Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Maybe we are baptizing fewer false converts

The recent Baptist Press report that "baptisms are down" for the previous year in the SBC is provoking much reflection and analysis. The responses that I have seen thus far are concerned that these statistics indicate that Southern Baptists are failing in evangelism.

Bobby Welch sees this decline as an ominous "handwriting on the wall" that is warning Southern Baptists that unless we become even more zealous in doing what we have been doing, we will quickly pass a point of no return. He suggests that without his all-out campaign to lead Southern Baptists to baptize 1 million people last year, the numbers would have been much lower.

I share the concerns with those who are calling for us to become more evangelistic. It is easy to get lulled into a way of living and ministering that loses sight of the great task of making disciples. This can happen to individuals as well as churches. It is healthy for us to be regularly challenged to do the work of evangelism. As Thom Rainer is quoted as saying in the BP article, we should be passionate about it.

I would like to offer another angle on all this. First, I do not think we have reason to equate number of baptisms with the number of disciples that have been made. About half (and probably more) of the people that we have been baptizing as a convention over the last several decades turn out rather poorly, when evaluated by the standards of New Testament Christianity. They don't even attend worship services any more. I am being generous in my estimate. My fear is that the number is much greater than half.

This sad reality keeps me from being as alarmed as Bobby Welch and others are at the decrease in the number of baptisms last year. Maybe the statistics indicate that we are baptizing fewer false converts. Or to state it positively, maybe they indicate that a greater care is being exercised in who gets baptized in our churches.

As I suggested in the resolution I submitted to the SBC last year (and will submit again this year), if our churches start to take church discipline and the commitment to a regenerate church membership seriously, then some of our statistics will inevitably drop. This always happens when inflation is corrected. Corrective discipline will mean removing members who are not genuinely participating in the life of the church or fulfilling their covenant commitments. Formative discipline will involve becoming more careful in who is admitted into the membership of the church in the first place, including, who is baptized.

We say that we believe in the baptism of disciples alone. Yet, in practice, too many Baptist churches have been far too indiscriminate in who they baptize (as I have argued for years). By God's grace, there seems to be some winds of change in the air at just this point. More and more pastors are talking about church discipline. More and more of our denominational leaders are joining that conversation. From what I can tell, there is a growing movement of churches who are trying to rediscover and reinstituted discipline in their bodies. This is a wonderful development, but it will inevitably result in the short term in a drop in our baptism statistics.

If Southern Baptists are baptizing fewer false converts, that is a good thing and we should rejoice over it. Do not misconstrue my meaning. I am not saying that we should ever be content to see few people converted and being baptized. Though the Lord may take us through seasons of when that is the case, we should never be satisfied that it should be so. Such seasons should cause us to weep and pray and witness more diligently out of a burden to see Christ honored as Lord in the lives of more people. May that kind of passion take root and grow in all of us who love Jesus Christ.

And may that same passion for the glory and honor of our Lord prevent us from baptizing anyone simply because he or she has given intellectual assent to a few facts and has agreed to be dunked in front of a bunch of people. If this kind of commitment causes our baptism statistics to decline because our theology and practice of baptism has improved, then rejoice. It will not mean that fewer people are being converted, but that fewer false converts are getting wet.

34 comments:

C.T. Lillies said...

fewer false converts are getting wet.

*chuckle

We can hope thats whats going on with that statistic. I'm pretty sure its going to turn out that its the more reformed folks fault though.

Josh
"...the word of God is not bound."
--2 Timothy 2:9

pastorjchris said...

Does the SBC have any way to measure the percentage of those who remain active in church one year after being baptized? Does anyone in SB leadership ask that kind of question? Or are they just concerned about the number being dunked?

It seems that baptism is being equated with salvation in our convention (per the Campbellite tradition); and that it has become the anchor of hope for eternal security - "once baptized, always saved."

Personally, when I baptize someone, I do so with a degree of fear and trembling as I stand before holy God and his church to declare that I affirm the authenticity of the baptismal candidate's profession of faith.

Tom, in a related matter, what do you look for as evidence of regeneration?

Jared said...

