How Big is the SBC Really? (and Why It Matters)

CT has a story about the struggle within the Southern Baptist Convention to begin reporting real membership numbers. The reported number has long been 16.5 million. The real number of folks who actually show up is about 6.5 million. To put this in perspective, the largest Presbyterian body in North America, the mainline PCUSA is about 2 million. I’ve been told that the LCMS is about 3 million. Oddly, I’m told that the PCA has the opposite problem. The reported membership number is about 300,000 but a significant percentage of PCA congregations either send no funds to the PCA or report no membership figures (or both). So the PCA may actually be closer to 400,000 but who knows with certainty? Why Presbyterian congregations would belong to a denomination and refuse to support it financially or refuse to report membership statistics is beyond me. 

What’s significant about this question is not really how large the SBC really is. What matters is the way folks approach the size of their congregations, how that becomes an important part of their identity, and how we think about and relate to church discipline. Every pastor and consistory (session) has to face this. Some folks just walk away from church and disappear. Do we keep reporting those people as members? No. There are different views as to how to deal with such a case (discipline or erasure) but something should be done.

Why don’t we do it? Sometimes nothing happens because of inertia. It’s just easier to do nothing. Sometimes nothing happens because there is resistance. “You can’t discipline/erase that family why they….” (fill in the blank). This is a classic “Christ and culture” moment. The church is being told that we cannot follow Christ because it the culture (in this case relationships or getting along) is more important. 

Some of this might also be about power. I notice that the new president of the SBC was urging caution. It’s like when a senator becomes president. When he was a senator he was all for the checks and balances of the three co-equal branches. When he becomes president, well, he has to defend the prerogatives of the office. Cardinals may be conciliarists but when they are popes? Not so much. Who wants to be president of the SBC when it goes from 16.5 million to 6.5 million? Not on my watch baby! Let some other schmuck purge the rolls. If you’re president of 16.5 million Southern Baptists you’re more likely to show up on Larry King than if you’re president of 6.5 million Southern Baptists. I’m not alleging anything here but just exploring the psychology of the process. 

No body likes church discipline. It’s an unpleasant business. Anyone who takes pleasure in church discipline probably has a problem and don’t give me any pious nonsense about how “I always take pleasure in serving the Lord.” No one enjoys sitting across from a wayward member (if one can find him) and warning him that he is about to be suspended from the table or worse. No one enjoys that kind of conflict. It’s a form of spiritual warfare. If we remove member x, then p or q might happen. Yes, it might. So what? Whose church is it anyway? Did you establish the church? Did you redeem the church? No. 

Officers (pastors and elders) must be willing to do it and members must be willing to let it be done. When we joined the church we agreed to submit to discipline. Those membership vows weren’t meant to be theory. “But the pastor is a sinner!” So? By whom did you think discipline was going to be administered, an angel?

The church belongs to Jesus. He instituted forms for discipline. We’re never going to be perfect in this life and we’re never going to get it right all the time, but discipline is one of the marks of the church. It’s a form of self-denial (mortification). Let us die to self, to numbers, and live to Christ who bought the church with his blood.

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  1. Obviously, it’s complicated, but as a deacon on the benevolence committee whose time was divided between legitimate cases and one mammoth illegitimate case that was clearly more spiritual than financial, I can’t help but wonder if so much of this is a function of being therapeutic-moralists instead of ecclesiologists. The D-word was never uttered in exchange for all sorts of reasons to continue a glorified welfare program for the dysfuntional. Meanwhile, we’re all expected to wag our boney fingers at the pagans for not being transfromed enough. Families are hard to be a part of sometimes.

  2. Dr. Clark,

    I am a pastor of a Southern Baptist Church. This issue of numeric reporting has been controversial within our ranks (not as controversial as Calvinism). Interestingly, the push to bring integrity into the process has been led for the most part by Calvinistic pastors.

    Anyway, it is true that pastors struggle with idolatry of the crowd. We are patted on the back if our churches are growing and/or large. It is not uncommon for a church that reports attendance at 2,000 to actually have a membership of 6,000. It boggles the mind that a church can lose track of that large a percentage of those it claims as members.

    You are absolutely right about the connection between this problem and the lack of church discipline. It is a practice that is simply not known in most SBC churches except for the occasional sexual scandal.

    I served as a youth pastor at a very large SBC church. We were told to use the list of the more than 50% of church members who did not attend as a “prospect list.” I always wondered why we would have unregenerate people named as members.

    There are very few SBC pastors with the courage to purge their roles of those who display no signs of regeneration.

  3. Great article, Dr. Clark. I grew up SBC for the first 20 years of my life. Though it wasn’t true for everyone, for a large part the emphasis was to serve and worship popularity. I’m convinced that it’s the idol that’s served there today for a large part of it, and has led to such things as Rick Warren’s impact and church “growth” manipulation. Popularity was the god that was either implied, explicity stated, and very often demonstrated in deed and in truth (in the form of “oh, you can’t do that. So and so wouldn’t like you and you know they’re well respected by the majority of those who come to church.”) It’s sad because popularity is so temporary yet you’ll find some in the denomination that are willing to forfeit much to have it. It was a huge struggle for me when I first quit attending. I had grown up serving the praise and traditions of men for so long that when I quit, I had to be “quarantined” for a while to get over it. I thank God that there are still some faithful in it though I doubt it’s anywhere near the 6.5 million most of which I fear only go to “check that off their spiritual list of things to be absolved for the week” thing. I speak from experience on that issue. My prayers are with the ones in it who don’t know any better, but would really like sound doctrine; they just don’t know where to get it.

  4. I spent several years at an SBC megachurch in the middle of my journey from a pietistic Holiness upbringing to the Reformed faith. I can tell you it’s much easier to get on the membership rolls than get off. I’m still not clear how I became a member of that church. I sat in on a class one Sunday morning and suddenly found myself being introduced at the front of the church. No confession of faith, no questioning about my beliefs, baptismal status, etc. All I remember is a strident appeal by one of the deacons to tithe. The funny thing is, 4 years gone from stepping foot into that church and after several email exchanges with pastoral staff about moving on to a PCA church, I still get my quarterly tithe envelopes and invitations to congregational meetings, etc. A friend of mine moved to another state several years ago and somehow his tithe envelopes followed him there. True story!

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