Biggest US Protestant church shed half a million members last year
11th May 2023

Holy moly: Rocked by a sex abuse scandal, America’s biggest Protestant church shed half a million members last year, the Southern Baptists’ biggest loss in a century

  • The Baptists have lost more than 3 million members since 2006  
  • The dropout rate increased last year during a damaging sexual abuse scandal 
  • READ MORE: Christianity is set to become a minority faith as soon as 2060 

Southern Baptist congregations shed nearly half a million members in 2022, the denomination’s biggest one-year loss in more than a century, amid a damaging sex abuse scandal, new data show.

Research from Lifeway Christian Resources shows that America’s biggest Protestant and second-biggest Christian denomination lost 457,371 members to end the year with some 13.2 million members.

The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), an umbrella group dominated by white conservatives and one of America’s most influential religious groups, has shed about 3 percent of its flock annually since the mid 2000s.

The dropout rate is increasing, raising troubling questions about the church’s future.

The decline is linked to America’s broader retreat from religion, the pandemic, an internal SBC power struggle, and bombshell claims last year of hundreds of Baptist leaders and members being accused or found guilty of sexually abusing children.

Once a denomination of 16.3 million, the SBC has declined by more than 3 million members since 2006

Emptier pews in SBC churches. Pictured:  Sugar Camp Baptist Church pastor Tim Charlton preaches in Booneville, Kentucky

Scott McConnell, director of the Nashville-based research group, which worked with SBC on the study, downplayed the losses, saying that many of last year’s lost members had actually dropped out years ago and ‘record keeping is finally catching up.’

But on social media, former churchgoers posted about the declined, saying they were driven away by church leaders and its executive committee failing members by mishandling sexual abuse cases and mistreating victims and survivors.

‘The SBC still have not answered for this,’ said a Pennsylvania-based Twitter user called Paul Young, who could not be verified.

‘That is why I left.’

Sociologist Phil Zuckerman says the retreat of religion causes more ‘social isolation’ 

The SBC also lost 416 churches and another 165 ‘church-type’ missions, researchers said.

Though membership dropped, worshipers started coming back to church services last year as the pandemic waned.

Attendance dropped from 4.4 million in 2020 to 3.6 million in 2021, but recovered to 3.8 million last year.

Texas, North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Florida, Kentucky, and Mississippi are the leading states for membership, the number of churches, and in-person congregation sizes.

The SBC will hold its annual meeting in New Orleans in June.

There, church delegates will hear updates on reforms about reporting on sex abuses cases and elect a new president, potentially dumping the incumbent, Texas pastor Bart Barber.

The declining Baptist membership is part of a broader turn away from religion that is seeing emptier pews and between 6,000 and 10,000 churches closing each year, according to the book Beyond Doubt, which was released this week.

A worshiper at the First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Florida, which has been a Baptist stronghold

Though membership dropped, worshipers started coming back to church services last year as the pandemic waned

Aging congregations. Pictured: Pastor Bob Kasten delivers his sermon outside the Southwest Baptist Church in Fort Myers, Florida

What were once centers of a community are now being ‘repurposed as apartments, laundries, laser-tag arenas, or skate parks,’ says the book. Others are simply being knocked down.

About two thirds of people born between 1927 and 1945 believe in God as an ‘all-knowing, all-powerful, and just creator and ruler of the universe.’ Less than a third of millennials have the same degree of faith.

Phil Zuckerman, a sociology from California’s Pitzer College, a co-author of the book, says the number of US priests fell from 58,000 in 1965 to 38,000 today. Over the same period, the number of nuns dropped from 180,000 to 50,000.

Zuckerman warns that the decline of religion can see people less involved in their communities and ‘higher degrees of social isolation,’ he told

But ‘Americans have nothing to fear from secularization,’ he added.

‘Secular Americans tend to maintain very strong ethical and moral principles, such as concern about excessive gun violence, care for the planet, and support of well-funded education and health care.’

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