A recent survey shows the percentage of young people who were in the Southern Baptist Convention at age 16 are still in the denomination as adults. In fact, the retention rate dropped almost 15 percentage points between 1984 and 2018, from 71.6% to 56.3%.
The General Social Survey (GSS) measured religious affiliation at age 16 and again five years later at age 21. The retention rate stayed the same from 1984-1994, dropped slightly for 1995-2004, then turned more sharply downward, as more young people left the church.
“It’s likely that half the children being raised Southern Baptist today will not maintain that identity into adulthood,” Ryan P. Burge wrote for Christianity Today.
At the same time, the average age of SBC church members is rising, from 43.2 years in 1984 to 52.7 years in 2018. The gap between the average age of the population increased from about one year in 1984 to 5.4 years in 2018.
Reporter Burge calls that “a concerning future for Southern Baptists.” The exodus of young adults is one reason for the advancing average age. Another is the aging of white Americans who make up the majority of SBC churches, compared to the rest of the younger and more diverse U.S. population.
“When older members make up a larger share of the movement, those losses only accelerate and therefore pressure mounts to continue adding new members at an ever-increasing pace.”
If there is a silver lining, the report says, it’s that the younger adults who do stick around are faithful attenders, with 51.7% of those 18-35 in worship each week, compared to 42.5% of those 35-44. Senior adults (65+) are the most regular attenders at 56%.