Baptisms in Southern Baptist Convention churches declined in 2006 for the sixth time in seven years, reaching the lowest total in 14 years, despite a high-profile campaign program by the convention’s past president challenging Southern Baptists to move beyond controversy and step up evangelism.
The 364,826 baptisms reported in SBC statistics released Tuesday were just more than a third of the goal of 1 million annual baptisms announced by two-term president Bobby Welch following his election in 2004.
“We don’t have one thing in the Southern Baptist Convention, and we don’t have one thing in our churches, that soul winning won’t solve,” Welch said in preparing for 25-day nationwide bus trip to all 50 states to promote his “Everyone Can: Kingdom Challenge” for evangelism in August 2004.
Along with logging 25,000 miles in 25 days on a graphic-emblazoned 45-foot-long bus from the same company that built President Bush’s campaign bus in 2004, Welch sent out 70,000 DVDs to church and denominational leaders announcing the campaign.
“The world knows what Southern Baptists are against,” he said, alluding to negative media attention to SBC actions like the Disney boycott and proclamations against women. “They need to know what we’re for.”
Welch made baptisms, traditionally viewed as a key indicator of denominational health, the central focus of his presidency. The result: 7,024 fewer baptisms in 2006 than 2005, nearly a 2 percent decline. The drop eclipsed 2005 as the lowest total since 1993.
LifeWay Christian Resources, the SBC’s publishing house, released results of its 2006 Annual Church Profile, compiled from statistics reported voluntarily by more than 44,000 autonomous Southern Baptist churches, through Baptist Press.
While the statistics showed increases in categories like church membership, worship attendance and financial support, LifeWay President Thom Rainer said baptism totals “once again show that we are not doing an effective job stepping up to the task of sharing the gospel with a lost and dying world.”
Requiring church members to be baptized by immersion after professing faith in Christ is a hallmark of the Baptist faith, which celebrates its 400th anniversary in 2009. What has been labeled the “conservative resurgence” that gained control of the Southern Baptist Convention beginning in 1979 was based in large part on the argument that allowing the convention to drift unchecked toward liberalism would result in lost zeal for soul winning and fewer baptisms.
Rainer, a former seminary professor, wrote before taking over as LifeWay head in 2005: “An honest evaluation of the data leads us to but one conclusion, the conservative resurgence has not resulted in a more evangelistic denomination.” He said he SBC’s baptism statistics had not improved since 1979 and were essentially unchanged since the 1950s.
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 1:45.
Rainer’s predecessor, Jimmy Draper, said in 2004 that declining baptisms reflected “a denomination that has lost its focus.”
Welch retired recently after 32 years as pastor of First Baptist Church in Daytona Beach, Fla. He is now liaison to global Baptists following the SBC’s withdrawal from the Baptist World Alliance.
Welch said in Baptist Press his efforts promoting evangelism while president were effective for a “large number of our people” who rose to the challenge to set baptism records.
While many did their best, Welch said, others did the same or less than before. Any successful effort, he said, must be “convention-wide” and “unified.”
“Such a synergy cannot be accomplished by one person over one or two years,” Welch said. “It demands a collective commitment by a vast number of leaders at all levels of the SBC–national, state and association and especially the local church.”
“It absolutely can be done, should be done and must be done soon,” Welch said. “Any and all distractions that take us off this course now are forcing the SBC beyond the point from which there is no return.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.