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What does the data say about SBC church closings?

Researcher notes the Baptist member declines are serious, yet need to be seen in their proper light.

By Clay Price

Clay Price has been looking at church data for most of his career — in the past 15 years as researcher for the Baptist General Convention of Texas, and previously for the Home Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. The BGCT has 5,600 congregations, 1,400 of those being mission points, and about 2.3 million members. He reviewed the recent study, “Dearly Departed: How Often Do Congregations Close?,” by Dr. Mark Chaves of Duke University, and noted the comments (related, but separately delivered) of Dr. Frank Page of South Carolina, former head of the SBC, May 1 to the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina [see editor’s letter, page 8] about the state of health of the denomination. From his vantage point of seeing many churches and their relative state of health — and Price believes his observations likely apply to most mainline churches — Church Executive asked Price for his reflections.

I saw the article quoting Frank Page [that half of SBC churches could die before 2030]. Could he be on track? After all, it does appear that more churches are experiencing declines in attendance. I recently looked at 2,441 BGCT churches that reported worship attendance in both 2002 and 2007 and 51 percent of these had experienced a drop of 5 percent or more in worship attendance.

Let’s think about the churches that are experiencing declining attendance. At any given time about 12 percent of our churches are without a pastor (retirements, moves, and a few dismissals). It is almost universal that attendance drops when the pastor leaves.

Decline and conflict factors

Next, it is reasonable to expect many churches located in communities that are declining in population also to be declining — so, let’s assume, conservatively, another 10 percent of the churches fall into this category. Finally, we know we always have a certain number of churches that are experiencing conflict of one kind or another. Unfortunately, I don’t have a firm percentage since I’ve not looked specifically at this issue.

It would not surprise me to see 10 percent of churches experiencing a significant amount of conflict, which would tend to correlate with declining attendance. So, at any given time we could see a third of the churches with declining worship attendance.

I ran the same analysis of worship attendance on 2,797 churches that reported in both 1995 and 2000. I found 41 percent that reported a 5 percent or more drop in worship attendance. This is closer to my prediction but still on the high side.

The fact that I found 51 percent for the most recent period says that we are seeing something else going on. The aging of membership would be one factor. Changing attitudes about church and church participation could be another.

Despite the declines, churches still tend to be very resilient, especially those that have been around for five years or more. The fact that we lose only 1 percent per year is a pretty clear indicator.

Charting the losses

So, let’s start with the SBC’s 44,000 churches. If the SBC loses 1 percent per year (and doesn’t start any others), it will lose 440 churches the first year, 436 the second year, 431 the third year, etc. By 2030 it will still have 35,272 churches — more than 15,000 higher than Dr. Page’s prediction. The overall loss would be 20 percent, not 50 percent.

What if declining attendance takes a greater toll on churches? Suppose church losses are doubled to 2 percent per year. In this worst case scenario, the SBC would lose 880 churches the first year, 862 the next, until it fell to 28,212 churches by 2030. This would be a loss of 36 percent. Not nearly the 50 percent predicted by Dr. Page, but a significant percentage nonetheless.

We don’t know what the future holds. Declining attendance appears to be a trend. However, the weakening economy may turn more people to faith issues as they grapple with meeting the necessities of life. New concepts and forms of church will develop and our ways of counting church participation may well change. Whatever happens, current church leaders need to examine the trends in their own congregations and consider the most likely scenario where they serve.

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