The recent Baptist Press report that “baptisms are down” for the previous year in the SBC is provoking much reflection and analysis. The responses that I have seen thus far are concerned that these statistics indicate that Southern Baptists are failing in evangelism.
Bobby Welch sees this decline as an ominous “handwriting on the wall” that is warning Southern Baptists that unless we become even more zealous in doing what we have been doing, we will quickly pass a point of no return. He suggests that without his all-out campaign to lead Southern Baptists to baptize 1 million people last year, the numbers would have been much lower.
I share the concerns with those who are calling for us to become more evangelistic. It is easy to get lulled into a way of living and ministering that loses sight of the great task of making disciples. This can happen to individuals as well as churches. It is healthy for us to be regularly challenged to do the work of evangelism. As Thom Rainer is quoted as saying in the BP article, we should be passionate about it.
I would like to offer another angle on all this. First, I do not think we have reason to equate number of baptisms with the number of disciples that have been made. About half (and probably more) of the people that we have been baptizing as a convention over the last several decades turn out rather poorly, when evaluated by the standards of New Testament Christianity. They don’t even attend worship services any more. I am being generous in my estimate. My fear is that the number is much greater than half.
This sad reality keeps me from being as alarmed as Bobby Welch and others are at the decrease in the number of baptisms last year. Maybe the statistics indicate that we are baptizing fewer false converts. Or to state it positively, maybe they indicate that a greater care is being exercised in who gets baptized in our churches.
As I suggested in the resolution I submitted to the SBC last year (and will submit again this year), if our churches start to take church discipline and the commitment to a regenerate church membership seriously, then some of our statistics will inevitably drop. This always happens when inflation is corrected. Corrective discipline will mean removing members who are not genuinely participating in the life of the church or fulfilling their covenant commitments. Formative discipline will involve becoming more careful in who is admitted into the membership of the church in the first place, including, who is baptized.
We say that we believe in the baptism of disciples alone. Yet, in practice, too many Baptist churches have been far too indiscriminate in who they baptize (as I have argued for years). By God’s grace, there seems to be some winds of change in the air at just this point. More and more pastors are talking about church discipline. More and more of our denominational leaders are joining that conversation. From what I can tell, there is a growing movement of churches who are trying to rediscover and reinstituted discipline in their bodies. This is a wonderful development, but it will inevitably result in the short term in a drop in our baptism statistics.
If Southern Baptists are baptizing fewer false converts, that is a good thing and we should rejoice over it. Do not misconstrue my meaning. I am not saying that we should ever be content to see few people converted and being baptized. Though the Lord may take us through seasons of when that is the case, we should never be satisfied that it should be so. Such seasons should cause us to weep and pray and witness more diligently out of a burden to see Christ honored as Lord in the lives of more people. May that kind of passion take root and grow in all of us who love Jesus Christ.
And may that same passion for the glory and honor of our Lord prevent us from baptizing anyone simply because he or she has given intellectual assent to a few facts and has agreed to be dunked in front of a bunch of people. If this kind of commitment causes our baptism statistics to decline because our theology and practice of baptism has improved, then rejoice. It will not mean that fewer people are being converted, but that fewer false converts are getting wet.