Tom,
I look forward to the day when the Southern Baptist Convention stops emphasizing something no man can produce. We constantly hear about baptism #s, and salvation #s, which, in reality, no man has the power to produce. We keep emphasizing these numbers, and all it does is encourage pastors to try and produce these things. The way the world is going to be won isn't by emphasizing the things which we're not responsible for, but by emphasizing that which God has entrusted us with. We've been entrusted with the Gospel, NOT THE SALVATION OF SOULS; we've been entrusted with teaching the truth, NOT THE BAPTISM OF SOULS; the reality is that if we do these 2 things diligently and lovingly as God would have us to, then HE WILL SAVE and bring about the BAPTISM of souls... and also the DISCIPLES. We must bust our bottoms to lovingly get the Gospel out, and to lovingly pursue and disciple those who respond!

It's very frustrating because our convention emphasizes numbers to the point that success is literally founded on them. I've been preaching through Mark Dever's 9 Marks book, and just the other day, I was examining from the Word what a successful pastor looks like in God's eyes... and it's simply those who are faithful in teaching and applying His Word. For one of my illustrations I looked up on some of our mega-church websites the descriptions of the pastors to see if there was anything about their faithfulness to the Word... and it was all about numbers. We emphasize #s so much brother that I believe it actually encourages ungodliness amongst our churches. Instead of churches gauging success on their faithfulness to the Word, they gauge it on how many they can dunk in a year... and our denomination actually pats them on the back for this. In short, We need to emphasize getting the Gospel out, faithfully proclaiming it, and teaching the full counsel of God. We must be able to say as Paul said, that we aren't guilty of the blood of those we've come into contact with... for we sought to teach them the full counsel of God. The sad reality is that those who are being led in the sinner's prayer and being dunked, who have no knowledge of what they're doing, are actually doubly the sons and daughters of hell, for now, they believe they're saved, and this by their works!

These churches and those in our denomination who pat men on the back for the # of professions and the # of baptisms ought to be consistent. If these men are producing these numbers, then they are also responsible for those who did not accept the Gospel. What utter failures! "So, the Gospel was shared with thousands and you only saved and baptized hundreds... what a waste! What a failure! Oh! How bloody the hands of these men who failed at reaching everyone who heard their voices!"

For every 1 soul that we praise these men for saving, let us remember the 50 they failed to save... and condemn them for it.
We can't credit men with any salvations or baptisms without holding them responsible for those who didn't respond.

Sorry for the rant brother. I'm a Southern Baptist through and through; however, I continue to get frustrated with our emphasis on the ends, instead of the means. For if the means are practiced, then God will produce the ends to His Glory. However, by emphasizing the ends, we encourage idolatry to those who possess the ability of deity! We read their books, buy their sermons, and practice their methods hoping that we too can one day be popes!

To those who are faithful in the Word... please continue. Don't let the lack or abundance of baptisms encourage or discourage you. God produces the salvations and baptisms; however, may we be able to say, that we busted our tails to be faithful to the Word of God depending on Christ's finished work alone for our Justification; as well as, the response of the hearers. FOR GOD'S GLORY ALONE!

Brian Hamrick said...

Tom-

could you hear the Amen resounding from Clewiston?

You've captured how I felt about the report perfectly with your entry's title.

You've done well to mix careful attention to correction with gentleness.

I wish this was the kind of analysis we saw in Baptist Press instead of, "think of how low the numbers would have been without the Bobby Welch movement" approach to justify their methodology as "the answer."

Tony Kummer said...

Tom,
We've been talking about these same questions at the Said At Southern Blog. Here is my humble speculation about the causes of declining SBC baptisms:

1. More careful evaluation of baptismal candidates. Many churches are moving toward a regenerate and meaningful membership.

2. Less emphasis on church membership due to the mega-church movement and religious consumerism.

3. A real decline in intentional evangelism in both the pragmatic church growth camp and the reforming camp.

- First, because of the church growth movement. If the primary measure of a successful ministry is attendance growth then baptism becomes a secondary issue.

- Second, from the reforming camp. There is a real apathy toward the lost. We must accept correction on this issue even if it is clouded by ignorance. If all Southern Baptists had Welch's zeal for a more biblical proclamation of the Gospel then God might grant us more converts.

GUNNY said...

Tony,

I don't know if it's apathy or laziness, but it's pervasive in churches Reformed and Revivalistic.

Still, I long for the days when the Reformed lead the way in evangelistic fervor (e.g., Whitefield). Not necessarily results interested in are we, in the sense that it validates our methodology, but there is a sense in which it's much easier to criticize the efforts of others, without having to expend any ourselves.

