In its heyday, Central Baptist Church in midtown Gainesville was the largest church in Northeast Georgia.
The nearly 90-year-old church has enough room to hold some 600 people. But only about 150 people attend on an average Sunday.
“I came here 11 1/2 years ago and it was going through a steep decline,” said the Rev. Earl Pirkle, pastor of Central Baptist. “But the last few years we’ve done pretty well, we’ve plateaued on the even scale. We’re not declining, but we’re not growing a whole lot.”
Central Baptist Church isn’t the only Baptist church experiencing this.
According to the Annual Church Profile compiled by LifeWay Christian Resources and Baptist state conventions, most Southern Baptist churches in the study declined in membership, baptisms, donations and attendance in 2012.
Jojo Thomas, director of missions for the Chattahoochee Baptist Association, an organization that oversees a network of 75 Baptist churches in the area, said the declining membership “has a basis in fact.”
Thomas said about 80 percent of churches across the country are stalled or declining in growth.
“Our local (Southern Baptist churches) have some of the same struggles that are reflected on the national landscape,” Thomas said. “We’ve seen three established churches cease operating in the last 5 years. Only about 25 percent of local SBC congregations have shown significant growth over the past 5 years and aggregate attendance is down slightly in that time.”
However, Thomas said the decline in memberships are offset by other indicators suggesting churches are “doing very well.”
For example, the total membership in local Southern Baptist Churches has increased by 4,000 people in the past 10 years and 13 new congregations have started in the past five years, though most have not yet purchased land or buildings.
Thomas said there is also a “strong trend” toward church planting in the United States which has generated an increase in churches compared to the number of churches that have closed. Another trend involves older more established churches closing their doors and transferring assets and properties to younger more vibrant congregations.
Pirkle said he is working on a more strategic approach to bringing in more church members.
“We’re trying to find out what we can do to motivate it to new growth,” Pirkle said. “I’ve talked with another pastor of a large church and he said he’d like to partner and see what we could do.”
It is likely a number of unique factors affect church membership for each church.
Pirkle said he believes shifts in the area’s industries, cultural demographics and the church’s physical location has played a role in his church’s struggle to reach new members.
Pirkle said Central Baptist Church offers services in English and Spanish to minister to the area’s high volume of Spanish-speaking residents. He said churches must be willing to be more flexible with worship styles as well to attract new members.
“You’ve got a group and I don’t have any problem with the group, but they like things traditional, the way they’ve always been and that’s great,” Pirkle said. “But if you’re going to reach a new generation, you’ve got to be a little bit different. You’ve got to keep their attention in a new way. They’re not going to just sit there and listen to someone talking for an hour. They want good music and the messages and something relevant that will touch their times. We, as pastors, have to keep up-to-date and stay relevant and I think most of us are doing a good job of that.”
Thomas said the real challenge for churches locally and across the country is to adjust to rapid changes in culture.
“But there’s also much to be excited about,” Thomas said. “The ‘bigger picture’ includes a wave of young leaders and churches stepping up to meet the challenge. And, at least locally, we’re hopeful that a new emphasis on reaching out to ethnic populations will add growth.”