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Are Southern Baptists Losing Their Youth?

1959 sbc youth ad
1959 Southern Baptist Convention Magazine

The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) is the largest Evangelical (and Protestant) denomination in the United States. According to Wikipedia, collectively, Southern Baptist churches have a membership of almost 15,000,000. Astoundingly, on any given Sunday, only 5,000,000 SBC church members actually attend church. That means, on Sundays, two-thirds of Southern Baptist church members are somewhere other than the churches they call their spiritual homes.

Thanks to the rise of the NONES and the rapidly increasing age of their congregations, SBC leaders have been in panic mode over the decline of their churches. This has resulted in the SBC doing what they do best when faced with existential crises: call on churches to pray, double-down on their evangelistic efforts, and start new, super-duper programs that they promise will stem membership decline. This is the modus operandi of the SBC: ignore the obvious and pretend things are not as bad as they seem. Unfortunately, for the SBC, things ARE as bad as they seem.

According to a Pastors’ Task Force on SBC Evangelistic Impact and Declining Baptisms, baptisms peaked in the 1970s and stayed fair constant until the late 1990s. Since then, the numbers reveal a steady decline in membership and baptisms. In 2012, the Annual Church Profile — an annual report SBC churches fill out and submit to the denomination — revealed:

  • Twenty-five percent of Southern Baptist churches reported “zero baptisms”
  • Sixty percent reported no youth baptisms (ages 12-17)
  • Eighty percent reported 0-1 young adult baptism (ages 18-29)

As I read these statistics, I thought, oh my God, no wonder the SBC is in decline. In baseball, position players have cards which list their batting and fielding statistics. Chris Welsh, a TV game broadcaster for the Cincinnati Reds, is fond of saying when talking about player stats, “the back of the card never lies” That is certainly true for the SBC — the back of their card never lies. The stats are clear: the Southern Baptist Convention — a collective of 45,000 churches — is in precipitous decline, and it is unlikely that anything can be done to reverse this decline.

Once a church or a denomination loses its youth and young adults, there’s no hope of reversing decline and, ultimately, death. Thirty or so years ago the SBC hitched its wagon to Fundamentalist theology and Jerry’s Falwell’s war against cultural progress. While older members were thrilled with this, younger members were not. The slow death of the SBC is the result of the denomination of choosing theological purity and political power over people; especially young people.

Hosea 8:7 says, ” For they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind.” Thirty years ago, the SBC planted the wind, and now they are reaping a whirlwind; a whirlwind that is causing untold havoc and damage. Now, this does not mean that the SBC will hang a “Going Out of Business” sign any time soon. The SBC and its affiliated churches are sitting on billions of dollars. According to an official SBC fun facts page, denominational churches took in over $10 billion in offerings in 2018. As long as offering plates are passed, credit cards are swiped, and dying congregants leave their estates to their churches, the SBC will continue to live for another day. Denominations and churches die slowly, often taking decades and generations to finally succumb to the forces of attendance and offering decline. The numbers say death is certain. Not today, not tomorrow, maybe not even in my lifetime. But, the ugly specter of death is coming for the SBC, and the only thing that can save them is the Rapture. Something tells me that Jesus ain’t coming back to deliver the Southern Baptists from the just desserts of their war against social progress.


Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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  1. Avatar
    Darcy Walker

    I was a member of a UU church whose 60+ year old minister retired. It was made clear to us that the age of the members tend to reflect the age of the minister, and that churches needed young families with children to join in order to keep and increase members. We had an aging membership. So we needed a younger minister after the interim minister moved on. I moved to another state before that church got a new minister. I bet that is true of most groups, hobby groups included. Of course, there are other factors that can decrease membership. At least UU churches are usually happy to have LGBTQ members on the Board and maybe as ministers. Most UU churches are still very white, though.

  2. Avatar
    Tim Matter

    For entertainment I sometimes read the Amazon comments section of people leaving reviews on books like “Generation Ex-Christian: Why Young Adults Are Leaving the Faith. . . and How to Bring Them Back” or
    “You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church” or
    “unChristian: What A New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity.” or
    Ken Hams “Already Gone: Why your kids will quit church and what you can do to stop it.”

    The wrong headed comments confirm to me that they will keep on losing members, and when an occasional reviewer does have good advice, he usually gets dog piled by the more fundamentalist crowd.

