Ask a Southern Baptist about
the state of the denomination and you’ll probably get an answer with numbers in
Numbers of baptisms in
particular. And recently, declining numbers of baptisms.
As members of the nation’s
largest Protestant denomination ready for their annual meeting June 15-16 in
Orlando, Fla., statistics loom large in their plans to chart a new direction
after years of malaise.
“In 2008 we baptized only
75,000 teenagers,” reads a new Southern Baptist report called “Penetrating the
Lostness.” “In 1970 we baptized 140,000. Why? … Churches in America are
losing ground with each successive generation.”
Why are Southern Baptists so
focused on statistics? Simply put, they view them as a tangible way of tracking
how well they are reaching those they call the “lost” — people without Jesus
“I think the hand-wringing is driven by an angst of do we
want to join so many other denominations in decline?” said Ed Stetzer,
president of SBC-affiliated LifeWay Research, which compiles and analyzes statistics.
Stetzer has issued blunt
assessments of the denomination’s baptism rates and membership decline — a
reversal of fortunes that some Baptists have had trouble acknowledging. In a
May commentary, he reviewed the ups and downs of baptism rates over the last
six decades and declared that membership has probably peaked at 16.1 million.
“Blips, untended, become
dips … and dips, untended, become crypts,” he warned in the commentary that
appeared on Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary’s “Between the Times”
Other observers look at the
numbers with worry.
“In our history as Southern
Baptists, we’ve never had the kind of malaise statistically we’ve had in the
last five years,” said Alvin Reid, professor of evangelism at Southeastern.
The latest baptism
statistics — 349,737 reported in 2009 — represent a 2 percent increase from
2008, when baptisms hit their lowest level since 1987.
The Southern Baptist
emphasis on baptisms is rooted in the theological belief — deeply embedded in
Baptist DNA — that each baptism is evidence of a new Christian life, said Dale
Jones, secretary-treasurer of the Association of Statisticians of American Religious
“They would be looking far
more at the baptism rate itself,” said Jones, who directs a research center for
the Church of the Nazarene. “Most of us tend to look at attendance or actual
membership. Their emphasis is on how many new people they got this year.”
Some Southern Baptists have
begun to wonder if some of the numerical focus is misplaced, with a subtle —
and sometimes not-so-subtle — belief that bigger is better.
Les Puryear, a North
Carolina pastor who recently launched the SBC Majority Initiative, is pushing
for a greater representation of small churches on Southern Baptist agency boards.
“There is that small church
bias that if you’re not growing like 100 people in a month or baptizing a lot
of people then you’re not as valuable, you’re not doing something as good as
the larger churches and that’s just not true,” he said.
Stetzer said Southern
Baptist researchers have found that new smaller churches tend to have higher
percentages of baptisms than established churches.
Bill Leonard, outgoing dean
of the Wake Forest University School of Divinity, said the denomination, known
for its conservative-moderate theological fights in the ’80s, is now facing a demographic
“Finally, after years of
trying to avoid their demographic downturn or hoping it was just a glitch on
the radar … the statistics have become so dire in terms of membership and
baptisms and funding and connections that they’re really having to revisit who
they are and what they’re going to be and do,” he said.
Baptists hope part of the
solution will be a report from a “Great Commission Resurgence Task Force,”
which seeks a new vision for the denomination.
The recommendations, which
call for restructuring Baptist agencies to revive a focus on evangelism, have
been met with criticism from some Southern Baptist leaders. On June 2, retiring
Executive Committee President Morris Chapman harshly criticized the plan,
saying it “will demote, devalue, and potentially destroy the cooperative spirit”
in the denomination.
In addition to potential
restructuring, Southern Baptists are anticipating several key leadership
changes, including tapping former SBC President Frank Page to replace Chapman.
During the June meeting,
Baptists also will choose from four candidates — three Southerners and one
Midwesterner — as their next president.