05/19/2010 07:03 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Southern Baptist Baptisms Up, Membership Down

By Adelle M. Banks
Religion News Service

(RNS) The Southern Baptist Convention reported a slight increase in baptisms in 2009, after four consecutive years of decline, but leaders say the denomination still needs to regain its focus on evangelism.

Baptisms in the nation's largest Protestant denomination totaled 349,737 last year, a 2 percent increase from 2008, according to LifeWay Christian Resources, a division of the Southern Baptist Convention.

The 2008 baptism total was the lowest since 1987.

"The fact that more people were baptized this year than last year gives us a reason to hope we're on the right path," said Thom Rainer, president and CEO of LifeWay, in a May 14 announcement of the latest statistics.

"At the same time, we as Southern Baptists continue to show signs of drifting from our historic commitment to evangelism, as reflected in the fact that it still takes 46 Southern Baptists to lead one person to faith in Christ."

Total membership for 2009 dipped slightly--by .42 percent--to 16.1 million.

Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research, said the denomination's membership may have peaked.

"We are a denomination in decline," he wrote on the "Between the Times" blog sponsored by Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

"Some don't like to admit it. But, the decline of SBC membership is not a matter of debate. It is a matter of math."