Southern Baptist Convention President Bobby Welch’s plan to “rev up a rundown romance with reaching people” may be in need of a jumpstart, with statistics released Wednesday showing a decline in baptisms for the fifth time in the last six years.
According to LifeWay Christian Resources, Southern Baptist churches reported 371,850 baptisms in 2005. That is 16,097 fewer than in 2004 and the lowest figure since 1993. LifeWay President Thom Rainer said Southern Baptists should view the statistic as a “wakeup call,” according to Baptist Press.
Last year baptisms were up after four straight years of decline. That prompted Jimmy Draper, Rainer’s predecessor who has since retired, to be cautiously optimistic that “the denomination may be heading in the right direction.” Draper pointed out that current SBC emphasis on baptizing a million people in a year wasn’t initiated until the 2004 SBC annual meeting in Indianapolis, allowing churches accepting the challenge only a short time before the end of the reporting year. Draper said he would be “surprised if we didn’t see a considerable jump” in baptisms in information gathered for 2005.
Welch’s “Kingdom Challenge” goal of 1 million baptisms is officially for 2005-2006 and results won’t be tabulated until next year. At the midpoint of the emphasis Welch said he believed it was picking up momentum, but only a small percentage of churches had made the effort to report progress toward reaching the goal on a special “Everyone Can” Web site.
But publicity for the baptism challenge began far in advance of the official launch at the SBC annual meeting last June. In 2004 Welch, pastor of First Baptist Church in Daytona Beach, Fla., embarked on a 25-day bus tour to all 50 states promoting baptisms and sent a DVD to 70,000 pastors and denominational leaders.
Last summer, leading up an evangelistic blitz held each year in preparation of the SBC annual meeting, Welch boldly predicted that “Crossover Nashville” could become “the epicenter for the next Great Awakening.”
Speaking to the SBC Executive Committee in February, Welch warned against “unfulfilled potential” and “squandered opportunity,” offering ideas for how to “rev up a rundown romance with reaching people.”
“I believe with all my heart and soul that the Southern Baptist Convention is God’s gift to the evangelical church world today,” Welch said. “There is absolutely nothing like it, nothing at all like it. And we must make the most of it in our time. The worst thing that could happen to us is for all of us to stand collectively before God one day and have to give an answer for squandered opportunity and the tragedy of unfulfilled potential.”
In 2004 Draper lamented four straight years of declining baptisms as reflecting “a denomination that has lost its focus.” Draper said the figures might reveal that increasing numbers of churches believe a profession of faith is enough and don’t pressure new believers to follow through with baptism.
Draper said the baptism figures might reveal that more churches believe a profession of faith is enough and don’t pressure new believers to follow through with baptism, or that “Perhaps our denomination is simply failing to reach people for Christ.”
For years Southern Baptist leaders though the denomination was immune from numerical decline. That is in part because of a popular but controversial 1972 book by Dean Kelley called Why Conservative Churches are Growing that linked decline in mainline denominations to secularization and liberal clergy.
Many conservatives assumed that the “conservative resurgence” of the 1980s and early 1990s would stop Southern Baptists from following the same path.
Freddie Gage, a Texas evangelist, told the audience at the 2002 SBC annual meeting in St. Louis that he remembered being in an all-night prayer meeting at the launch of the conservative movement in 1979 in Houston. “I felt we were going to experience a revival, a revival of souls,” Gage said. “It has not happened.”
Before coming to LifeWay, Rainer wrote while teaching at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary that the SBC’s baptism statistics had not improved since 1979 and were essentially unchanged since the 1950s.
“An honest evaluation of the data leads us to but one conclusion,” Rainer wrote in the Spring 2005 issue of The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology. “The conservative resurgence has not resulted in a more evangelistic denomination.”
The SBC’s high-water mark for baptisms was in 1972, when they numbered 445,725. And that was with a much smaller church base. In 1950 Southern Baptists recorded one baptism for every 19 church members. Today the ratio of baptisms to total membership is 1:44.
More recently Rainer wondered in an article in Baptist Press is the church is America “is headed down the path of many European congregations: decline and death.”
Paige Patterson, a former SBC president and a co-founder of the conservative resurgence, said he believes the figures would be worse if there had not been a conservative movement. Be he added the numbers are likely even more anemic than they appear, because there is no way of knowing how many are rebaptisms of people who already are in church and that many churches are baptizing children at younger and younger ages to the point that “Many of us are guilty of the infant baptism we used to criticize everybody else for.”
But not everyone buys the argument that doctrinal fidelity is a magic bullet for evangelism.
The convention has not reached the 400,000-baptism plateau since 2000, the year it revised the Baptist Faith & Message to narrow theological parameters in place since the statement’s last revision in 1963.
One of a laundry list of criticisms leveled at Bob Reccord, who resigned earlier this week as president of the SBC North American Mission Board, was failure to articulate a “consistent evangelism strategy” for the SBC.
Robert Wuthnow, a professor of sociology of religion at Princeton University, says it may be that demographics are catching up with the SBC and the denomination could be facing a long-term decline in membership and loss of public influence similar to other moderate and liberal Protestant churches.
Southern Baptists’ membership core–white and middle class–is aging, he says, and migration patterns are pulling two directions, taking churchgoers out of the Bible belt while people from less religiously inclined regions move into the South.
In his remarks to the SBC Executive Committee, Welch surmised that disasters like Hurricane Katrina and church fires in Alabama and controversy among convention leaders might be distractions to reaching the 1 million baptism goal.
“We must somehow become proficient enough in the spiritual war-fighting that we are not overwhelmed by struggles,” Welch said. “Can you not fight with a scratch on your nose? Can you not lose a piece of your ear and keep going? Can you not take a flesh wound and stand up straight? Must you always lay down and whine when the least difficulty comes along?”
The 2005 SBC statistics show miniscule growth in total church membership of 0.02 percent, to 16,270,315. The number of churches grew by 234 (0.5 percent) to 43,699.
Another traditional strong indicator of church health, Sunday school enrollment, declined by 137,660, to a total of 8,068,780.
Southern Baptist churches took in more than $9.9 billion in total tithes, offerings and special gifts, and spent about $1.2 billion of it on missions. The total value of property owned by congregations exceeds $42 billion. About 6 million Southern Baptists, 37 percent of the total membership, attended church on the average Sunday.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.