Baptists concerned about baptism numbers
    June 4 2010 by Adelle M. Banks, Religion News Service

    Ask a Southern Baptist about the state of the denomination and you’ll probably get an answer with numbers in it.

    Numbers of baptisms in particular. And recently, declining numbers of baptisms.

    As members of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination ready for their annual meeting June 15-16 in Orlando, Fla., statistics loom large in their plans to chart a new direction after years of malaise.

    “In 2008 we baptized only 75,000 teenagers,” reads a new Southern Baptist report called “Penetrating the Lostness.” “In 1970 we baptized 140,000. Why? ... Churches in America are losing ground with each successive generation.”

    BR file photo

    Baptism numbers have raised concerns about the future of the Southern Baptist Convention.


    Why are Southern Baptists so focused on statistics? Simply put, they view them as a tangible way of tracking how well they are reaching those they call the “lost” — people without Jesus Christ. 

    “I think the hand-wringing is driven by an angst of do we want to join so many other denominations in decline?” said Ed Stetzer, president of SBC-affiliated LifeWay Research, which compiles and analyzes statistics.

    Stetzer has issued blunt assessments of the denomination’s baptism rates and membership decline — a reversal of fortunes that some Baptists have had trouble acknowledging. In a May commentary, he reviewed the ups and downs of baptism rates over the last six decades and declared that membership has probably peaked at 16.1 million.

    “Blips, untended, become dips ... and dips, untended, become crypts,” he warned in the commentary that appeared on Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary’s “Between the Times” blog.

    Other observers look at the numbers with worry.

    “In our history as Southern Baptists, we’ve never had the kind of malaise statistically we’ve had in the last five years,” said Alvin Reid, professor of evangelism at Southeastern.

    The latest baptism statistics — 349,737 reported in 2009 — represent a 2 percent increase from 2008, when baptisms hit their lowest level since 1987.

    The Southern Baptist emphasis on baptisms is rooted in the theological belief — deeply embedded in Baptist DNA — that each baptism is evidence of a new Christian life, said Dale Jones, secretary-treasurer of the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies.

    “They would be looking far more at the baptism rate itself,” said Jones, who directs a research center for the Church of the Nazarene. “Most of us tend to look at attendance or actual membership. Their emphasis is on how many new people they got this year.”

    Some Southern Baptists have begun to wonder if some of the numerical focus is misplaced, with a subtle — and sometimes not-so-subtle — belief that bigger is better.

    Les Puryear, a North Carolina pastor who recently launched the SBC Majority Initiative, is pushing for a greater representation of small churches on Southern Baptist agency  boards.

    “There is that small church bias that if you’re not growing like 100 people in a month or baptizing a lot of people then you’re not as valuable, you’re not doing something as good as the larger churches and that’s just not true,” he said.

    Stetzer said Southern Baptist researchers have found that new smaller churches tend to have higher percentages of baptisms than established churches.

    Bill Leonard, outgoing dean of the Wake Forest University School of Divinity, said the denomination, known for its conservative-moderate theological fights in the ’80s, is now facing a demographic crisis.

    “Finally, after years of trying to avoid their demographic downturn or hoping it was just a glitch on the radar ... the statistics have become so dire in terms of membership and baptisms and funding and connections that they’re really having to revisit who they are and what they’re going to be and do,” he said.

    Baptists hope part of the solution will be a report from a “Great Commission Resurgence Task Force,” which seeks a new vision for the denomination.

    The recommendations, which call for restructuring Baptist agencies to revive a focus on evangelism, have been met with criticism from some Southern Baptist leaders. On June 2, retiring Executive Committee President Morris Chapman harshly criticized the plan, saying it “will demote, devalue, and potentially destroy the cooperative spirit” in the denomination.

    In addition to potential restructuring, Southern Baptists are anticipating several key leadership changes, including tapping former SBC President Frank Page to replace Chapman.

    During the June meeting, Baptists also will choose from four candidates — three Southerners and one Midwesterner — as their next president.
    6/4/2010 4:49:00 AM by Adelle M. Banks, Religion News Service | with 1 comments




Comments
Dr. James Willingham
There are several factors that are not being addressed in any of this handwringing jeremiad on the decline in baptisms. Part of it stems from the fact that ministers were once more oonnected to farm life. Any one who deals with that occupation is aware of the need for land to lie fallow for certain periods, and the bible does speak of breaking up the fallow ground of our hearts. Apparently, the thought that churches might lie fallow for a period of time is a factor to be considered - even if one does not care for or accept the idea.

Another part, however,is the fact that few seem to be aware of the fact that the current in society (a combination of many elements) is running strongly against the Christian Faith and its efforts at evangelistic efforts. Among those elements is the effort to exclude all referencs to the Christian Faith from the educational, political, and other arenas. In the late 80s a Black student in one of our North Carolina High Schools stood up and opposed a text book and the teaching being set forth in it concerning the Pilgrims. It was asserted that the Pilgrims gave thanks to the Indians at the first Thanksgiving. The teenager boldly stated, "That's a lie. They gave thanks to God." One has to admire the young African American for his stand for the truth, and one has to look with askance at the educational system, the political system, and the churches that allowed that kind of thing to continue. Lying for the sake of political correctness is as detestable as it is for the supposed sake of doing good.

Another element is the constant secular refrain of no acknowledgement of the influence of those who believe on any area of our nation's existence. And yet today, I read in a source on the internet about Thomas Jefferson's objection to those who classified his stance as totally opposed to Christ. In addition, all of the problem of the IRS and churches is simply a result of a mad politician named Lyndon B. Johnson. His anger was due to the opposition of some non-profits to some of his political ambitions, so he tacked on a rider to a tax bill and, lo, the IRS had the power (under color of law) to think they could tell a church to shut up about political issues and candidates. And yet where was the IRS, when the Baptists in Va. made an agreement with the colonial legislators that, in exchange for their freedom to practice their faith, they would encourage their young men to enlist in the patriots cause (read civil war against a duly constituted government)? Another element is the constant insistence of the scientific and educational establishments that there is no justification for any moral or ethical or religious teaching whatsoever and no supernaturalism, though our society is now being drenched in blood and immorality.

The idea that the philosophy of naturalism can account for everything belies the fact that the folks in Russia and other countries once members of the Soviet system had such a fill of secularistic naturalism and humanism that they immediately invited in Christian groups from the West to tell them how to teach the Bible in their public schools. The rewriting of our history to exclude the religious element is evident from the case of thanksgiving cited above. And the exclusion of the Book and its relationship to our political institutions bespeaks a growing and hostile enmity of rising tide of people who are bent on doing something similar to what occurred in the Eastern Bloc countries during the period of atheistic communism.

Why are not these issues being addressed in our discussions of evangelism and our failures? Why not an exploration of the theology that produced the First and Second Great Awakenings and the launching of the Great Century of Missions and the making of a Baptist nation and of a new nation with religious liberty that was due to the efforts of Baptists more than anything else? Why the mindless jeremiads and tete-a-tetes of safe little methods that would not win a flea on grandma's knee? Why no recognition of the madness that lurks just beneath the surface of normalcy? Why no understandings of the Gospel that come to grips with the hidden depths of depravity and inability like those of the leaders of the missionary beginnings in Sandy Creek Assn. in 1816, whe they spelled out very plainly that they had a Gospel that could deal with the reality that no man by his own free will or ability could save himself? Why? Why? The silence about such issues is nauseous.
6/7/2010 9:18:27 PM

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