The Southern Baptist Convention turned around a four-year decline in baptisms during 2004, encouraging LifeWay Christian Resources President Jimmy Draper “that the denomination may be heading in the right direction.”
Last summer Draper decried the downward trend in baptisms as a sign the convention has “lost its focus.”
Along with fewer baptisms, Draper cited a lack of denominational involvement by younger ministers as another danger sign that the nation’s largest non-Catholic faith group resembled a “frog in the kettle,” using an analogy that a person can boil a frog by placing it in lukewarm water and then slowly turn up the heat. Before the frog notices, it’s too late.
According to new Annual Church Profile numbers reported last week, however, baptisms in Southern Baptist churches increased by 10,590 in 2004, to 387,947. Draper called the 2.81 percent increase “slight” but “encouraging.”
The report also showed the SBC’s total membership grew by 62,444, to 16,267,494. The number of churches increased by 441, to 43,465.
“Overall I think this is a good report,” Draper said in a press release. “Last year I felt there was a real urgency with the declines we were seeing in some key categories that reflected a denomination that had lost its focus. I’m hoping these figures reflect the beginning of a growing trend indicative of a denomination focused on reaching people for Christ.”
The convention still has a long way to go, however, to reach a goal of 1 million baptisms a year being promoted by SBC president Bobby Welch. Draper noted that Welch issued his 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 next year.
Another SBC leader speaking at last summer’s annual meeting acknowledged that Southern Baptists were baptizing no more now than before the 25-year-old “conservative resurgence,” which had a stated goal of emphasizing evangelism and missions.
But Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, didn’t blame the movement he helped to start.
“Ladies and gentlemen, if we had not had a conservative movement in this convention, our baptisms would be way short of 400,000 now,” Patterson said. “They’d look exactly like they do in a dozen other mainline denominations that have long since failed to mean anything at all to the work of evangelism and worldwide missions.”
LifeWay, the SBC’s publishing arm, also just released results of a survey of more than 1,300 evangelical leaders from around the world on what they consider the most pressing issues facing the church today.
While concerns about gay marriage and stem-cell research received much credit in mobilizing evangelicals to help elect President Bush to a second term last November, the survey suggests that for most ministers social issues take a back seat to spiritual concerns.
The need for more prayer topped the list, followed in order by discipleship, leadership, evangelism and doctrine/worldview.
Apathy, the seeming lack of interest, support and enthusiasm for the work of the church, came in sixth. The negative effects on families resulting from divorce, adultery and other marriage-related issues followed at No. 7.
Concerns about relevance, the church’s seeming inability to answer questions about living in the “real world,” were No. 8.
Homosexuality ranked ninth among ministry concerns, and abortion followed at No. 10.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.