Southern Baptist churches baptized fewer people in 2008 for the fourth year in a row to reach the lowest level since 1987, and membership in the country's largest Protestant denomination fell slightly as well.
Baptisms dropped just over 1 percent to 342,198 last year, compared with 345,941 in 2007, according to an annual report released Thursday by LifeWay Christian Resources, the Southern Baptist Convention's publishing arm.
Total membership of Southern Baptist churches was 16,228,438 last year, down nearly 38,400 from 2007.
The continued decline in the number of followers reflects a trend in other mainline Protestant churches. Non-denominational churches are gaining and the ranks of those unaffiliated with a church are growing.
Baptism in the Southern Baptist church is a public act administered by the local church in which new members agree to follow Christ. They are a key measurement of the SBC's overall effectiveness in evangelism.
"The numbers simply tell us that Southern Baptists are not reaching as many people for Christ as they once did," said Thom S. Rainer, president and CEO of LifeWay.
"I pray that all of our churches and our entities will become totally focused on obeying Christ's commission so that our convention will truly experience a Great Commission resurgence."
Eye on younger generation
The Rev. Johnny M. Hunt, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Woodstock, Ga., was elected SBC president last year and promised to make building up membership and baptism numbers a priority for the Nashville-based denomination.
A member of the SBC's conservative establishment, Hunt said he would try to unite Baptists around common causes and use his experience with younger pastors to reach out to a younger generation. Hunt has been a mentor to the next generation through a pastors' school he founded in 1994.
In the past 50 years, the number of annual baptisms per church member — a key indicator of church growth — has dropped sharply. Southern Baptists baptized one person for every 19 church members in 1950, a ratio that dropped to 1 baptism for every 47 church members in 2008, according to the report.
The denomination's baptisms peaked in 1972 at 445,725, based on statistics Lifeway has collected from Southern Baptist churches since 1922.
While baptisms and membership were down in 2008, the number of Southern Baptist churches grew from 44,696 to 44,848 and worship attendance increased slightly to 6.18 million, according to the report.
The report also notes that despite the economic downturn and decline in baptisms and membership, Southern Baptists gave 2.3 percent more to missions last year, with total giving reaching $1.36 billion.
Through the denomination's Cooperative Program and special mission offerings, local churches voluntarily pool funds to support mission efforts in their states, throughout the nation and around the world. Cooperative Program funds also support six seminaries, the International Mission Board, North American Mission Board and other SBC entities.