Hi and welcome back! One of the long-running stories we’ve been following around here is the decline of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). For years now, I’ve been reading their Annual Reports with great interest. It’s fascinating to me to see how the SBC’s Dear Leaders spin-doctor their decline to the flocks, not to mention how they keep trying to reverse (or at least bottom out) that decline. And friends, they outdid themselves with a shockingly-dishonest press release about their 2020 numbers. Today, I want to show you how the SBC’s leaders misrepresented the truth about last year’s numbers with their 2021 Annual Report sneak peek.
How an SBC Annual Report Works.
Every year, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) holds a big Annual Meeting somewhere in America. Any member church that pays enough money to the denomination’s Cooperative Fund can send a certain small number of messengers to this meeting. Only messengers can vote on resolutions and elect officers.
Shortly after the Annual Meeting, the SBC’s Executive Committee (EC) releases the denomination’s Annual Report for that year. These reports always cover the previous year’s performance in a bunch of areas, along with lots and lots of info about how the denomination itself operates as a business. In these yearly reports, you’ll also find written reports from the SBC’s various seminaries and projects — and a copy of the current year’s Annual Meeting sermon from the president of the denomination. (I find these sermons interesting because they’re like a little foretaste of the SBC’s future plans.)
Mostly, I like Annual Reports for the statistics they contain. The denomination captures a lot of information about their member churches, though they rarely share much of it. At the very least, the reports contain overall statistics about membership and some aspects of their finances.
Here are the most important things to remember about the SBC’s Annual Reports:
- They come out after that year’s Annual Meeting — sometimes well afterward. But the statistics they offer come from the previous year. So the 2021 Annual Report covers 2020’s performance metrics.
- The reports contain a bunch of blahblah about all kinds of SBC institutions, subgroups, projects, and committees.
- Stuffed into a page or two midway through the report, you’ll find important general statistics about the denomination.
- Before the official report comes out, the EC tends to leak major findings.
- Now that the SBC is well into decline, you may count upon its leaders to twist their numbers every which way but loose to make their group look healthier than it really is.
Nobody lies for Jesus like the leaders of a dying Christian denomination, that is for sure.
And in the 2021 sneak peek, the SBC’s leaders have lied their precious li’l heads off for Jesus.
Yes, I’m Shocked — Even Going by Fundagelical Standards.
I’ve been around the fundagelical block, I’d like to think. I’m no innocent, fair-haired maiden whose cheeks stain crimson and delicate ears crisp up at the mere suggestion of a slight exaggeration somewhere in the Christ-o-sphere.
But holy cow, what I saw the other day in the 2021 sneak peek numbers absolutely floored me. I could not believe what I was seeing. It was easily the most deceptive, disingenuous fiddling-about I’ve ever seen any Christian leader do with facts and figures. And y’all, I was around for Exodus International — so you gotta know this was bad.
Basically, the SBC had one of its very worst years ever. However, instead of just admitting that fact, they tried to make it sound like everything was perfectly fine.
And they did it by obfuscating exactly how drastically various key figures had declined over the last few years.
The 2021 Annual Report Sneak Peek.
You can find the sneak peek article archived here, while the direct table can be had from here. The site the sneak peek comes from is Baptist Press, which is the official propaganda party-news mouthpiece of the SBC. (Similarly, Lifeway is the SBC’s official propaganda printer and faux-research subgroup. Hang onto that; we’re coming back to them shortly.) Here’s the basics:
The really important stats are total members (14M), total baptisms (123k), and total receipts (USD$11.5B). The Cooperative Program (CP) figure is an interesting little red herring — and we’ll get to that in a minute. And they left out one other major statistic, which I of course will provide.
Here are last year’s numbers. I drew them mostly from the 2020 Annual Report (p. 64-65, except as noted):
Total members: 14,525,579
Total baptisms: 235,748
National CP Giving (this is much harder to find and not included in Annual Reports anyway so why is it even here, but here are their 2017-2018 numbers from their EC page’s “Ministry Reports“): $463,076,368
Undesignated receipts: $9,600,108,179
Total receipts: $11,640,670,559
Total mission expenditures: $1,123,298,287
And now, here’s a side-by-side of their Ratio of Baptisms to Total Members, which they didn’t provide.
