Baptist decline is just math: More move to other churches than the reverse

Print More
Flynn's Lick Baptist Church

Jimmy Emerson, DVM via Flickr

Flynn's Lick Baptist Church, located in the Flynn's Lick community west of Gainesboro, Tennessee in Jackson County.

This graphic is not offered for republication.

This graphic is not offered for republication.

Baptists are on the decline in America. New research finds that Baptists have lost a quarter of their market-share, and this is likely going to continue (or even accelerate).

Darren Sherkat’s new book Changing Faith gives a detailed examination of why Americans switch religions. Tucked into Sherkat’s book is one of the most important changes in American religion of the past forty years: the decline of Baptists.

Sherkat uses the General Social Surveys to examine the patterns of switching religions in the USA. He finds that since the 1970s, Baptists in the U.S. have declined by a quarter, from 21 percent of Americans to only 16 percent.

The good news for Baptists is that they’re loyal. Seven-in-ten of those raised Baptist are still Baptist as adults. Compare that to similar Christians. Their loyalty is only around 60 percent—at best.

The major problem for Baptists is simple: the 30 percent who leave are not being replaced. Overall, Sherkat estimates that Baptists have had a net loss of 13% due to people leaving and not being replaced. Similar churches, however, have seen double-digit gains. Sectarian Protestants (e.g., pentecostals and smaller evangelical denominations) have had a 19% increase from switching . nondenominational and similar churches have done even better, with a 77% gain from switching.

Baptists, like all religions, are losing members who are leaving religion altogether. But this isn’t the major source of Baptist losses. Among those who have left a Baptist church, only one-in-five are no longer religious. The other 80 percent of former Baptists have simply moved to similar Christian churches.

There isn’t a simple explanation for why people switch churches. Sherkat finds that switching is due to changes. Changes in where people live. Changes in life like marriage or raising children. Changes in social status compared to others in one’s religion.

And when people switch, there is a “circulation of the saints” (a term coined by Reginald Bibby and Merlin Brinkerhoff). People rarely make major changes. They are likely to switch to a church similar to their own. Baptists are likely to switch to non-denominational evangelical church or to a moderate Protestant church like United Methodist. The challenge facing Baptists is that there is less “circulation” because of a stronger current heading out of Baptist churches than there is flowing back in.

The decline of Baptists is likely to increase. The reasons that people are switching are not going away. As their numbers decline, there are fewer youth being raised Baptist. Unlike Catholics, pentecostals, and some other groups, Baptists are unlikely to see increases from immigrants. People will continue to move within the U.S., which means more Baptists living strongholds in the South. As a result, the outlook for Baptists isn’t strong unless they can find a way to bring other Christians into the Baptist fold.

Don’t miss any more posts from the Corner of Church & State. Click the red subscribe button in the right hand column. Follow @TobinGrant on Twitter and on the Corner of Church & State Facebook page.

  • David

    “As a result, the outlook for Baptists isn’t strong unless they can find a way to bring other Christians into the Baptist fold.”

    Yikes- With Baptists spending most of their time bashing other Christian denominations, they don’t really endear themselves to other.

  • Earold D. Gunter

    David (AKA Pot),
    “Yikes- With Baptists spending most of their time bashing other Christian denominations, they don’t really endear themselves to other.”

    You just bashed baptists for bashing other christian denominations, how endearing.

    Call the kettle black much?

  • Rockgod28

    Baptists have a fundamental problem in their religion. It is first a lack of education on their own church. Second is related to the first is doctrinal drift. Third is while loyality has increased a family tradition can be broken in very few generations.

    Who is the founder of the Baptist faith? What year did the Baptist church start? What country did the Baptist faith originate?

    Can a Baptist answer without an internet search?

    As I said the first directly relates to the second. The Bible teaches of an organization of Apostles, Bishops and others. They are not found in the Baptist church and most of all doctrinal drift from the most basic of beliefs is no more: Baptism. Baptists that don’t baptize is very confusing as the very doctine of the Bible contradicts the teachings of the Baptist Church.

    Third the Catholic Church is finding the traditional loyalty will only last so long before the weight of history and the teachings of the Bible move people to change religions. Loyal Catholics know their history both good and bad. Yet that does not prevent them from leaving their traditions when they are not founded on the gospel of Jesus Christ.

    There are many more reasons and explanations of the losses in many religions. I do believe the three I mentioned is the main reason for the hemorrhaging of previous followers.

    As the world continues to fall into chaos as the Second Coming of Christ draws closer people will look for safety, peace and eternal life. Only upon the rock which is Christ is that possible.

    The question most people will have is where is it true. Where is that real? Many will be blinded by their own desires and leave religion for spirituality as it is an option. The sincere follower of Christ will seek out the truth and will find it.

    Is the Baptist Church true? Does it teach the gospel of Jesus Christ? Do they have the authority to act in the name of Christ to baptize? Do Baptists have the power of God? Do they have the answers to the perplexing issues of today and tomorrow?

  • Ted Olsen


    I don’t doubt this is a trend. But I also wonder if it’s really as dramatic as the chart would indicate. The survey is self-identification, right? I wonder how many folks go to Baptist churches without realizing it (or are Baptists and don’t realize it). How many folks at Saddleback would ID as Baptist, I wonder? During the period studied, the trend has definitely been toward Baptist congregations dropping “Baptist” in their name.

    I’m sure it doesn’t account for everything. I’m sure the trend really is toward nondenominational, mostly independent, and (for the most part) large churches. But I think this may be more a story of Baptist ID decline than Baptist decline itself.

    Curious also to see the different numbers within “Baptist” — not just for decline among different Baptist denominations, but also for Baptists who know they’re Baptist!

  • A number of independent megachurches either have Baptist roots or have a generic evangelical theology that would have little to no problems with The Baptist Faith and Message statement. Two that I attended in graduate school, Lansing Trinity and Akron’s The Chapel, would fit that description.

    Baptists do have a tendency to define themselves by what they’re not (not Pentecostal, not Calvinist [except for the neo-Reformed folks], not liberal mainliners), but they’re often darn close to that “mere Christianity” that other evangelicals modify off of, which does make it easy to move to other evangelical churches, like my family’s move to Free Methodist from Southern Baptist when we moved from Kentucky to Michigan.

  • Pingback: Here’s your weekend think piece: RNS does the complex Baptist math — Ebook Teacher - Education()

  • Pingback: Morning Roundup 9/17/14 | United Christian News()

  • Charles

    I am wondering which “Baptists” are described here? American Baptist Churches USA, National Baptists, Southern Baptists, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship? One of these, two or all? Is there any effort to differentiate the various Baptists sects?

  • Al Luminium

    Baptist is a religion?! I thought it was a denomination. So Methodist, Pentecostal, Lutheran, Anglican, Catholic would be Christian Denominations. But Buddhist, Islam, Jew, Christian would be religions–correct?