Monday, June 10, 2013

Baptism miasma? Here's a possibility for a cure

The preconvention reporting of SBC statistics usually triggers a spate of old fashioned Baptist hand-wringing.  This year's total baptism figure puts it on steroids.

Baptist Press reports that baptisms for 2012 were at their lowest level since 1948 when the earliest Baby Boomers were toddlers. Total baptisms, 314,956 for 2012, are down over 18k from the previous year. The 5.5% drop is the largest percentage decline in quite some time.

"Woe is us" sayeth any and all SBC leaders and others:

"heartbreaking"  Thom Ranier, head of LifeWay
 "God forgive us and God help us." Frank Page, Executive Committee CEO

While the figure for 2012 is a continuation of the well-established, long term trend of declining baptism, this has been evident for decades, no one wants to say that it is business as usual and to be expected, even though it is.

The SBC is a declining denomination and has been for five years or so. We reluctantly join the other mainline denominations in a slow statistical slog southward. In spite of assurances otherwise, The Conservative Resurgence didn't stave off a decline but merely conserved the status quo a little longer.

Baptists may not be good at baptizing folks these days we we are still pretty good at finger pointing and there is no end to morbid self-introspection about declining baptisms: we're not reaching youth like we used to, we're not evangelistic, pastors are not aggressive enough, were not praying enough, we're not going door-to-door with big, thick, heavy King James Bibles like we used to, we are too culturally irrelevant, we are too culturally relevant, we sing to many hymns, we sing too many peppy contemporary dittys, we don't use vocational evangelists any longer, God just needs to send revival etc. etc., ad nauseum.

Overwhelmed and drowned out, pardon the pun, by the sagging baptism figure was the fact that the SBC showed an increase in the total number of churches. It was slight, 270 or a 0.6% increase from the previous year, but slightly up is better than markedly down.

That's good.

I offer the possibility that Southern Baptists are already doing something that has the potential to improve our baptism statistics. 

To not an inordinate bit of complaining, our North American Mission Board has redirected a considerable part of their budget and retooled much of their emphasis towards the planting of churches. Their flagship church planting initiative is Send North America. My association near Atlanta is part of this and there are already new churches being funded and planned through SNA.

Is it not settled that new churches grow faster than mature churches and that new churches baptize more with fewer members than legacy churches?


And while various state conventions have church revitalization programs that are aimed at reinvigorating the thousands of sepulchral congregations around the SBC, most of us would predict failure in that lugubrious task, chiefly because churches are happy where they are and simply do not wish to be revitalized.
So, is it reasonable to think that a goal of increasing baptisms will more likely be reached through new congregations than by trying to persuade, cajole, or badger existing churches to make changes?


After we're done with our annual pre-convention hand wringing session over declining baptisms and church membership, perhaps we could put some energy into doing the things that might help reverse this trend.

It is too early to measure the success of NAMB's work but it is about the only thing we are doing right now that holds out the possibility for a positive increase.

Doleful talk and tired, boilerplate warnings about the future may make us feel good but will not put more people in the baptistery.

Send North America probably will. Any church, any pastor will find a place to contribute through this, so take a day or two to be disconsolate about the latest baptism statistics and then start doing something positive about it. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

“. . . new congregations than . . . existing churches . . .?

Long understood that time and policy may lead to organizational inertia, and such (e.g., inertia) is difficult, but not impossible to overcome. A major key to overcoming inertia is flexibility, but against a strong emphasis on and acceptance of dogma, likely such will not be readily embraced. Complicating inertia is little to no emphasis on post-conventional thinking and an over-emphasis on maintaining received norms that reinforce extant structures and processes. Even as structures and processes are no longer viable, they are held because they are considered biblical and not to be questioned.

Interestingly, the first century church was more complex and varied than many are aware, yet given its diversity, such was addressing a culture that is different and of another time than our own.

Church starts tend to stress flexibility and informality over dogma, but unfortunately, a too-tightly-coupled dogma likely will coalesce soon enough and attenuate the dynamic nature of the new congregation. Time and time again, people state that dogma, while important, is, nonetheless, over-emphasized and that which is emphasized is not open to serious questioning or change. Doing theology, doing ministry, is a reciprocal process, and one that cannot dismiss the contexts (both primordial and temporal) in which both are shaped and shape.