2020 Annual Report: 1:62
2021 Sneak Peek: 1:114
That means that in 2020, it took the resources and effort of 114 SBC-lings to produce one new convert. The year before, it only took 62 SBC-lings. I really can’t in the least blame Baptist Press for not offering up that ratio! SBC leaders consider this figure their ultimate ride-or-die statistic, so they want it to be as low as humanly possible. Seeing it almost double over one year probably didn’t make any SBC leaders happy.
(We’ll get to the new churches figure in another post. That is a downright HILARIOUS thing to celebrate, but I want to give it some room of its own. Here’s some pre-show entertainment. I’m still gathering info for the Hell posts — don’t worry, we are coming back to that too. F’real, I just need to borrow some extra arms from Princess Botherlet.)
An Ongoing Decline in Two Acts: From 2020 to 2021.
From the 2020 report to the 2021 report, the SBC is looking at overall losses of:
- 435k members (a 3% drop; last year was 2%)
- $270M in CP funds (seriously, ow — see above for why CP giving is important)
- $68M in undesignated receipts
- 112k baptisms
Hm. So how did the SBC’s leaders downplay this decline?
First, SBC leaders concentrated super-hard on their few semi-wins. Attendance didn’t officially drop all that much — from its usual 35ish% to 31.5% last year — though we don’t know how they counted attendance in online meetings. Regardless, SBC leaders played up attendance figures, though without saying exactly what attendance even was or how far down it’d declined from last year.
(In fact, I had to figure the exact percentage out myself, but that’s normal. For a few years a long time ago, the SBC freely offered this percentage in its Annual Reports, but that ended once their decline began in earnest.)
Another SBC leader, Lifeway’s new leader Scott McConnell, referred to a small survey his subgroup did that found that 91% of the 1000 Protestant churchgoers who responded said they planned to begin attending church in person again after the pandemic has eased.
(I’m sure this survey was super-rigorous and can be completely trusted to apply specifically to SBC churches.)
Second, SBC leaders talked up their declining numbers without mentioning they do, in fact, represent declines. Instead of focusing on the serious declines in donations, Baptist Press referred to the 2021 numbers as “financial faithfulness.” Really.
SBC leaders used lots of Christianese with the money stuff, like “sacrificially invested.” (That phrase just means donations to very Jesus-flavored projects. In reality, fundagelicals don’t have much of an idea of what actual investment looks like or how it works in reality. See also: seed giving; sowing a seed of faith.)
Baptist Press also noted something called “gospel engagements” being “up by approximately 30% to more than 750,000.” What is a “gospel engagement?” Well, gyarsh, Shaggy, it could literally be any personal exchange that contains any hint of a sales pitch.
This term, along with “gospel witness,” “new believers,” and “new fellowships,” all found at this hilarious sunshine-up-the-skirt report, is just meaningless filler. The SBC created these terms specifically to use as shifted goalposts, now that they know for sure that overall membership and baptisms can’t be used as win conditions in their Adult Pretendy Fun Time Game.
Lookit SBC Leaders Instilling Distrust in Their Own Bloody Reports.
Third, SBC leaders just used meaningless terms as victories. I laughed to see them talking up all the “countless more people” who were “impacted” and all the “salvation decisions” the SBC’s evangelists totally gained last year.
Specific numbers? Actual definitions? They don’t know her.
If “impacts” and “salvation decisions” don’t lead to actual baptisms and another warm butt parked firmly in an SBC pew somewhere (BIPs), then they’re just meaningless noises spewing from the mouth-holes of desperate, flailing SBC leaders who are absolutely frantic to make their denomination sound like it’s akshully doing great.
