Recently Baptist Press reported the decrease in baptisms in 2005 based on the latest statistics from the Annual Church Profiles that Southern Baptist churches are encouraged to report. The Florida Baptist Witness gave a similar report on churches within our state. Anyone who knows how to read between the lines and who understands "Baptistspeak" could have seen this coming.
When a story was published a couple of weeks ago acknowledging that at the halfway point of the "Everyone Can" challenge our baptism count was considerably less than projections, Baptist Press gave SBC President Bobby Welch's take on the numbers. Welch initiated the challenge to baptize one million people in a 12 month period. The BP article, entitled, "'Everyone Can' gaining momentum as annual meeting draws near," said this:
"At the midpoint of the Everyone Can challenge, Welch said he is seeing results that cannot be measured in numbers."
That's Baptistspeak for "We ain't nowhere near 500,000 baptisms at the halfway point."
I do not want to be misunderstood on this. My comments are not made with glee nor are they designed to ridicule. I want to see people genuinely converted to Jesus Christ. It is obvious that President Welch does, too. I would be ecstatic if we saw a million new disciples baptized into our churches in 12 months. However, I have a very low level of confidence that even half of those that Southern Baptists baptize are genuinely converted.
No doubt this sounds harsh and perhaps even arrogant and judgmental. Why would I make such a sweeping statement about people and churches that I do not know personally. Well, it is actually pretty easy to understand. My lack of confidence is based on simple statistical analysis. Look at the members that we have on our rolls now. Considerably less than half of them show any consistent signs of being born of God's Spirit. This has been repeatedly pointed out and documented.
If the current fruit of our evangelism is this ineffective then what reason do we have to expect that the future fruit will be any different? I once had an orange tree that produced hundreds of blossoms each summer. In June that tree looked like it was going to produce a bumper crop. But in October, we rarely had more than 5-10 oranges. That was its pattern. After a few years, I came to expect it. Since I never tried to treat the problem at its root by addressing the nutrient deficiencies that the tree suffered, the pattern continued year after year. It was predictable.
Sadly, so is modern Southern Baptist evangelism. Which brings me back to the reported drop in baptisms last year. I don't evaluate that as negatively as some--perhaps most--do. Again, don't misunderstand me. I am not saying that winning fewer people to Jesus Christ is a good thing! My evaluation of the report takes into consideration the pernicious pattern of shallow evangelism that characterizes recent Southern Baptist practice. In light of this, I think it may have been a greater tragedy if we actually reached the "million more" goal. Had it happened, I fear that the self-congratulatory triumphalism that characterizes much of SBC life would have been unleashed and the soul-destroying problems that plague much of our evangelism would have even less of an opportunity to be honestly faced. At least, with these disappointing statistics, those who watch such things find it necessary to be alarmed. I pray that their concern will lead to a more rigorous and fundamental evaluation of SBC evangelism than has been typically given over the last generation. If what we are doing produces a 60% failure rate, then simply doing more of the same with greater commitment and fanfare is no solution.
I don't know why Southern Baptists saw a decrease in our reported baptisms last year. I do know that there is a growing number of churches that simply refuse to report all their statistics. I pastor one of them. We did not report the number of people we baptized last year and we will refuse to do so again this year and every year hence until the powers that be lead us to admit that our reported membership statistics are a sham.
Southern Baptist baptism statistics have been used both to boast and belittle. But, as I have demonstrated on this blog in months past (repeatedly), when one looks beyond the surface, often--very often--the grounds of boasting are revealed to be better suited for weeping and fear.
So, count me out of the statistical smoke and mirrors act that is annually performed by the Annual Church Profile. Maybe if enough churches simply refuse to report, then this issue will receive the kind of serious, thoughtful attention that it deserves. Then, by the grace of God, we may well be forced into the honest admission that something is wrong; terribly wrong. And perhaps we will come to see and believe that our only hope is in the divine forgiveness and renewal that comes through genuine repentance.