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    And still fundy churches go jesusing on, sure that the latest method of evangelism some grifting leader sells to them in his latest book/video/call to prayer, will be The One that brings younger generations back to their church. I jesus-ed my socks off in youth work for decades and began to wonder why we had, increasingly, less and less success. Churches were emptying, not filling. If god had ordered us to ‘make disciples’ and we were doing evangelism all wrong, he only had to show us that and tell us the right way to ‘reap a rich harvest of souls’ as he promised he would and we’d implement it immediately…but of course, he never did. To say the SBC and many other denominations are flogging a long dead horse in expecting folk to flock back to them, is a massive understatement IMO.

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    In my experience as an SBC teen in the 80s (ultimately I left evangelicalism in 1994), most of the members were still sending their kids to public schools and secular universities. It’s hard to indoctrinate your kids as hard if they are able to learn other information. While most of my cohort from that church are still evangelical, a good number are not, moving to more progressive forms of Christianity or getting out altogether. It’s kind of hard as an educated adult to sit in Sunday school classes and church services where young earth creationism is taught.

    A comment on what Darcy Walker stated about older congregations, my husband and I were members of a progressive UCC. When we joined, they had a female interim minister probably in her late 40s. They recruited a young pastor couple in their 30s whose son was near the age of our kids, and we became friends. Most of the congregants were older and set on doing things their way, and eventually the young couple couldn’t take it anymore and left. My husband and I were asked, as one of the few younger members, our opinion of the pastor candidates they were interviewing, and we literally said, don’t bring in the older white guy if you are trying to recruit young families as you claim you are. They hired the older white guy. We left soon after (not just for that reason, but we were having a crisis of faith anyway).

    • Avatar
      Bruce Gerencser

      I once pastored an old, established church. I lasted all of seven months. I was 36, with a wife and six children. The church was excited that they had snagged a young pastor with experience. Prior to my coming, the church had as their leader either first church pastors or aged pastors.

      The church grew numerically. Attendance while I was there was higher than any time in the past 50 years. Why? I was young, passionate ,and hard-working. Why did I end up resigning? For the same reasons. The church was so dysfunctional that I couldn’t help them. Some of it was my matter-of-fact, get-it-done leadership style. I definitely wasn’t a good fit for the church. After I left, the church hired a retired pastor, and after he died, they hired another retired pastor. And attendance? Right back to a handful of cars in the church parking lot on Sundays.

      I learned from this experience. I never pastored an old, established church again.?

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    Van Johnston

    (Disclosure: closeted atheist SBC member here)

    Our pastor retired at the end of 2019 at the age of 60. In his sermon when he announced his retirement plan in September, he said he wasn’t running from anything or to anything, and as far as I know that is accurate. He cited the age demographics of our community and his own age as reasons to “pass the baton.” I was surprised then when they announced the members of the pulpit committee. 3 ‘old guard’ 60+ and two 40-ish. It will be interesting to see who they nominate.

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    When I was in high school in the 80’s I don’t think I knew a single kid who was a member of the SBC. All my friends were Catholics, Jews, and Methodists/Presbyterians. The occasional Lutheran was an exotic species… But in a large midwestern city in 1984, Baptists were a non-entity, at least in my experience. We all laughed at Falwell and the TV preachers and made fun of the 700 club because we didn’t think anyone really believed these things… so the rise of the religious right to political power was a sharp cold-water shock to people like me, I was completely and honestly clueless as to the growing strength of numbers of the Evangelical movement in the 80’s and 90’s. So when you say 15,000,000 that still sounds like a completely terrifying number, even if some of them are skipping out on church on Sundays. That may be a dying church, but it still sounds like a hell of an army of people whose beliefs are incomprehensible to me.

    • Avatar
      Bruce Gerencser

      What is scary is that power within the SBC has been concentrated in megachurches — many of which hide their SBC affiliation. Most people, for example, don’t know that Rick Warren’s church is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. It is smaller SBC churches, in particular, that are dying, ravaged by hip, cool megachurches.

      • Avatar

        I told my family that I predict within a year of our new pastor’s arrival we will drop the word Baptist from the name of our church.

  7. Avatar
    Green Eagle

    “Never has the screen dared to tell their story…”

    Didn’t they ever hear of the sixteen massively popular Andy Hardy movies, that made Mickey Rooney the highest paid star in Hollywood for several years? God, are these people ignorant.

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Bruce Gerencser