Baptists and Baptisms

In its more recent history, SBC baptisms plateaued in the 1950s, peaked in the 1970s and have staying pretty consistent since that time. However, the last six years have revealed a downward trend in baptisms and membership. Statistics alone do not give the whole story. Concurrent with the decrease in baptisms and memberships is the increase of people in North America.

A Pastors’ Task Force on SBC Evangelistic Impact & Declining Baptisms was established “to assess and respond to stark patterns of decline in Southern Baptist evangelism and baptisms.” The goals of this Task Force were to “seek ways to help Southern Baptists own the problem and offer suggestions on how to start addressing the problem.” I appreciate the forthrightness of this report and the honesty and humility with which the Task Force asks SBC churches to admit and own the problem and then to be a part of the solution.

In commenting on this, Timothy George, Troubled Waters, connects this shift with broader Evangelicalism and the larger American story. What the SBC is facing parallels similar things in other denominations with the rise of nones, those who want Jesus but not the church, etc. However, George highlights two important issues not addressed in the report.

First, the task force did not speak to sociological and cultural trends. They focused on their own household, which is right. But there are issues outside that have affected this phenomenon as well.

Second, they said nothing about the act of baptism itself, its meaning and theology. George wonders if this statistic conceal a more basic problem, the downgrading of baptism itself? George thinks it does, and points to two items in the report. The first is that baptism has lost its place as a central act of Christian worship. The second is that the only age in which baptisms are growing is 5 and under. And  this, notes George, is relatively new in Baptist circles. He concludes that while seeking to figure out how to stop the decline of baptisms, even more importantly, “Baptists today would do well to recover the rich theological meaning of baptism itself as set forth by those who were first called Baptists.”

James Emery White, Why Baptists Aren't Baptizing, notes some similar issues to George. Though he affirms these five issues are true/real and addressing them would make a difference in any local church, what is missing is the “how.” White acknowledges this question may go beyond the purpose of the task force, but it is vital if they are to think through appropriate next steps to address the problem.

White identifies three reasons why the how question is vital. First, he writes that “many churches are pursuing an Acts 2 strategy in an Acts 17 world.” For many, the church is viewed through a lens of a Christian day, not a post-Christian day. With this change in culture, strategies must also change. I agree with this. As I often say, our approach to people living today is not Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13) in which the Bible and its story are known, but rather Athens (Acts 17) in which the Bible is not known at all.

A second reason is that “many leaders are caught between a very unique rock and a hard place.” Though leaders may desire to reach the young and unchurched, they also know the reality is that many older and well-established in the church like it the way it is. If you move towards the young and unchurched, you alienate or lose the older, faithful people. If the status quo is maintained, there will be a slow and progressive atrophy. Often people pray the church will grow, but then when it does, they are not sure they like the answer to their prayers. This requires humble, gracious, convictional leadership.

“A final impediment to all things ‘how,’ noted by White, “is majority rule.” He concludes that congregationalism, or “raw democracy of majority rule,” is rooted in American democracy and leads to immature people making decisions. Decisions ought to be made by the “most spiritually mature.” Being a congregationalist, I take issue with White’s final point in that he incorrectly defines it and uses a worst case scenario to validate his point. Furthermore, since this is a Baptist report, one of the foundational marks of a Baptist church is congregationalism. In essence, if this is the problem, then the solution is to no longer be Baptist (or Free Church, in my case).

Christianity Today also included the summary from this report: Five Reasons Why Most Southern Baptist Churches Baptize Almost No Millennials

Since the EFCA shares much with Baptists and the SBC,

  • How do you read and summarize this report?
  • What are its strengths and weaknesses?
  • How would the EFCA fare with this same assessment (knowing that there are differences, which explains why we are two different denominations)?
  • What are some of the key issues in the EFCA that must be confessed and addressed?
  • More specifically, because we are congregational, what are the key issues in your local church that must be confessed and addressed?

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