Sunday, September 24, 2006

An unmotivating letter encouraging more baptisms

A recent letter from the Evangelism Division of our state convention reminds pastors that it is time again to prepare to turn in the Annual Church Profile (ACP). The ACP is a statistical record that covers the 12 months beginning in October of each year. One of the most carefully watched statistics in the number of baptisms recorded. That number, more than anything else, is used by denominational leaders to judge a church's effectiveness or vibrancy. The letter reminds me why I have so much antipathy about the way the whole ACP process works.

Here are two paragraphs:

As you know, our baptism counts are very important.
Numbers are important because they represent souls lost and headed for Hell that are now headed for Heaven. It is time that we get serious about baptizing as many as we can these next two weeks to close out the 2005-2006 year.
There are just a few weeks left in the year.
These last two weeks prior to that Sunday are critical in seeking out those who need to follow the Lord in scriptural baptism. Search the names of those who have come to know Christ in homes or by making public decisions at the church. Follow up on them immediately and encourage them to be baptized as soon as possible. ...
I wish I could believe that every baptism represents a genuine conversion. But I am much to much of a realist to allow myself to be swept away by such a fantasy. In fact, any honest assessment of baptism statistics indicates that a significant percentage of those baptized in SBC churches do not last long. That is, there is little evidence that they persevere in the faith. Because this is so, my exuberance is unavoidably muted when baptism numbers are reported.

It really puts me in an awkward position. There is joy in the presence of the angels of God when one sinner repents and every believer ought to share in that joy. But, based on the evidence, 100 reported baptisms does not mean 100 sinners who repent. Maybe it means only 30%. It could mean less than 10%. At least, that is what the the observations of one the North American Mission Board's "soul-winning evangelism associates" suggest.

According to a Baptist Press report, Jack Smith told people at the "On Mission ’99" conference held at the Ridgecrest Conference Center in 1999 that his informal studies showed that "only about 30 percent of baptized believers typically are active in Sunday school a year later. When actual retention rates of new Christians are considered from the time of their decision, the percentage often drops to the single digits."

When this is the typical fruit of typical evangelism--the kind that focuses more on getting decisions than making disciples--it is impossible to think of every reported baptism as a person rescued from hell.

Until this problem is addressed, then the ACP reporting of baptisms only serves to perpetuate sham numbers that tell us very little about how many disicples have been added to our churches in the previous 12 months.

So, pardon me if I am not motivated by these kinds of letters.

27 comments:

David Wilson said...

Tom,

It is getting harder and harder for me, a not quite reformed SBC pastor to even return the ACP letter, or for that matter even measure what they want me to measure.

It's not the statistics that give me pause either - it's the real world results of seeking converts in the way I was trained.

My goal is to make disciples and mature them in Christ. Yet there's no blank for measuring progression. And the pressure to "make your numbers" can drive you to cajole that 8 year old to go ahead and "make Jesus smile", just so you can satisfy someone in Nashville.

This may be the year I finally don't send it in.

Caddiechaplain said...

Tom,
You know the game: two pastors at a baptist meeting say to each other, "whatjahave, whatjarun? I call it the "Jahave, Jarun syndrome." It is more about our self worth that the worth of a soul.
We are going to come in below 100 this year. I am equally concerned about 1500 of our 3,008 membership that haven't been here in over a year.

peter lumpkins said...

Dr. Ascol,

I do not question the sincerity of the guys who write these things. I really do think they possess a heart for God and a passion to see people saved.

Yet I agree with your assessment of these kinds of letters calling for more baptisms--especially during the "peak" season when they count so much toward "our goal". Surely, we all wonder whatever happened to the Holy Spirit's role in evangelism. Is His peak our peak?

Have a great week, Dr. Ascol. With that, I am...

Peter

Aquila Staff said...

Agree with the ACP portion - it is the "numbers game" at its worst.

One thought however on Mr. Smith's "measuring stick" of authentic believers.

