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  • Aaron Earls

Southern Baptist Church Attendance Gains Potentially Larger Than Reported


John Price photo (Unsplash)

According to data analysis, a decline in reporting among Southern Baptist congregations may be leading to an undercounting of attendance.


Officially, attendance at Southern Baptist congregations grew 6% in 2023, but it’s likely the actual gains are even higher.


According to Lifeway Research analysis of the Annual Church Profile (ACP) data collected by Southern Baptist state conventions, a decline in reporting among churches is likely leading to an undercounting of attendance numbers.


In 2013, 80% of Southern Baptist-affiliated congregations reported at least one number for the ACP. That percentage has steadily declined, falling to 69% in recent years. The 11-point decline in reporting in the past decade impacts the current numbers.


The 2023 ACP reported the total weekly worship service attendance at Southern Baptist-affiliated congregations to be more than 4 million. Better reporting from churches could lead to a corrected number closer to 4.6 million.


Southern Baptist-affiliated congregations reported a total weekly worship service attendance average of more than 4 million. Better reporting from churches could lead to a number closer to 4.6 million.

“By any estimate, average worship attendance totals combined for all Southern Baptist congregations is still below pre-pandemic levels,” said Scott McConnell, executive director of Lifeway Research. “However, looking at the reported totals in 2019 and 2023 alone gives the erroneous impression that 23% of attendees have not returned. That is not the case.”


Declining reporting


Around 7 in 10 Southern Baptist congregations (69%) reported at least one item for the ACP in 2023. When you remove those who only reported a financial item, however, only 61% of congregations reported any other statistics in 2023. In 2019, 75% provided at least one item, and 71% reported at least one non-financial number.

Reporting percentages also vary dramatically by state convention. More than 9 in 10 Southern Baptist-affiliated congregations in New England (98%), Illinois (97%) and Montana (93%) reported at least one non-financial item in the 2023 ACP. Fewer than 3 in 10 congregations did the same in California (22%) and both the state conventions in Texas—Baptist General Convention of Texas (25%) and Southern Baptists of Texas Convention (SBTC) (27%).


Among the state conventions, 30 saw a decline in reporting non-financial information since 2019, including Colorado (a 40-point drop), New York (28-point), Arizona (25-point) and SBTC (23-point). Only seven saw an increase in reporting percentages. Those include Minnesota-Wisconsin (a 33-point jump), Nevada (12-point), Utah-Idaho (11-point), Iowa (7-point) and Hawaii-Pacific (7-point).


“We want to include each congregation every year in the statistical picture of what is happening in the Southern Baptist Convention,” said McConnell. “However, each year is a brand-new effort to invite congregations to participate and for a leader in a church to take the time to gather the statistics. Each year’s report is a beautiful picture of cooperation, but unfortunately, the picture doesn’t include everyone.”


The drop in reporting is not the only issue complicating current in-person worship attendance numbers. Not only are fewer churches reporting, but this under-reporting causes pandemic-era attendance statistics to influence current numbers.


Missing attendance numbers


To account for churches that are still affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) but do not always report their attendance or other data through the ACP, Lifeway Research attempts to compensate for the missing data by using previous years’ information for some statistics. Without this, statistics would depend entirely on every church reporting every year and cause potentially wild fluctuations in the attendance numbers, according to McConnell.


To prevent the current attendance statistics from being influenced by out-of-date reporting, Lifeway Research statisticians only include numbers from up to two years ago from churches that did not report attendance in the current year. Any numbers from 2021 and 2022 used in 2023 do not reflect the in-person rebound churches have experienced since COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted. However, total SBC membership numbers are not as dependent on specific church reporting because adjustments to membership are not limited by time. The last number the congregation reported is used.


A Lifeway Research study of U.S. Protestant churches in August 2023 found the average church had reached 89% of their pre-COVID in-person worship service attendance, up from 60% in January 2021. According to the ACP data, Southern Baptist congregations were significantly lower than the average, rebounding to 77% of their previous attendance average.


However further analysis found Southern Baptists are likely to be much closer to the national Protestant average in 2023. Comparing Southern Baptist-affiliated congregations that reported in both 2019 and 2023, the average congregation is at 88% of their pre-pandemic attendance.


This indicates that if reporting returned to pre-pandemic levels, the attendance numbers in Southern Baptist congregations and conventions could potentially lead to a worship service attendance number closer to 4,600,000 than the current 4,050,668.

“An estimate of this type never replaces actual reporting from churches,” said McConnell. “More than 4 million worship attendees in a typical week were accurately reported for 2023. But the higher number that is estimated keeps us from concluding that the attendance rebound is progressing worse than it really is.”



Lifeway Research studies can be used and referenced in news articles freely. This news release can also be republished in its entirety on other websites and in other publications without obtaining permission.


Methodology 


The Annual Church Profile (ACP) is an annual statistical census of Southern Baptist congregations conducted cooperatively by local associations, state conventions and Lifeway Christian Resources. Around 7 in 10 Southern Baptist churches (69%) reported at least one item on the 2023 ACP. Projections are made using the attendance numbers of congregations that reported in 2019 and 2023 and applying those changes across the Southern Baptist Convention. 


 






ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Aaron Earls is the senior writer at Lifeway Research.




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