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Measuring COVID-19’s Effect: Southern Baptists Report 19% Attendance Drop

Anecdotally, clergy have talked about the disruption in worship attendance in this pandemic age. Now, Southern Baptists have statistics to prove it.

The average in-person weekly attendance at Southern Baptist Convention churches declined 18.75%, from 4,439,797 in 2020 to 3,607,530 in 2021.

Christian education saw an even larger decrease of 22.15%, with Sunday school, Bible study, and small groups reduced from 2,879,130 to 2,241,514. 

The Annual Church Profile, a compilation from the denomination’s state conventions, was released Thursday (May 12) by Lifeway Christian Resources, the convention’s data gathering division.

Researchers also blamed COVID-19 for the slowdown in baptisms in the past two years. While there has been a 26% annual increase in baptisms at Southern Baptist churches, from 123,160 in 2020 to 154,701 in 2021, overall baptisms are nowhere near the total of 235,748 reported in 2019, the year before the pandemic began.

Scott McConnell, executive director of Lifeway Research, said the recent rise in baptisms was due not only to churches’ reopening as the pandemic eased earlier this year, but to the increased evangelism the easing allowed.

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“Some people could have been ready to be baptized but delayed it until their church was meeting again,” he told Religion News Service. “But we attribute most of the growth to individuals and churches resuming activities where they have shared the gospel with others.”

Willie McLaurin, the SBC Executive Committee’s interim president and CEO, said in Lifeway’s announcement of the 2021 profile that he rejoiced at the “uptick” in baptisms.

“I am incredibly proud of local churches that have stayed steady with evangelism during the pandemic,” said McLaurin. “The increase in baptisms highlights that local pastors and churches prioritize soul-winning, evangelism, and discipleship.”

The only other growth Southern Baptists saw in 2021 was in financial giving. Contributions increased by $304 million for a total of $11.8 billion overall.

But membership is continuing its decline of many years with a 3% loss, from 14,089,947 in 2020 to 13,680,493 in 2021.

In addition to continuing loss in membership, there was a drop in total number of congregations for the fourth year in a row in the United States’ largest Protestant denomination. Congregations in 2021 totaled 50,423, down from a peak of 51,920 in 2017.

The Annual Church Profile for the first time featured research on online worship and religious education.

Southern Baptist congregations said 1,447,313 attended online on average each week, while an average of 198,122 attended Sunday school, small groups or Bible study.

“Many churches began sharing their worship services online during the pandemic,” said McConnell in Lifeway’s statement. “While some may only continue this practice until it’s safe for all to return, others have made it an ongoing part of their ministry or outreach.”

Seventy percent of SBC-affiliated churches took part in the 2021 profile, less than the 75% that did so in 2019.

O’Connell said all 41 Baptist state conventions reported membership numbers, but several state conventions did not request information about participation in online worship and Christian education.

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Adelle Banks

Adelle M. Banks is a senior production editor and national reporter for the Religion News Service, where she has worked since 1995. She previously served as the religion reporter at The Orlando Sentinel as well as a reporter in Providence, Binghamton, and Syracuse, and her work has appeared in USA Today, The Huffington Post, and Jet magazine. Banks won the 2014 Wilbur Award for digital communications and multimedia for her work on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, and she has twice been honored by the Religion Newswriters Association.

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