through television, movies, and computer social networks, brought increased tolerance for non-Christian viewpoints? Has religious faith become so privatized that a person's faith is his or hers alone?

Despite recent trends and despite unanswered questions, the historical measure of baptisms in Baptist churches is phenomenal. In the fifty-eight years from 1950 to 2008, SBC churches baptized 22,590,294 people. In this same period, churches affiliated with the BGCT baptized 6,350,996. The kingdom of God in the hearts of these people has been realized as their lives were changed through a faith in Christ as the resurrected Son of God, as that faith bore its own witness through the act of baptism.
APPENDIX

Year   Baptisms   Rank             Special Emphases

1954    66,634      8    "Million More in 54" SBC Campaign
1955    69,944      1    "Million More in '54" SBC
                           Campaign; revivals in Texas
1956    65,760     12    "Million More in '54" SBC Campaign
1959    64,722     15    Texas state-wide simultaneous
                           revivals
1971    64,612     16    Lay Evangelism Schools started
                           in 1971
1972    67,007      6    Lay Evangelism Schools started
                           in 1971
1980    66,360      9    SBC Bold Mission Thrust 1980-
                           1984, Mission Texas 1980-1985
1982    66,869      7    1982 simultaneous revivals in
                           Texas: "Listen Now--Hear Forever"
1983    66,323     10    SBC Bold Mission Thrust 1980-1984,
                           Mission Texas 1980-1985
1986    68,046      4    "Good News America" national
                           simultaneous revivals
1990    64,763     14    Mission Texas, "Here's Hope"
                           national simultaneous revivals
1991    66,084     11    Mission Texas: Reach! Grow! Serve!
                           1990-1995 BGCT Emphasis
1997    67,574      5    Texas 2000 BGCT Emphasis 1995-2000
1998    69,266      2    Texas 2000 BGCT Emphasis 1995-2000
1999    68,083      3    Texas 2000 BGCT Emphasis 1995-2000
2000    64,943     13    Texas 2000 BGCT Emphasis 1995-2000

Source: notes 2 and 3.


(1.) Rob Phillips, "2008 ACP: Southern Baptists give more to missions but lose members, baptize fewer," Lifeway Christian Resources, press release April 23, 2009.

(2.) All references to Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) baptism counts from "Southern Baptist Summary--1936-1992," Southern Baptist Handbook (Nashville, TN: Convention Press, 1992), 10. See also Annual, SBC, 1993-2007. The 2008 count is from "Southern Baptist Statistics by State Convention- 2008," unpublished Excel chart, Lifeway Christian Resources, April 20, 2009.

(3.) The Baptist General Convention of Texas (BGCT)baptism counts from 1950 to 1972 are from Annual, BGCT, 1950-1972, and exclude baptisms reported to BGCT by Minnesota-Wisconsin associations during the years 1956 to 1983. BGCT baptism counts for 1973 to 2008 are from Annual Church Profile electronic datasets maintained by the Office of Decision Support, BGCT. Electronic datasets are adjusted as individual churches notify the office of errors or corrections; consequently, some BGCT data counts do not match baptism totals reported in BGCT Annuals.

(4.) BGCT Electronic ACP datasets, 1998-2008.

(5.) Contact Lifeway or state convention statistical offices for the details and history of the Annual Church Profile process. The ACP was called the Uniform Church Letter (UCL) prior to 1993.

(6.) The change in state convention affiliation is maintained on an on-going basis as churches or associations notify the BGCT. There is no formal process through which churches affiliate or disaffiliate with the BGCT. The race/ethnicity and size of churches that disaffiliated with the BGCT was determined from their last ACP report to the convention.

(7.) The Technology Division of Lifeway Christian Resources produces an annual table of SBC statistics based on the previous year's ACP. The table shows separate data for the BGCT and the SBTC. It also shows a total for the state of Texas, excluding duplicate data for churches that are affiliated with both state conventions. At any given time, about 270 churches affiliate with both conventions.

(8.) The process of carry forward data for non-reporting congregations is a long-standing procedure used by Lifeway and adopted by BGCT.

(9.) Analysis of BGCT electronic ACP data sets were done by the Office of Decision Support.

(10.) Church Starting Office, BGCT. Not all new churches in the BGCT are started with BGCT support; however, 1,282 of the 5,622 active BGCT congregations in 2008 were started under BGCT aegis.

(11.) The category of churches with zero baptisms must be based on churches that actually report in a given year. Lifeway carries forward data for non-reporting churches and counts these churches as reporting. However, Lifeway does not carry forward baptism data so these churches will inflate the number of churches showing zero baptisms. While the BGCT also carries data forward for non-reporting churches, this group is not included in BGCT counts of reporting congregations. It should also be noted that BGCT churches reporting zero baptisms average twenty-six in Sunday School attendance, and many are located in rural settings with small, aging populations.

(12.) Annual, SBC, 1954-2000, and Annual, BGCT, 1954-2000

(13.) Electronic dataset from Population Estimates and Projections Program, Texas State Data Center, Office of the State Demographer, Institute for Demographic and Socioeconomic Research, The University of Texas at San Antonio, February 2009.

Clay Price is information analyst for the Baptist General Convention of Texas, Dallas, Texas.
Table 1--Special Denominational Emphases Occurring In Top Years
For Baptisms in BGCT Churches From 1950 to 2008

Year   Baptisms   Rank             Special Emphases

1954    66,634      8    "Million More in '54" SBC Campaign
1955    69,944      1    "Million More in '54" SBC Campaign,
                           revivals in Texas
1956    65,760     12    "Million More in '54" SBC Campaign
1959    64,722     15    Texas state-wide simultaneous
                           revivals
1971    64,612     16    Lay Evangelism Schools started
                           in 1971
1972    67,007      6    Lay Evangelism Schools started
                           in 1971
1980    66,360      9    SBC Bold Mission Thrust 1980-1984,
                           Mission Texas 1980-1985
1982    66,869      7    1982 simultaneous revivals in
                           Texas: "Listen Now--Hear Forever"
1983    66,323     10    SBC Bold Mission Thrust 1980-1984,
                           Mission Texas 1980-1985
1986    68,046      4    "Good News America" national
                           simultaneous revivals
1990    64,763     14    Mission Texas; "Here's Hope"
                           national simultaneous revivals
1991    66,084     11    Mission Texas: Reach! Grow! Serve!
                           1990-1995 BGCT Emphasis
1997    67,574      5    Texas 2000 BGCT Emphasis 1995-2000
1998    69,266      2    Texas 2000 BGCT Emphasis 1995-2000
1999    68,083      3    Texas 2000 BGCT Emphasis 1995-2000
2000    64,943     13    Texas 2000 BGCT Emphasis 1995-2000
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Author:Price, Clay
Publication:Baptist History and Heritage
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1U7TX
Date:Jan 1, 2010
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