NASHVILLE, Tenn. - The nation's largest Protestant denomination saw membership decline for the seventh straight year in 2013, according to an annual report released last week.
The report by the Southern Baptist Convention's publishing arm, Lifeway Christian Resources, puts total membership in the Nashville-based SBC at 15.7 million. That's down from 15.9 million in 2012, a decrease of a little less than 1 percent.
Weekly church attendance decreased more than 2 percent last year, falling to 5.8 million as a weekly average for the year.
The report also notes a 1.5 percent decrease in the number of baptisms, falling to 310,368. Baptisms are an important measure for the denomination because of its strong commitment to evangelism.
The convention has been concerned about the membership and baptism trends for several years. After 2012 saw a drop in baptisms of 5.5 percent, a task force was convened to study why. The group of pastors released their report earlier this month and recommendations included praying for a "spiritual awakening in our churches and our nation."
Lifeway President and CEO Thom S. Rainer said in a news release about the 2013 declines, "I am grieved we are clearly losing our evangelistic effectiveness."
David W. Key, director of Baptist studies at Emory University's Candler School of Theology, said the declines are not surprising. They mirror an overall decline in Protestant church membership that has been going on for a couple of decades.
Key said the Southern Baptists have resisted the trend until recently, but the num- bers reflect the fact that the denomination is no longer in sync with the dominant culture, even in much of the South, the SBC's traditional stronghold.