The SBC Has a Baptism Problem – and It’s NOT What You Think

REPOST(TOP 10 POST OF YEAR) #2

The SBC has a baptism problem – and it’s not what you think it is.  For several years Southern Baptist leaders have noted and lamented a decline in baptisms.  To the degree that baptism signifies life transformation by the power of the gospel, that is a problem.  However, the real problem may actually be hidden under the surface of current stats.  The real problem may in fact be what we’ve been counting all along.

The following quote from a 2014 Christianity Today article reveals the real problem few people are talking about.

“In last year’s (2013) Annual Church Profile, 60 percent of the more than 46,000 churches in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) reported no youth baptisms (ages 12 to 17) in 2012, and 80 percent reported only one or zero baptisms among young adults (ages 18 to 29). One in four Southern Baptist churches reported zero baptisms overall in 2012, while the ‘only consistently growing’ baptism group was children under five years old.”

Yes, it is sad when churches go an entire year without baptizing anyone.  But it is even more sad when many of the churches that are seeing baptism seem to be abandoning a key distinctive of what it means to be Baptist in the first place – regenerate church membership.  In our clamor to address one problem, we may actually be creating a larger one!  Timothy George refers to this as “the downgrading of baptism” in SBC circles.  He goes on to hit the proverbial nail on the head stating, “One can mount a robust biblical defense of believers’ baptism as a conscientious act of repentance and faith, and there are well-reasoned arguments in support of infant baptism, but ‘toddler’ or preschool baptism is something different, and relatively new in Baptist circles.”

The questions we ask will drive the response and subsequent strategy we follow.  Could it be that in our panic we are asking the wrong question, “How can we increase our baptism numbers?”, instead of asking, “What is the root cause of our decrease in baptisms?” The first question might lead some to become quasi-paedobaptists by baptizing children who may love Jesus, like I did as an unregenerate child, but are yet to repent and put their faith in Christ.  My purpose is not to question the character of those pastors who advocate for or allow this practice.  I think perhaps many in the SBC culture value numerical baptism too highly and believer’s baptism too little.  As a missionary I always had to be careful what I asked for from my national brothers and sisters because whatever it was, they would provide it.  If I communicated the value of evangelism, they could provide numbers and conversion stories.  If I communicated the value of churches, they could provide numbers there as well.  We have sounded the clarion call in SBC circles and many a well-meaning pastor is frantically trying to provide what we’re asking – for better or worse.

There may not be a satisfactory answer to the second question either. Many have conjectured that the root cause for the decline is a corresponding decline in evangelistic fervor.  I have no doubt that plays into the issue.  As an evangelism professor, I try to address that with my students every semester.  But why the decline in evangelism?  I think the answer to that question circles back to the a decades old trend of baptizing young, often unregenerate children.

I believe the root cause for the baptism problem lay not in our passion for evangelism, but rather in our understanding of and commitment toward making reproducing disciples.  When we baptize young children who don’t understand what it means to take up their cross and follow Jesus, we are addressing one problem and creating a much larger one.  In the words of Dawson Trotman, disciples were “born to reproduce”.  When young children are baptized, even when they can articulate some desire to be saved, discipleship is often assumed.  Parents often assume their children will get what they need at church and pastors hope they are getting what they need at home. Though the children may be taught Bible stories in both locations, there is little impetus toward those children making disciples of others.  By the time they’re adults they have either questioned their “childish” decision and abandoned the church or they have a myopic view of discipleship that focuses on their own personal spiritual formation to the neglect of evangelistic multiplication.

The bottom line is that there is no short-cut when it comes to making reproducing disciples.  Unless we in SBC circles start asking the ultimate question related to our participation in the Great Commission, we are destined to continue down the declining path upon which we’ve found ourselves.  Baptism is one crucial element that is explicitly referred to in Matthew 28:18-20.  But it is couched in between the commands to “make disciples” and “teach them to obey all” that Jesus commanded.  In a couple of future posts I will address those aspects explicitly.  But I doubt many young children will be reading what I have to say.

7 Replies to “The SBC Has a Baptism Problem – and It’s NOT What You Think”

  1. I agree it is a concern, but I am not sure that seeking higher baptism numbers is the true motivation. I think there is a theological concern we must consider.

    For those of us who embrace an age or stage of accountability, there is a point in time when a child develops to the place where they are accountable for their choices and for responding to the gospel. It is different for each child, but suppose they have reached that age and have not yet repented of their sins and trusted in Christ. If they were to die, they would go to hell—perhaps as a six, seven, eight or nine year old.

    Granted, baptism is just the outward decision of that profession of faith, but if the parents and pastor feel the young child is ready and they seem to have an understanding of salvation, one might err on the side of leading them in a profession of faith and subsequent baptism. The goal would not be to elicit a premature faith to pad numbers. Rather, it would be to save that child from the fires of hell that logically became a possibility the moment that child may have reached the age of accountability.

  2. I am really interested how changing views of “alien immersion” have impacted SBC baptism numbers. As more SBC churches have become more accepting of baptism from other denominations and less inclined to rebaptise, I would imagine that would have some effect (maybe even statistically significant) on the decline in baptisms. I really think this would be an interesting dissertation topic for an enterprising young PhD student.

  3. Dr. Robinson,

    Looking forward to your next posts. Isn’t it interesting how “a myopic view of discipleship that focuses on their own personal spiritual formation” doesn’t actually cultivate a vibrant walk with the Lord? When disciple-making is neglected, something vital is ripped out of a Christian’s identity that has no substitute. Thanks for the post!

    1. Dr. Robinson you hit the nail on the head….what would football season be without the games? If the entire season was merely composed of weekly practices with no game day, what have you actually produced? Disciples need some practice, but they must play the game in order to recognize the value of the practice!!

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