NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The Southern Baptist Convention lost more than 200,000 members in 2015— the ninth straight year of decline for the nation's largest Protestant denomination.
Membership stands at 15.3 million, down from 15.5 million in 2014, according to denomination statistics released on Tuesday. Baptisms also fell by more than 10,000 to just a little more than 295,000.
Baptisms are an important measure for the Nashville-based denomination because of its strong commitment to evangelism.
After the numbers were announced, some denominational leaders emphasized the positive news that the number of Southern Baptist churches increased last year by 294, mostly due to new churches started by SBC pastors.
But Executive Committee President and CEO Frank Page refused to put a positive spin on the declines, exclaiming in a news release, "God help us all! In a world that is desperate for the message of Christ, we continue to be less diligent in sharing the Good News."
Mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic churches started to experience significant declines in the 1960s and 1970s, said Mark Chaves, a professor of sociology at Duke University who studies religious trends. Significant decline for many more conservative Protestant denominations has become apparent only in the last decade or so.
"There's just a national trend of declining religious involvement, and conservative churches are not immune to it, as they thought they were for a while," he said.
Comparing membership numbers across denominations can be difficult, since different groups report them differently. Chaves said he relies primarily on attendance estimates from large national surveys. The Southern Baptists say their average weekly attendance was 5.6 million last year, a decrease of about 97,000 from 2014.
Some denominations have stopped publicly reporting membership numbers altogether rather than admit their churches are shrinking, but the Southern Baptists survey their churches each year and release the results.
"That's because we believe the admission of a problem is the first thing needed to correct it," Page said.
He expects the numbers to bring calls for a new emphasis on evangelism and discipleship at the denomination's annual meeting next week in St. Louis.
"We live in an anti-institutional, anti-church age, where people are opting out of organized religious activities," Page said. He thinks new types of churches will arise to meet that trend.
Ed Stetzer, the executive director of the Southern Baptist's Lifeway Research, said some Southern Baptists have wanted to view the downward trend as a hiccup, but that is becoming harder to do.
"I think numbers like this should inspire some soul-searching," he said.