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

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.