If only 30% of those baptized are attending Sunday School one year later, perhaps the problem is with the relavancy and effectiveness of "Sunday School" not the genuinness of their decision.

Just a thought.
David

Andrew said...

I hear of guys who are reformed baptist who go presbyterian and wonder why in the world they would go and do something like that. Then you read something like this, and it makes a bit more sense......

C. T. Lillies said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
C. T. Lillies said...

The last time I saw an ACP it was about 145 items. Most of it was tracking data for Sunday School Board programs (I suppose I just dated that one.)

I recall one year a group who didn't send it in. You want to talk about a stink? I think they had everyone but the Ex D calling folks to fill in the blanks.

Yeah, go and "don't" and see what happens. They'll either get the info or marginalize your church's comtribution to the CP or the Convention. Not to mention the imminent smear campaign for not doing your part, or not being cooperative. Horrors!

"Make Jesus Smile" he says--that cracks me up.

Josh

Paul S said...

Dr. Ascol,

I do understand where you are coming from and I do see from your perspective. However, Christ's words are Truth and He told us to "make disciples" AND "baptize them." There is a command to baptize. I know that Jesus did not mean to baptize to get more numbers on our roll, but who are we to judge the decisions of heart (we only look at the outward appearance)?

Baptism is the first step in becoming a disciple. Will the convert continue walking with Christ and grow? Who knows? We must do our best as the church to provide them with the teaching, training, and worship they need to be a follower of Christ, yet the decision to grow lies in their heart alone.

Although it is hard to see past the numbers, remember the principle: Christ told us to baptize. It is the first step in becoming a disciple, which is also part of making disciples. And, as Dr. Hunt reminded us in a link posted earlier, there is no salvation without the proclamation of the Gospel. As long as we are doing that, there will be salvations. There will be baptisms, and disciples will be made.

Scott said...

caddiechaplain,

Your comments are right! I agree with Tom in his blog article fully. Your comments " Whatjahave, Whatjarun" are so true. I have said this many times and even on this blog. If you could record every conversation at the SBC meeting, State, Local, and Evangelism conferences( Specially Bailey Smith) you would find probably over 90% of the conversations of Pastors would be " Whatjahave or Whatjarun". That's all I used to talk about! Even my wife finally told me at dinner " Can we talk about Football". That's big if you know my wife( She is a Univ of Ga graduate) which is second best to Auburn.
Do you hardly hear people just talk about Jesus? Family Worship time at home, What new thing I learned about Christ by reading the Scriptures? What I'm teaching those that I'm discipling? I was excited to visit one of my members in the hospital because it so thrilled them that they are under good watchcare by the church? No we don't hear these things because it's not worth much anymore for some reason.
I'm going to ask a question: The noncalvinist leaders of today in the SBC: Do you think they hire Pastors( Staff) based on baptisms and numerical growth or a 1 Timothy view? We wonder then why younger Pastors who look to these men not end up like the ones they look up to? It's a domino affect! But some will say " Scott" how can you say this since you don't know the heart of men? Then I guess I'm just " Way Wrong"! If I'm wrong then go and find many of the ExYouth Pastors of some of our mega churches and ask them " Why were you asked to leave"? Majority of them will tell you because the attendance numbers for Wed nights and SS and baptisms were not where " They" thought " They" should be rather than I was dismissed because I did not live up to what the Scriptures say of what a good Pastor is. I have seen this with my own eyes since I have served at our " Megachurches". I saw godly men dismissed from our model churches left and right because they didn't " Hit" some number that God had told the Senior Pastor/ Associate Pastor/ Minister of Education that they were supposed to hit. Poor, Poor , and Poor theology leads to this type of behavior!

Tom said...

David:

I agree. Last year we turned in our ACP with only a few blanks filled in. Interestingly, when it was posted, someone had taken it upon themselves to put a "0" in several of those blanks (making it look like we had 0 baptisms, when in fact we saw many submit to believers' baptism during those 12 months). We will do the same this year, but will fill in most blanks with "N/A," meaning "not applicable," since we are not operating on the same standards as everyone else.

