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5 Reasons SBC Churches Are Leaving and Even Closing Their Doors

May we, from the Southern Baptist Convention down to me and you in our local churches, stay faithful to God. If we do, he will continue to use us for his glory, and we will be the light that the world needs to see.

Christianity.com Contributing Writer
Updated Apr 17, 2024
5 Reasons SBC Churches Are Leaving and Even Closing Their Doors

The Southern Baptist Convention puts out a “church profile” every year that gives a snapshot of how the churches in the convention are doing. Numbers are not everything and do not communicate everything, but they can at least point us toward the reality of a situation.

For example, we can read in the report that 1,253 churches left the SBC between 2021 and 2022. That number is a slight increase from the previous two years. According to what we already know about 2023, we are on track to lose even more.

The Southern Baptist Convention Is Declining

Or at least according to the numbers, it is. Assuming that the report represents an actual drop in membership and involvement, we must ask ourselves some questions before doing anything with the information, such as: does this decline mean that the denomination is unhealthy or dying? Why is the convention declining in members and churches? What will happen next?

To be honest, I do not know the answers to any of those questions. It is possible that no one really does (although I’m sure there are a lot of people like myself who have some suspicions and educated assumptions based on experiences).

When I read the numbers from that annual church profile, though, I do have some thoughts that might help us keep the right perspective. Here are five of them.

1. Churches Leave Denominations and Conventions for Different Reasons

I have never been part of a church that left or was even considering leaving the Southern Baptist Convention or any denomination for that matter. However, I have talked with other pastors who are dealing with leaving their denominations.

Some of them left because they had different stances on major doctrines, while others had disagreements on traditions or philosophies. Whether we think their reasonings were good or bad doesn’t really matter — what matters is that they were at least important enough for them to leave and deal with the fallout (such as losing members and even facilities).

For example, in the recent decade or so, some of the “hot topics” that churches have debated and left their denominations over have been the ordination of women, homosexuality, and transgenderism, unresolved issues, differences of leadership styles, the inerrancy of the Bible, and systems (or lack of systems) of dealing with abuse.

In some denominations (such as the SBC), the local church has so much autonomy that there is nothing to really hold them back from leaving. In other denominations, they have to give up so much and potentially even go to court.

2. Churches Close Their Doors for Different Reasons

Several years ago, I remember hearing that evangelical churches were closing or “dying” at a faster rate than they were being “birthed” or planted. I can only assume that the statistics are even worse now. While churches make the decision to close for many different reasons, they either run out of money, run out of people, or both.

However, the underlying issues behind those two symptoms are what matters more. The actual blame could be placed on a church’s poor leadership, an unhealthy culture (which could also be pointed back to the leadership), a declining community (especially in rural areas), or an unwillingness to grow or change (the one I have seen the most — although this could also be tied back to poor leadership).

Diagnosing why a church actually closes is rather difficult because of different perspectives and opinions by the members, hurt feelings and other emotions getting in the way, and narrow-minded people not being able to see the bigger picture. For example, someone might blame “the old people not wanting to change,” or “the young people not wanting to attend,” or “the pastor not caring enough” when none of those may be the real reason.

The phenomenon of people leaving the church and church decline and death is something that I care deeply about and that affects me directly. I have written about it before and continue to think a lot about it.

3. Every Church Closure and Departure Affects Real People

Most of the churches that I know of that have closed did so because there were just a handful of people left with no money to pay the utility bills. Certainly, that is not always the case, but it is a common scene.

On the other hand, churches that are leaving their denomination or convention often have enough people to keep things running (that is why they departed their denomination and kept meeting instead of closing). But in either situation, real people are affected every time in the same way that every relationship breakup affects the people in it.

Case in point, because of churches closing or leaving in 2023, over 450,000 people were either left without a church, without a denomination, or at least displaced into a new denomination. That number, by the way, is the largest membership drop that has been felt in a century.

As we diagnose why churches close or leave, we have to remember that we are not just talking about organizations and institutions. Each of the churches in the statistics and numbers represent real people and families that are struggling and in need of good shepherding. and when we are trying to come up with solutions and strategies, we cannot do it from a board room or from behind our computer screen — we must be in the trenches among the people that are being affected.

4. The Southern Baptist Convention Is Still Going Strong

Even after two record years of churches leaving or closing, it is good to know that the Southern Baptist Convention still had over 13 million members in 2022. While that is down from 16 million in 2006 (which was the highest number ever recorded), that is still a lot of people! The SBC is actually still the largest Baptist denomination as well as the largest Protestant denomination.

Southern Baptist churches (and their overseas counterparts) are continuing to do some incredible work to meet needs, lead change, and preach the gospel all over the world all the time. And it doesn’t seem like that is going to change anytime soon. This positive reality eclipses the declines and issues that all churches face.

When my family got saved and became part of a local church when I was in third or fourth grade, we joined a church known as an “Independent Baptist” church (which is really non-denominational). Before that, I had no experience with Southern Baptist churches or any other denomination.

After I left home, though, I attended a Southern Baptist college and a variety of other churches and denominations. Nevertheless, since my mid-twenties, I have been committed to churches in the Southern Baptist Convention. Not only that, but I also went on to plant one. In my opinion, it is the strongest denomination today in many ways.

5. The Future of the SBC Is Bright

The SBC that I am involved with today looks and functions much differently than it did 50 or 100 years ago. I would consider that a very good thing. Hopefully all of us (including me) are growing and maturing, and we can say a similar statement about our lives — that the “us” of years ago is different than now. I have no doubt that the SBC will continue to grow and advance in positive ways in the coming years, especially if it continues to have healthy, godly leadership.

In the future years, we will see new churches being planted as well as old churches closing. We will see existing churches joining our convention while others decide to leave. I am certain that committees will change, leaders will change, slogans will be reworded, funds will change, and the things we endeavor will change. There is even talk of changing the name from Southern Baptists to Great Commission Baptists (which wouldn’t be a bad thing, in my opinion).

Thanks to current leadership, the cultural tapestry of our convention is changing, too, already, which is influencing other positive changes and breaking down barriers between traditionally “black” and “white” churches. Becoming a family that is more multigenerational and multicultural is one way that so many people have been praying for God’s will to be done “here on earth as it is in heaven.”

I can say with confidence that if our convention leaders, local pastors, and church members continue on a healthy path, then the future will be bright for the SBC. And after attending state, national, and local network meetings and pastoring local Southern Baptist churches for many years, I see that bright future happening (and praise God for that).

However, if we lose track of what is important, if we take our eyes off of Christ, if we stop preaching the Bible, if we stop relying on the Holy Spirit to guide us, and if we sweep sin under the rug instead of repenting, our future will be bleak.

May we (from the Southern Baptist Convention down to me and you in our local churches) stay faithful to God. If we do, he will continue to use us for his glory, and we will be the light that the world needs to see.

Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/rodkosmos

Robert Hampshire is a pastor, teacher, writer, and leader. He has been married to Rebecca since 2008 and has three children, Brooklyn, Bryson, and Abram. Robert attended North Greenville University in South Carolina for his undergraduate and Liberty University in Virginia for his Masters. He has served in a variety of roles as a worship pastor, youth pastor, family pastor, church planter, and now Pastor of Worship and Discipleship at Cheraw First Baptist Church in South Carolina. He furthers his ministry through his blog site, Faithful Thinking, and his YouTube channel. His life goal is to serve God and His Church by reaching the lost with the gospel, making devoted disciples, equipping and empowering others to go further in their faith and calling, and leading a culture of multiplication for the glory of God. Find out more about him here.

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