This blog has become a community of very informed persons from a variety of backgrounds. Many of you readers are not from my denominational background; and many of you don’t know a lot of details about the Southern Baptist Convention.
So, in many ways, this post and a couple more next week are written for my immediate denominational family. The rest of you are welcome to “listen” in and even make comments. I have no doubt we can learn from you.
A Time of Sorrow and Concern in the SBC
I recently reported the latest statistics for our denomination. It’s not a pretty picture. Our membership declined again, this time by 105,708. And our baptisms were down to 314,956, the lowest level since 1948. But in 1948, we only had 6 million members. Today we have 16 million members. We are reaching less people for Christ, even though we have 10 million more members than we did in 1948.
Keep in mind that baptisms are our way to best estimate the number of people we reached for Christ with the gospel. When someone declares that he or she is a follower of Christ in our churches, that person is expected to follow through with baptism.
But baptisms are declining precipitously. Why?
Where have all the baptisms gone?
The Minimized Metric
The late Peter Drucker said, “What’s measured improves.” His statement is one of simple observation. If we are measuring something, we are paying attention to it. If we are paying attention to it, we give emphasis to it. If we give it emphasis, it improves. Do you know the best way to lose weight (so I’m told by a gadzillion experts)? Weigh regularly. Step on the scales, regardless of how painful it may be. When you are regularly weighing yourself, you pay more attention to what you eat and how much you exercise.
Of course, baptisms are an incredibly important metric for us in the SBC. We use that metric to see how we are doing on eternal matters. Yes, the metric is fallible; none are perfect. But that does not explain why we mention it less and less. It does not explain why it’s not at the forefront of concern for churches. It does not explain why many denominational entities at different levels hardly mention it at all any more.
Where have all the baptisms gone? Maybe most of us have hardly noticed they are disappearing. And there are some likely reasons for that neglect.
Some Possible Reasons The Metric Is Minimized
A possible corollary to Drucker’s thesis is: “Anytime something is measured, the measurement can be abused.” I cringe when I see statistics incorrectly cited, or cited in such a way only to support one’s own case. I am heartbroken when I hear of a church leader padding the numbers of his church for his own glorification.
So why does there seem to be an aversion to reporting baptismal numbers or, at the very least, lack of ongoing discussion about our baptismal numbers? I have a few possible theses. They all, admittedly, overlap.
- Membership rolls have swollen with missing members. From the best I can determine, we would have a difficult time locating over 6 million of our 16 million members. We have baptized members who seem to show no fruit of salvation.
- We are baptizing unregenerate members. The previous statistic of missing members seems to support this thesis.
- Numbers have become an end instead of a means. When the focus is on the numbers rather than the One who gives life to the people behind the numbers, we have lost our focus.
- We focus too much on incantation evangelism. Many argue that, in our desire to get greater numbers of decisions for Christ, we ask numbers of people to say a few “magic” words to become a Christian, rather than explain to them the true meanings of repentance and faith.
- We assign the glory to the numbers rather than to God. This thesis is very similar to the argument that numbers have become an end.
Can We Then Re-focus?
I fear my writing the five theses above will engender debates that will distract us even more from reaching people for Christ who are then baptized. I challenge church leaders across our denomination to start looking at your baptismal numbers more carefully. I challenge you to lead your congregation to begin praying about those numbers.
I also challenge denominational leaders to talk and focus more on baptisms. I realize that talk is not the same as action, but our conversations usually reflect our priorities. As for me and my leadership, you will hear more about baptisms, especially in the context of revitalizing churches.
Our annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention begins this Tuesday in Houston. Listen carefully to the informal hallway conversations. Listen to the motions and resolutions. Listen to the presentations by the entity leaders. Listen to the questions asked of them.
Then you decide. Have we lost our focus? Have we failed to communicate the gospel truth of our first love, Jesus Christ? Have we stopped talking about baptisms because they just aren’t that important to us?
I’ll see many of you in Houston in a few days. May our time together be a focus on those things that really matter.