The decline in baptisms in the Southern Baptist Convention has been a noticeable, established fact for almost a decade. Even when I was attending seminary in the late 1980’s, professors and denominational nose-counters were pointing to the plateauing of baptism numbers reported by the churches, and indicated that something needed to be done to reverse the decline. It’s not just Missouri where this is occurring, though this particular article from The Pathway contains some interesting observations.
“We’re not seeing folks baptized in Missouri because Missouri Baptists are not telling people in Missouri about Jesus. We need to be more honest about that as individuals and in our churches,” said David Tolliver, who is the interim executive director of the Missouri Baptist Convention.
“This (the baptism number) is more evidence that our churches are unhealthy. When our churches are healthy, our people will be discipled and they will therefore be regularly sharing their faith. We need a Holy Spirit-filled revival. We need to stop doing business as usual in our churches,” Tolliver said.
I think it may be a bit more complicated than that.
I’m all for a Holy Spirit-filled revival. I think that would go a long way toward motivating and empowering our people to build the relationships necessary to share their faith. It should be relatively easy to prepare our churches to worship in such a way that the Spirit is completely free to move without hindrance, in an atmosphere of spontaneous authenticity that depends on the Spirit’s movement for real worship to occur. Shouldn’t it?
There are some other reasons behind the drop in baptisms in the last decade. Baptisms represent the “evangelistic vitality” of the churches, and there is pressure to “produce.” So over the past thirty years or so, we have baptized an increasing number of younger and younger children. I myself was one of those, answering “yes” to the preacher’s question, “Do you want to be baptized?” So at age 6, I was, though I was not born again until I was 21. But the SBC is full of aging congregations, made up mainly of adults past 55, so the available pool of children and youth, who make up the largest percentage of those we baptize, is declining and drying up, so to speak.
I’ve also noticed, from a personal perspective, that verbally sharing my faith does not produce the kind of results it did twenty years ago. I remember getting results from sharing the gospel door to door. I remember being part of a church planting effort when I was in college, and seeing our college-age Sunday School class commit to persistent sharing of the gospel in the neighborhood around the church, and over a three month period of time see nine people won to the Lord and baptized into the membership of the church. We live in a different world, and we no longer encounter, particularly among the younger generation, people who have already had the seeds of the gospel planted in them, waiting to be attracted to the church and harvested. It takes long term committment, and investment in relationships with no guarantees of success, to earn the right to share your faith with someone else. We are still in the learning curve in that regard.
Then, too, we have done a lot of things to limit the effectiveness of the presentation of the gospel. Sometimes it seems that we are more committed to converting people to our politics than to the gospel of Jesus Christ. If we were as committed to winning lost people to Christ as we were to making sure we’ve got our political ducks all lined up in a row. The arguing we do with our brothers and sisters in Christ over the finer points of theology and doctrine also sends a confusing message that is not consistent with the gospel that we preach. We’ve build fortresses and walls, not against an enemy, but against each other. It is not an atmosphere that invites the participation of those who are not familiar with our message. And some of the doctrinal fortresses that Baptists favor would be a hindrance to that Holy Spirit-filled revival we were talking about earlier.
Ultimately, conviction that leads to repentance and salvation comes from the Holy Spirit. Maybe we do need to show that we love Jesus by doing more telling, but we also need to refocus the efforts of the churches back on the gospel of Christ, and off of things that don’t matter much, and which only serve to divide believers and create an atmosphere of confusion.