Baptism and the SBC

The numbers are in, and baptisms have fallen in the Southern Baptist Convention for the third year in a row. In fact, baptisms are at the lowest level in the SBC since 1987. You can read the offical press release here. Ed Stetzer, director of Lifeway Research, believes it is now fair to state what many have speculated for years... The Southern Baptist Covention is officially a denomination in decline. Stetzer goes so far as to say "the Conservative Resurgence [of the SBC] failed to produce a Great Commission Resurgence." (Ouch!) You can read the entirety of Ed's commentary here.

The assumption is, when baptisms are low, that our churches are not effectively sharing the Gospel. And, I don't know anyone who would argue that point. But, I do sometimes wonder if this particular statistic really carries as much weight as we give it. Some things to consider:

1) New Testament passages such as II Timothy 3 and II Peter 3 seem to suggest that men will become increasingly hardened to the Gospel in the "last days." Assuming we are living in those days, to what extent should this dynamic factor into the findings?

2) Because salvation is a work of God, and not man, how appropriate is it that we use number of baptisms as our standard anyway? I wish we could develop a new tool for measuring evangelistic effectiveness in a church. Perhaps it would include criteria such as: number of members trained to share their faith, number of members who report sharing their faith in a given year, number of members participating in mission trips, percentage of general receipts to missions, etc.

3) Do these baptism statistics take into account new converts who are baptized in other countries, as a result of churches' international missions? It's possible that a church suffer a drop in baptisms in their own pool, yet see dozens won to the Lord around the world as a result of international work.

4) Is it really accurate to portray the entire SBC as being in decline? My theory is that we are in an age of "haves" and "have nots" in SBC life. While most of our churches are dying (figuratively and literally) there are some churches that are really thriving (and likely producing most of the baptisms we do have). There doesn't seem to be a large group of churches in the middle between thriving and dying, and I have seen this gulf widen even in my time in ministry. I find this fascinating, and would love to see if research would bear this out.

5) Finally, a factor that makes these numbers look even better than they really are... The influence of Landmarkism in the SBC. How many of these baptisms reported are actually Christians being dunked a second (or third) time because they're coming to an SBC church from another denomination? Yikes!

We are blessed at Selmore. God is moving. Several have been baptized this spring, and I will have the honor of baptizing more this Sunday night. Baptizing new believers is one of the greatest privileges that comes with being a pastor, and is also one of the most humbling. I pray your church's baptism waters are stirred often in 2008.