We're concerned about numbers since numbers are people, but we don't measure success by them as we rejoice when a sinner repents (not so much when a false convert is baptized).

pastorjchris said...
Does the SBC have any way to measure the percentage of those who remain active in church one year after being baptized?


The problem is that there are so many flaws in the system, what with some folks being on multiples rolls and people still being on the rolls after death, etc.

When we fill out the Annual Church Profile it asks for ...
Membership
Resident Membership
Average Sunday AM attendance
Sunday School enrollment
Sunday school average attendance

Three of those five numbers are potentially quite irrelevant and misleading to tell you anything about the church.

But it's typically the first one that is the heralded number.

Debbie said...

My thoughts as well. Thanks Tom.

Tony Kummer said...

Because God's glory is displayed & defended & magnified & proved & show to be beautiful in His sovereign conversion work of saving sinners through His appointed means of Gospel proclamation . . .

then we who love to see God's glory should be the most passionate about getting the Gospel to all people.

So when we don't have zeal for spreading the Gospel we must examine our zeal for God's glory.

B Nettles said...

Some might say we just need to cast the net a little farther and stay at it longer.

I say, until we "fish" where the Lord bids us fish, we won't catch anything. But then we'll be amazed and KNOW that it wasn't us. Maybe our problem is we are proud of our evangelism rather than amazed at the power of God.

Luke 5:4
"And when He had finished speaker, He said to Simon, 'Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.'
5 And Simon answered and said, 'Master, we worked hard all night and caught nothing, but at Your bidding I wil let down the nets.'
6 And when they had done this, they enclosed a great quantity of fish; and their nets begain to break;
7 and they signaled to thier partners in the other boat, for them to come and help them. And they came, and filled both of the boats, so that they began to sink.
8 But when Simon Peter saw that, he fell down at Jesus' feet, saying, 'Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!'"

Marc Backes said...

Tom,

Thank you for your post and for the blog. Although some of the discussions tend to take more of a negative tone than they should (no fault of yours), you're at least talking about issues facing Southern Baptists and not sidestepping them.

I'm on staff at Upward (www.upward.org) and this is an issue we face as a para-church organization that has as our broadest base Southern Baptist churches. We'll hear reports of X amount of decisions but then the question always comes up "What is your plan and your strategy after that". How are you going to grow them so that you can "present ever man complete in Christ"

It seems at times superficial to focus on a number of salvations as it does baptisms, but is the real issue that we don't take our security from knowing that we're communing and walking closely with our God. Choosing rather instead to focus on something that is tangible. Could we preach all of our lives, see no one come to know Christ, and yet hear the words "Well done my good and faithful servant".

There is a definite tension and one that not just the local church is going through. Thank you for raising the issue.

For The Cause Of Christ,

Marc
http://thejonahsyndrome.blogspot.com

lordodamanor said...

Dever and Alexander, in Deliberate Church, make some good suggestions concerning membership intake. Hopefully our congregation will adopt a similar means of screening as we struggle to restucture our consitution. Pray for us we are also attempting to include the Abstract of Principles and the 1689 as base documents for establishing a catethetical basis for Christian education.

Another thing that Dever and Alexander suggest is doing roll cleansing along with reverse interview. The key is really in the area of church discipline. The title of the book says it well, de libra, meaning "weighed in the scales" or in balance. The Lord hates unequal scales and the need for accountability not only in the quality of membership (believers should be recognizable) but in gate keeping (well armed wolf hunters) far out weighs the want of membership.

To all who visit this blog, my deepest apologies. Tony forgive me if I offended you with my challenges.

Tony Kummer said...

I must be a different Tony because I haven't been offended in years.

Tom,
Seriously, you need to ban other Tony's from commenting.

lordodamanor said...

Adendum:

James White tells of a certain church that has a retention rate of about 1 in 700. Lot's a water down the drain and perhaps souls along with it.

Woop, I meant ynottony!

GUNNY said...

lordodamanor said...
Woop, I meant ynottony!


Actually, the correct spelling is, "Whoop!"

Back to the topic of kicking those who espouse Reformed theology in the shorts ...

Hey, don't discount human nature and its propensity to be lazy. Talk with your Arminian pastor friends. They have just as much trouble getting their people motivated to do evangelism.

Solid, biblical evangelism done with any kind of fervor is lacking regardless of your theological camp, which is discouraging and has been for ages.

