NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - The nation's largest Protestant denomination reported its twelfth year of declining membership in an annual report released Thursday.
The Southern Baptist Convention said it had 14.8 million members in 2018, down about 192,000 from the previous year. Baptisms also declined by about 7,600 to 246,442. That's an important measure for a denomination with a strong commitment to evangelism.
Ed Stetzer is a professor at Wheaton College who presided over the SBC's annual church profile reporting for many years.
"There are more evangelicals in the U.S. today than 10 years ago, yet there are less Southern Baptists," Stetzer said. "Part of that is demographic ... and part is, at the end of the day, they have a real challenge with their own reputation."
The Southern Baptist Convention regularly makes headlines over controversial partisan issues. At their annual meeting last year, Vice President Mike Pence delivered a campaign-style speech that left some members calling for an end to the practice of inviting politicians to speak.
At the previous year's meeting, denomination officials caused a brief uproar when they refused to introduce a resolution denouncing the "alt-right" white nationalist movement. A similar resolution was adopted the following day, and the resolutions committee chair apologized, saying members had been concerned about potentially giving the appearance of hating their enemies.
Scott McConnell is director of the SBC's Lifeway Research. He said baptisms have declined in eight of the last 10 years and are down more than 100,000 from 2009.
SBC leaders "look at numbers like this and see a wake-up call for the church to get back to the roots of what really matters - very actively sharing, with our local communities, the Gospel, the message of the Gospel and what the church has to offer," McConnell said.
The denomination also saw the number of affiliated churches drop slightly for the first time since 1998. The SBC had 51,541 total congregations in 2018.
Nearly one-quarter of Southern Baptist churches did not report data to the survey, which is similar to previous years, McConnell said.