Ed Stetzer at Between The Times offers this report on SBC evangelism results: Will Southern Baptists Ignore the Ongoing Decline? I say evangelism results because the aim of the great commission is retention- to make disciples and to instruct them in all that Christ taught. In view of the push in the SBC for a Great Commission Resurgence, I think it would help the SBC to first rediscover the meaning of the commission.
Sometime back on Reformed Mafia I offered a view of SBC membership. There were things embedded in the membership statistics that I found truly amazing. So I offer this redux of Where Have All The Southern Baptists Gone, because nothing has really changed.
According to a Baptist Press news article from 1950 through 2007 the annual number of baptism bounced between 350 and 450,000 an average of 400,000 per year. If my math serves me right that is almost 23 million baptisms in fifty-seven years. The current membership enrollment in the SBC is around 16.3 million. The average worship attendance is 6 million.
The birth rate as reflected by baptism in the SBC is approximately 2.45% if we accept current membership enrollment and baptism reports. Crudely estimating, the death rate among Southern Baptists is approximates 36% if we consider the difference between 23 and 16.3 million over fifty years. About one death for every 3 births. But if we take into account the fact that only 6 million attend and perhaps 2 million others active but not in attendance, the death rate among the Southern Baptists explodes to about 66% or 2 out of every three births. The interesting statistic is a reported decline in membership of .24%. But wait, how can that be if the baptism rate is more than ten times that? Is the SBC baptizing and then throwing the baby out with the baptismal water? Is it effectively killing off more of its baptized than it is baptizing?
The difference between 23 million and 6 million is a whopping 17 million souls lost from the ranks of the SBC. Nearly as many as they claim are on membership roles. Even if the shut-in and excusable (travelers, sick, et cetera) are granted, and say the total numbers of active membership is 8 million and not 6 million, the total number of lost souls from the SBC is still nearly 2 times the annual number of its active members. You can kiss the Great Commission good-bye, unless of course all that you consider yourself responsible for is baptisms and not discipleship. And, we might mention doctrinal acuity of active membership, but that is another shame, a digression not altogether unrelated.
The current emphasis in SBC land is how to increase the annual numbers of baptisms so as to stave off declining membership. Wouldn’t it be better to try to figure out how to stop the bleeding? Or, is it the case that it really does not matter; who cares if the annual number of baptisms merely maintains a membership of 16 million if the powers that be are comfortable with the income generated by a third or a half of members’ active and giving? The renewed interest in regenerate membership must consider the fact that it appears that the SBC does not care about its members. Whether they lose them or not, does not matter as long as enough stay. How contrary to Scripture. Perhaps the disrespect and usury is one reason for the decline in membership. But, again, I digress.
Isn’t time the SBC reconsider that new members classes’ precede baptism as necessary confirmation of separation from the world and covenantal commitment to the local church? Isn’t it time that the revivalist fad be put to death for the earnest Gospel, one that requires a man lay down his life and dedicate it to life-long growth in doctrinal competency? It should be the thrust of the SBC to renew its commitment to its membership by requiring doctrinal foundations be instilled before baptism is offered. And then to insure that the Great Commission if fulfilled in all its parts.
The reason is simple: The disciples were schooled by the Master before they were admitted into his fold. Contrary to the common misunderstanding that baptism is the norm immediately ensuing upon a profession of faith, (the disciples were fond of professing faith they didn’t understand), the confession of the faith by the disciples did not occur and could not properly be given, until after the resurrection; after years of discipleship. To confuse John’s baptism with Christ’s call to discipleship and the baptism in the Spirit that He would grant them upon the completion of their training is to betray the essence of the Baptistic understanding of believers’ baptism. Establishment in understanding is the norm. We after all uphold believers baptism- a believer must know what he believes. The disciples did not know what they believed until after Christ had risen, it was then they were baptized in the Spirit as true confessors.
The current practice among the SBC currently is no different than that of the paedobaptist who baptizes before the child has an understanding and thereupon can make a reasoned confession of faith. The SBC would do well if it would reinstitute catechesis as confirmation to the inquiry churches should be performing before admission to membership through baptism and, when necessary, for the admittance of petitioners to membership who have been baptized elsewhere. Or, it can continue condoning aborting two-thirds of its children with callous disregard for whether or not they were ever born-again.