Tom said...

Caddiechaplain and Peter

I agree wholeheartedly with both of you. I like the man who wrote the letter and think he is very sincere in his desire to see people converted by Christ. But this letter highlights the kind of culture that has emerged in the SBC after long neglect of the basics of the Gospel, evangelism and Christianity.

Aquila:

You have a point. I do know that myriads are flocking out of SBC churches into other denominations (PCA in particular) due to a desire for more consistent biblical teaching. So maybe a significant number of that 70-90% that Smith mentions fall into that category. I have my doubts about that, but it is possible.

Paul:

You are correct that baptism is important, which is exactly why I react the way I do to these types of approaches. My point--and I should have spelled this out--is that we are to baptize *disciples* and not mere *decision-makers*. My real concern is that we are very proficient in getting people to make decisions and then getting them wet without actually making them disciples, all the while thinking we are fulfilling the great commission.

I think you may have mispoken when you said, "Baptism is the first step in becoming a disciple." I would say (and perhaps this is what you also mean), that baptism is a first step of one who has already become a disciple. No one be disciples are to be baptized. And, as Baptists have historically done--until recently--we are to exercise sincere care in attempting to see that this is so.

Certianly there will be no salvation without the preaching of the Gospel. Amen! And we have every reason to anticipate that where the Gospel is preached, people will be saved. But that does not always happen the way some goal-setters and analysists say that it will or should. History teaches us this, as does the Bible. Consider Noah, Jeremiah and the church at Smyrna. Or look at the first seven years of Judson's or Carey's preaching in Burma and India, respectively.

When these realities are dismissed and evangelism is reduced to a set of techniques that can almost guarantee certain results, we are living in spiritually and theologically needy times.

Aquila Staff said...

Dr. Ascol,

In referring to the ineffective nature of "Sunday School", I wasn't thinking about the quality of teaching or content. I was thinking about community (or lack thereof).

Generally our churches express interest in a "new convert" in order to get them through the baptismal waters and then we leave them there, doing little to include them in the life of our fellowships, or to help them figure out their new walk.

That's all I meant.

Kevin P. Larson said...

Tom,

It sadly sounds like a car lot manager telling his salesmen to do whatever they can to get sales in before year end.

We need more baptisms. But God forbid we have this sort of mentality. No wonder our churches are such a mess.

Kevin

GOWITHGOSPEL said...

For many years, many of us have called it the NUMBERS GAME.

All of my ministry among Southern Baptists (more than half a century)
pastors have been evaluated by the number of dollars, the number of baptisms, and the number of buildings - hence the NUMBERS GAME.

And all the denominational cheerleaders of the BBB GAME have always reminded all of us that even the Bible contains a book of NUMBERS.

I am deeply ashamed to admit that I was once a participant in the BBB GAME.

The reading (with discernment) of the New Testament brought me to the place of repentance.

Joe Tolin said...

This letter sounds a lot like what our managers told us toward the end of the month when I was in sales.

Joe

B Nettles said...

Since the data is interpreted falsely anyway, why not put some outrageous number like 15,897 baptisms. If everyone did that, there would at least be great rejoicing in the state convention offices, even if it's not in heaven.

Now repeat after me: "I know I am a sinner..."

For what purpose do "they" need to know those numbers anyway, other than bragging? I say they don't.

Randy said...

As a pastor myself I am bothered by the push we have from almost every direction to determine our success on the number of baptisms we have. I am dealing with that now at the church I am at and praying for reformation in our church. Being true to the whole counsel of God's word is an absolutely foundational step in seeing a church that truly exists to glorify God. This letter is no doubt written by someone who desires to see the gospel taking to as many people as possible. And if we are not careful, we reformed guys could miss this tasks to evangelize. However, as has been stated by others, let us not fall into the trap of thinking that baptism means salvation. As pastors make we take seriously the protection of the sheep from wolves in sheep clothing.