Think of all who claim the name of Christ and the small percentage of those who actually are actively involved in evangelism of any kind. It's a small percentage, especially since you're really only looking among evangelicals, since the liberals aren't convinced of a literal heaven or hell or the exclusivity of Christ.

For those of us in the SBC who do, we need to handle up on our bidness! We all know we're supposed to, so it's not that we're ignorant.

It's more to the universal selfishness that guards against fear of rejection and is less concerned about the eternal souls of others than it is other things.

lordodamanor said...

gunny,

What's a bidness?

DJP said...

Setting a goal for the number of baptisms is just... weird. Isn't it kind of like setting a goal for the number of wedding ceremonies performed? Yikes.

Worse, since baptism is supposed to represent the visible confession of the fruit of the invisible work of God in converting a soul from death to life, which is an outworking of the eternal, sovereign counsel of God....

...if, I say, that is the case, isn't this like setting a goal for God?

C.T. Lillies said...

Dan I guess thats really a function of who is in charge of what our requirements are for baptism.

Josh
"...the word of God is not bound."
--2 Timothy 2:9

Brian Hamrick said...

that sound you just heard was djp hitting the nail squarely on the head.

Deb Jones said...

There's also the possibility, since church teachings are getting more and more loosely based on the Bible, that people are getting saved but just not getting baptized, because the churches they are getting saved in maybe aren't preaching that baptism is the next step or that it is important in obeying God's commandments? I know that, as other commenters have described, some churches equate baptism as equal to salvation, but I've also met many Christians who have never been baptized, and, as far as I know, don't think it's THAT important. I think there are two extremes...those who emphasize baptism too much to the point that they say it is virtually the same as salvation, and those who don't emphasize its importance enough.

This, of course, is not in substitution of what you are saying, because I agree wholeheartedly, but perhaps a secondary factor to the low number of baptisms. Just my two cents. :)

Deb

WesinTex said...

BNettles wrote: "Maybe our problem is we are proud of our evangelism rather than amazed at the power of God."

Wow, brother, that's just good stuff - I don't care who you are! Thanks for putting into words what I have believed for years. I once had evangelsit friend tell me - "Give me five minute with anyone and I can lead them through the sinners prayer." No, I'm serious, he really said that.

I have had a burden for years to see a true revival among our churches. But true revival begins with broken humility - something many in our churches don't want to hear about. If we are truly concerned about our baptismal rates, we should fall on our faces in repentance, humility and brokeness crying out to our great and holy God who alone can save. Then, I believe, you would see an outpouring of the Spirit of God cleansing His church and saving those who are lost.

Amazed by Grace,
WesinTex

Tony Kummer said...

A late coming thought: What if our entrenched cultural Christianity is forcing those who are really engaging non believers to plant new churches outside SBC?

If we focus on methodological unity rather than theological unity we may alienate some whose zeal for God's glory in evangelism exceeds the traditional conception of church. So they find like brothers outside the SBC. I'm assuming that not all of our 'traditional' ways of doing church are consistent with a biblical polity.

This sorting effect could leave us with an higher concentration of pastors who are more committed to being Southern Baptist than being in churches that proclaims the Gospel to all people.

donnieself said...

As I watch preschoolers being baptized in Southern Baptist churches, I can't help but think that a contributing factor to the decrease in baptisms across the convention must have something to do with the fact that as Southern Baptists have become more affluent they are having fewer children.
Perhaps a "million baby campaign" would go a long way toward increasing baptisms in the next five years!

Jeff Richard Young said...

Dear Donnie,

Go, man, go with that line of thinking! We're trying to grow the church from the bottom up here in our family!

Love in Christ,

Jeff

M. Jay Bennett said...

Why should we believe it is more difficult to tell whether someone is a true believer at preschool age versus any other age?

Is a 30-year old Harvard grad more qualified to be converted than a preschooler?

Actually, wouldn't it be easier for an adult to fake it?

In the end, I think we all have to admit that creatures simply cannot know the hearts of other creatures in this way. Only God can do that.

"Maybe we are baptizing fewer false converts"

"Maybe" indeed.

Will said...

Brother Tom, Gunny, other leaders in the SBC:

How much of the drive for numbers in SBC is simply political? I know that is not a politically correct question, but how much of the motivation is simply based on an unwillingness to admit the SBC is much smaller, and therefore has much less political clout, than a 16m entity.

