How Should We Think About Declining Denominational Numbers?
There’s more that matters than just the numbers.
by JOHN DAVIDSON
Recently, the Southern Baptist Convention released their Annual Church Profile (APC), reporting on key metrics for the SBC, including church attendance, number of baptisms, number of churches, and giving. Overall, the numbers weren’t good. Membership is down to its lowest point since 1987, baptisms are down to 1940s levels, attendance dipped by about half a percent, and the total number of churches dropped by 88.
The only statistical bright spot is that giving is up slightly.
As a man who loves the church and believes numbers are our friends, this report is concerning. All of us would like to see a different trajectory for the SBC, and other Evangelical denominations, but sadly, that isn’t our reality.
I’m not a part of the SBC. I’m Assemblies of God. And the AG releases its numbers every year as well. We’ve enjoyed being one of, if not the only, growing major evangelical denominations of late. We’ve shouted those numbers from the rooftops, and rightly so.
When I’m with friends from other denominations, they often ask for the AG’s secret to growth when all the other denominations’ numbers are declining. While there are some very legitimate reasons why the AG has seen sustained growth in the U.S. and globally (95 percent of the AG resides outside the U.S.), there’s a concerning statistical development on the horizon for us, too.
Our latest U.S. numbers reveal that the AG is growing in churches and average attendance, but only barely. Our total number of adherents slipped slightly after 27 years of consecutive growth. Our number of churches classified as plateaued and declining is at its highest level in nearly four decades.
While the number of water baptisms has continued to climb generally, Spirit baptisms (a hallmark of the Pentecostal church and experience) have been on the decline 11 out of the last 18 years.
The AG has enjoyed a long history of growth in the U.S., but I’m saying that if the current trends continue, my denomination could, like the SBC, eventually release a report showing decreases in many or most of our important metrics.
What happens when even the once-growing evangelical denominations begin to decline? Does it necessarily mean that evangelical churches will follow the pattern of decline experienced by mainline churches?