Baptist Dude said...

A couple of links with similar sentiments:
Mark Dever and blog.worship.com

sparrowhawk said...

Joe Tolin, thanks for the very wise insight. If the Gospel is a product to be marketed and sold, then why not the month end push? It's no secret that most SBC leadership know business better than theology.

What's Nashville's favorite book in the Bible? Numbers.

GeneMBridges said...

Because of our commitment to believer's baptism it's hard to raise a dissenting voice, because there are people who will twist whatever you say to mean either (a) you don't believe in biblical baptism or (b) you are anti-evangelistic.

Reading the letter, I couldn't help but ask, "How does this make the FL Convention any different than sacramentalists?"

Read this: As you know, our baptism counts are very important.
Numbers are important because they represent souls lost and headed for Hell that are now headed for Heaven. It is time that we get serious about baptizing as many as we can these next two weeks to close out the 2005-2006 year.There are just a few weeks left in the year.

Note the emphasis. Baptism represents lost souls headed for hell now headed for heaven. But faith, not baptism, is the instrument of salvation. Baptism represents no such thing as "souls headed for hell now headed for heaven" unless you believe in the real regenerative power of water baptism! That's a Roman Catholic doctrine. Lutherans affirm baptismal regeneration, but differentiate between the grace of baptism that is "objective regeneration" and the grace of regeneration which results in saving faith ("subjective regeneration"). So, on its face, the statement by the FL Convention is sacramentalist, and, worse, Romanist to the core. I know that the writer must not have intended it that way, but that's exactly the way it reads. In fact, if read literally, that statement condemns paedobaptized persons from groups like the PCA or OPC, etc. to hell.

Alternatively, we get the view that baptism does not represent lost souls headed for hell now headed for heaven; rather those who have "made a decision," or "prayed a prayer," are those souls. So, we count the number of those persons as those souls once headed for hell but now for heaven.

However, that only relocates the problem to a sacramental prayer, not baptism. Functionally, this is no different than Campbellite or Roman sacramentalism.

Now, I know the FLBC would rightly reject that notion, but I'd say that's what you get when you count numbers as souls and assume without benefit of argument that all decisions and baptisms are "valid" decisions. Couple that with shallow, man-centered evangelism, and you end up raising a generation of people who either (a) think that their "decision" is getting them to heaven, despite being fruitless believers, or (b) do stay in church but "made a decision" and think they know Christ but do not. The result is the filling of the churches with unregenerate members. So much, in that event, for Baptist ecclesiology. Granted believers baptism is just a control, and nobody argues it is foolproof unless they believe in baptismal regeneration, but it only works when coupled with an evangelistic philosophy/theology that goes deeper than what we see so prevalent at present. No wonder we also wind up with a third group the "I was saved at x age and rededicated my life to Christ at x age" people, who, from hearing these testimonies often wind up struggling with questions about assurance which then play into questions about the validity of their baptism, because they can't decide when they were actually converted. Each situation is unique, so no one answer can blanket each person. The end result is a mass of confusion on all fronts. These are the issues we're facing, so no wonder the churches are so shallow with respect to doctrine in so many cases.

Elnwood said...

Unfortunately, those baptism statistics are used as "hard evidence" to show that Founders churches lack a commitment to evangelism, as Steve Lemke points out in his paper "The Future of Southern Baptists as Evangelicals." See pages 16 and 17.

GUNNY said...

"It is time that we get serious about baptizing as many as we can these next two weeks to close out the 2005-2006 year."

People in cyberspace like to flippantly use LOL, but I literally laughed out loud when I read those words. In fact, I had to spend a little time soaking up the beverage from my keyboard as it got a spray in the process.

It's like a year-end-close out sale or something. Who cares about next year's figures, get 'em in now. Otherwise, you might look subpar compared with your contemporaries.

Well, we know you Calvinists don't baptize very many anyway, so perhaps we could have a few of yours as well?

Larry Brown said...

