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Baptists concerned about baptism numbers
Adelle M. Banks, Religion News Service
June 04, 2010
4 MIN READ TIME

Baptists concerned about baptism numbers

Baptists concerned about baptism numbers
Adelle M. Banks, Religion News Service
June 04, 2010

Ask a Southern Baptist about

the state of the denomination and you’ll probably get an answer with numbers in

it.

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.”

BR file photo

Baptism numbers have raised concerns about the future of the Southern Baptist Convention.

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

Christ.

“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”

blog.

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

Bodies.

“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

crisis.

“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.