Thanks
Will
Cedar Hill Tx

Gordan said...

If the goal of 1 Million baptisms is the only thing that "saved" the SBC's numbers last year, why not set a goal of 1 Billion baptisms for next year? Or, why stop there? I say our goal for next year should be the baptism of everyone on the planet. Anything else would be unloving to the individuals left out: I mean, don't we want everybody?

Of course, the reason we don't set a goal like that is because we know we can't possibly save 1 Billion in a year. The implication of course is then that the 1 Million were in fact in our power.

M. Jay Bennett said...

Gordon,

One of the best comments I've ever read on any blog. Well done!

Charles Whisnant said...

Tom

A Southern Baptist church removing someone from the membership of their church! How could that ever happen! I should know I pastored two SBC.

The baptism of children before they understand what it means to be saved is another concern.

Vacation Bible School and like programs. AWANA is another problem. They encourage children to respond in emotions rather than in true conversion. I certainly have been part of this problem.

There are many good pastors and teachers, and churches doing good we praise them.

The mindset of far too many SBC are set in stone of the pasted. Many SBC have the mindset of four and no more The town where I pastored had 40 SBC in a twenty mile area. Average attendance 45. Numbers in this area was not a problem. Baptism was not a problem, there were none. Only 10% of the membership came to church or Sunday School. There is a problem with this mindset.

Parents would get upset if I said, "Let's see if your child really has been saved, before we baptize him. Lets wait a year."

Let's preach a Gospel that is Biblical, Christ-centered, Christ alone can save, and change lives.

We should have a passion for evangelism, a passion for growth, but let's do this biblical, not for show or to impress the SBC.

Charles

Cap Pooser said...

I ran across this which may be helpful in assessing true conversion.EVIDENCES OF CONVERSION FOR YOUNG CHRISTIANS
1. A full surrender to the will of God.
2. The removal of a burden of sin gradually or suddenly.
3. A new love the Christians and to Jesus.
4. A new relish for the Word of God.
5. Pleasure in secret prayer, at least at times.
6. Sin or sinful thoughts will cause pain.
7. Desire and efforts for the salvation of others.
8. A desire to obey Christ in His commands and ordinances.
9. A deep humility and self-abasement.
10. A growing desire to be holy and like Christ.
Copied from: HANDBOOK OF REVIVALS by Henry C, Fish, D.D.
Published in 1874 by James H. Earle in Boston MA.
Reprinted in 2000 By Berean House, Marianna, Fl . 850-482-7674

SelahV said...

B. Nettles: You said, "I say, until we "fish" where the Lord bids us fish, we won't catch anything. But then we'll be amazed and KNOW that it wasn't us. Maybe our problem is we are proud of our evangelism rather than amazed at the power of God."

I think your comment is amazingly simple and spot on!

Another problem is that fewer fishermen are fishing, I think. selahV

deus-vult said...

Constantly pushing evangelism campaigns like "everyone can!", though admirable, will not solve the problems in our SBC. Adding more baptisms each year, whether or not that means more conversions, throwing in some weak and shallow discipleship, and keeping certain social "vices" at bay will not make everything ok. We need real, honest discussions of our ills and real, biblical solutions. Like Dr. Ascol and countless others have suggested, we need to talk abou these things and pray about them, not sweep them under the rug and hide behind numbers and programs. The TULIP isn't our trouble, we are. We need to be more serious about doctrine, and less so about statistics.

Stephen Nobles--1 Peter 4:5

B Nettles said...

Selahv,
Are you saying that we catch fewer "fish" because we have fewer people fishing? If so, I encourage you to read the Luke 5 passage again. The quantity of fish caught there was definitely not dependant on the people fishing. They had been fishing all night and "caught nothing." It was dependant on the Lord's command.

We MUST know how to use our "nets" (a healthy, vibrant understanding of the Gospel and a knowledge of the culture that needs the Gospel) and be ready to cast them out at a moment's notice ("at Your bidding I will"), and also ready to respond when others' nets are breaking. We also pray that the Lord of the harvest will send workers (and it might be us). But somehow I just can't equate human "sweat" with number of souls bound for heaven.

B Nettles said...

SelahV,
I also thank you for your kind comment.

All the Best

Bill

centuri0n said...

is this topic going to come up at Founders?

I would love to have an open seminar on the idea that we measure our fidelity to the Gospel by our year v. year comp number in baptisms.