I think Deitrich Bonhoeffer had it right when he wrote, "When Christ bids a man come, He bids him 'Come and Die.'"

We need to do everything in our power to be certain they are actually dead before we bury them. There is nothing wrong with baptism if we give our efforts in evangelism in a way that we can be as certain as possible the God is in the "experience" of the new convert.

The problem many face in their churches is the "rush to decision" which characterizes much of our evangelism. My experience is the 70-30 split may be correct in many church for this very reason.

Sean said...

Our ACP's were due back at the beginning of August and I specifically asked our Associational Director of Missions if it would be a "problem" for us not to submit our numbers this year. I am an officer in our state convention and we are a "leading" church in our association. He told me that he understands my frustration and that I had to do what I was led of the Lord to do. He did say that it helped the associational office and church health people at the state office evaluate how to help and assist churches. Then in the same breath he wisely said that any assistant that comes from the state or association is totally voluntary on our part as an autonomous church in asking for help. In our Baptist polity, an association or state convention cannot come and "assist" any autonomous church without an invitation. We chose to submit the numbers but left the Baptism ones blank. It is also shocking that on the form they have an age bracket for baptisms of 5-7 year old children. I am curious to know how many of you pastors out there in Founders Blogosphere have a "age policy" on baptisms. I have a personal conviction of twelve years old being the youngest and we have pretty much stuck with this. Our parents don't seem to cause a fuss and trust our judgment as we have them go through a baptism book with their children that explains the gospel, child conversion (with quotes from Jim Elliff in his booklet) and the meaning of baptism. I have turned away many children from baptism in my first year and a half as a senior pastor here at Emmanuel Baptist in Sterling, CO, because there was no evidence of conversion or even a rudimentary comprehension of the gospel, sin, the atonement, and Christ's Lordship.

Christopher Redman said...

Interestingly, I had a lady in my church for the past two Sundays. I spoke to her after the service this week and she had tears in her eyes and asked me, "So how do you get forgiven of sin? Do you walk down front?"

I was stunned. I said, "You don't have to walk down front to be forgiven, you must repent of your sin and place your faith in Christ alone as Savior and Lord."

She then told me that she and her husband attended the large Baptist church in Daytona, walked the isle, prayed, was baptized, and then never attended the church again.

She was obviously under conviction and somewhat confused about forgiveness and salvation.

I'm praying for her and her husband to find the answer and the truth about salvation very soon.

Chris

Amicus said...

Sean,
Our ACP's aren't due until the end of this week, and we've been given an extension, which is a good thing for our new clerk and overworked part time secretary.

But I'm looking at last year's form, and there was no 5-7-year-old range for baptisms. There were seven age ranges given. Counting down: (g) 60+; (f)
30-59; (e) 18-29; (d) 12-17; (c) 9-11; (b) 6-8; and (a) Under 6.

Chris,
"The big church in Daytona" that baptized the lady you are counselling would undoubtedly say that she "prayed" and therefore was saved, and that she came to you as a backslidden (maybe even "carnal") Christian.
You and I know otherwise, and rejoice at the evident work of God in her heart today.

I had a situation like that just a two or three years ago. A lady came to us who had been out of church for years. She was all excited about us getting her letter from the church where she had been baptized as a girl. We did so.

A year or so later she came into my study and confessed that she had come to faith in Christ in the time she had been with us. It has been a joy to see her grow in her new life in Christ and the way the Lord is working in her family. We're praying with much hope for her husband.

This is what it is really all about.

On the other hand, of course, we included her in our numbers one year for "other additions" and in 2005 for "baptisms". We should have revised the previous report, but there is no place on the ACP for a negative number for "unregenerate members reported in previous years." It's not like the SBC is like the IRS, where you are actually accountable.

Tony Kummer said...

Tom,
I just posted an article about the new baptism #s and Welch's comments on the Said At Southern blog. It would mean a lot if you could stop by and comment.

Handwriting On The Wall – Do declining Baptisms signal the doom of the SBC?