The last two factors around shifts in the denomination have to do with whether enough children born into Southern Baptist families remain in the church—or return as adults—to offset the eldest generation, which is dying off.
Recent research by University of Oklahoma sociologist Samuel Perry concluded that evangelical Protestants have seen a decline in fertility in recent years. It’s a well-known phenomenon that young people drift away from church attendance in their 20s and 30s but return when they get married and have children.
The GSS, which asks respondents about their current religious affiliation as well as what religion were they were raised as, shows that fewer Southern Baptists are sticking with their parents’ denomination.
For much of the ’80s and ’90s, Southern Baptist kids were pretty likely to grow up to become Southern Baptist adults: Seven in ten maintained their SBC identity into adulthood in surveys conducted between 1984 and 1994.
That has declined precipitously. In the most recent surveys conducted between 2015 and 2018, just over half of those raised Southern Baptist were still with the SBC. In other words, nearly half of Southern Baptists kids leave and never come back.
The deaths of older members also have a net impact on the size of the SBC, particularly as the denomination as a whole ages. When older members make up a larger share of the movement, those losses will only accelerate and therefore pressure mounts to continue adding new members at an ever-increasing pace.
The graph above portends a concerning future for Southern Baptists. Even until the mid-1990s, there was no significant difference in the average age of SBC affiliates and the general population. That is no longer the case. The age gap between the two groups was 3.6 years in 2000 and has now expanded to 5.4 years in 2016.
The mean age for Southern Baptists in 1984 was 43.2; in 2016, it was 52.7. I have written about this before. White America is aging rapidly, and significant shifts to American religion and society are inevitable.
Taken together, these results do not paint a positive picture for the future of the largest denomination in the United States. While very few people actually leave a Southern Baptist church, an even smaller number converts to the SBC. Therefore the changes in overall size due to conversion and defection are relatively minor.
However, where the real worry comes is related to a generational shift in the American population. In the 1980s and 1990s, Southern Baptists could count on a huge majority of the children born and raised in the church to become committed and active members of the congregation as adults. That has eroded over time. Now, it’s likely that half of the children being raised Southern Baptist today will not maintain that identity into adulthood.
Compounding that fact, the average Southern Baptist is now nearly ten years older than they were in the mid-1980s. The water is leaking out of the bucket at an ever-quickening rate and the amount of water that is being added is slowing to a trickle. There is little reason to believe that the SBC won’t sustain serious declines in the next 10–20 years.
If there is any silver lining to be found in these results it is this: Half of youngest Southern Baptists (those between the ages of 18 and 35), attend services at least once a week. That is the highest rate of attendance of any group aside from those 65 and older. This is a strong foundation to build upon.
Just as researchers such as Ed Stetzer have suggested that much of the decline in overall Christian affiliation in the US can be attributed to “nominal” believers leaving the faith, it appears that the young Southern Baptists who stick around are particularly committed to their church and their beliefs.
For those who stay affiliated with the SBC from a young age, their attachment to the tradition is strong. Now, the question becomes how to convince more young people to stay, or become, Southern Baptists.
Leaders such as SBC president J. D. Greear are already praying and working for gospel revival through the denomination’s young leaders. He stated, “For the upcoming generation, our prayer should be to see an increase in evangelism, church planting and revitalization, and ultimately an end to decades of decline.”