Fourth, they hinted that mayyyyybe not all SBC churches reported at all, which naturally would make the 2021 Annual Report numbers untrustworthy. On that count, Ronnie Floyd said:
For us even to have some data on our churches is amazing after the year we had. But based on the very limited data we were able to obtain due to a global pandemic, we know this is an incomplete picture of the reality of our Convention and how God is working in and through Southern Baptists.
Translation: Gosh, y’all, maybe this sneak peek isn’t even accurate! It’s sure to be incomplete, which means the SBC must be doing much, much better than these numbers indicate! So don’t think the SBC is losing! They can’t lose!
Don’t ever, ever wonder why the SBC doesn’t make annual reporting 100% mandatory, or come up with ways to ensure that they get 100% participation from member churches. No news = good news to SBC leaders.
In reality, though, if member churches had great news at all to share, they would gladly share it. If a church’s pastor isn’t reporting in, that means he’s way too embarrassed to say anything.
Quick! Look Over There!
Last, they — OMG Y’ALL, LOOK OVER THERE! LOOK!
IT’S A NEW SHINY THING TO LOOK AT!
Yes, Ronnie Floyd tried to distract Southern Baptists in a major way. At the end of the Baptist Press release, he pointed to some initiative the denomination’s going to “fully unveil” at its 2021 Annual Meeting, something called Vision 2025. Apparently, this initiative focuses on teen baptisms, missionary efforts, and church planting.
Vision 2025 is Ronnie Floyd’s baby. It’s not new. The 2020 Annual Report talks about it. We even discussed it like six months ago. I bet Ronnie Floyd must have been very peeved that the 2020 Annual Meeting was canceled so he couldn’t fully sell it to the rest of the denomination, and instead had to settle for just describing it in the loosest possible detail. (Check out p. 68 of the 2020 Annual Report and just try to tell me you can’t see the angry stink lines coming off item 7’s first paragraph!)
But he’s gonna try again this year to score a win.
Oh yeah, definitely y’all, I am totally positive Vision 2025 will finally turn the SBC’s sinking ship around completely. Yep yep. Vision 2025 definitely won’t become yet another failed pet project, like that silly EVANGELISM TASK FORCE they made up a few years ago.
Or NAMB just, like, in general.
Real Talk: The Pandemic’s Effect on the 2021 Annual Report.
Ahem. Well. That was fun, eh? But now, some real talk.
The baptism numbers above are indeed quite dire. I keep records of SBC Annual Reports, and I’ve never seen that few baptisms in any of the reports I’ve captured. In their 1920 Annual Report (p. 567), I see them claiming 123k baptisms. But that number nestles down between 25k churches and 2.9M members — which gives us a 1:24 baptism ratio.
More to the point, I’m willing to bet a whole lot of homemade donuts that a whole lot of those 123,160 baptisms in 2020 represent either re-baptisms or extremely young children. However, the SBC is very careful to keep that info well away from the flocks and the heathens alike.
Now, obviously the 2020 pandemic had a lot to do with that drop. Southern Baptists couldn’t jolly well go out and harangue and manipulate their marks like in the Before Times, so they couldn’t get those marks to church where they could really get those marks turned around in circles. That’s why they’re throwing around made-up terms and goalposts moved so far from their original spots that we can’t even find them anymore without satellites and advanced electronics.
So that was our sneak peek at the 2021 Annual Report numbers! Not much here was unexpected, except SBC leaders’ fast-and-loose handling of the truth.
As with the overall claims of Christianity itself, it’s not the numbers themselves here that are the dealbreaker. It’s how way too many Christians engage with those numbers that destroys their credibility.
NEXT UP: We’ll look at why the SBC’s leaders present bad news in such a patently (and obviously) dishonest way. Seeya tomorrow!
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(BTW: Here’s the archive of all of the SBC’s Annual Reports. They had a big site redesign a year or so ago, so search returns might be a bit higgledy-piggledy. They’ve been nice about sending me correct links, at least. I suggest that if you’re interested, you download them all as quickly as you can. I don’t think the denomination will offer them so freely forever.)