Handwriting On The Wall – Do declining Baptisms signal the doom of the SBC?

"We must be honest and realistic – we are not waiting on God, God is waiting on us.” - Bobby WelchThe numbers are in.
Despite the bus tours, prayer meetings and impassioned pleas - our Southern Baptist Churches continued to decline in the all important baptism statistic.

Baptist Press is careful to balance this disappointment with a positive spin. Current SBC president Frank Page reflected positively on the "Everyone Can" initiative. But our former convention president Bobby Welch was pulling no punches. In his own words:
This year's report of a decline in baptisms in the face of an all-out effort by so many sounds the most urgent cry Southern Baptists will ever hear, and it comes from the handwriting that is now on our wall -– and it is this: BACK TO THE FIELDS!
What is causing this decline? I have my own theories but I would like to hear from you. How should we as pastors and future church leaders respond to these trends?

Be sure to read the whole article Handwriting On The Wall by Bobby Welch at Baptist Press. There are several more quotes worthy of discussion. He remains certain that Southern Baptist can turn things around. But he warns us:
“Any and all distractions that take us off this course now are forcing the SBC beyond the point from which there is no return. Someone said to me, "I shudder to think where we would be this year in baptisms if we had not had such an all-out 'sounding of the alarm' as the 'Everyone Can' initiative over the last year did." While that initiative did encourage a lot of people to do their best, it was still only an alarm. There must be a unified acceleration for Great Commission evangelism-discipleship convention-wide. We must be honest and realistic -– we are not waiting on God, God is waiting on us.”
This paragraph is certain to cause some discussion among more theologically oriented Southern Baptists. What do you think? How should we be ‘sounding the alarm’ in our churches?

Comments are open.

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- posted by Tony Kummer, April 17, 2007

10 comments:

art rogers said...

It means that program evangelism, the type that Bobby was so forcefully promoting (like FAITH)and in the face of which baptisms declined, isn't going to be capable of reaching the new world.

Just a thought.

12 Witnesses

Tony Kummer said...

My FAITH training was an eye opening experience. I keep hearing that its shelf life is almost over . . .

Mark and Stephanie said...

Tony,
What do you mean by "an eye opening experience?" Are you saying that it was helpful, or dismaying, or something else?

I know Bobby Welch has promoted FAITH, but I see him now as more of just a promoter of evangelism. At least what I've read him and heard him say the last year or two hasn't focused on the FAITH program. I am glad there are guys like him banging the drum and trying to remind us we need to focus on soul-winning. He is from a different generation, and has a more programmatic bent, but I try to take his passion for souls and be motivated by it.

Also, I think his emphasis on baptisms has gotten a bad rap. I know there are many problems in the SBC, and many of them revolve around regenerate church membership, baptism, etc. But I don't think that means it is unhelpful to call us to pray and work for thousands and millions of baptisms. Do we need better discipleship? Do we need more faithful guidelines and examination of baptismal candidates? Yes, and yes. But that does not mean we need less emphasis on calling each Christian to win people to Christ. We Calvinists need to strive for purity. But our calls for purity in the churches will be heard a lot better if we don't knock guys calling for more baptisms.

Last thing. I have a feeling Bobby Welch is not just about statistics, but instead is passionate about the individual salvations and changed lives represented by believer's baptism.

Tony Kummer said...

Mark,
By "an eye opening experience" I mean I was very disappointed in the content of FAITH. I had heard so many people speak well of it and love the way God was using it in our church. I'd rather not do beyond that, I know there are a lot of churches using faith and seeing real conversions. All glory to God.

Tony Kummer said...

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 zeal AND a more biblical proclamation of the Gospel.

Mark and Stephanie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mark and Stephanie said...

Tony,
I really appreciate your thoughts in your last comment.

Regarding your comment on the Church Growth Movement and its focus on attendance growth. I think you are right... when we put all the emphasis on attendance growth it will inevitably lead to poor methods and unhealthy churches. That is one of the things I like about Southern's BIlly Graham School. They focus on evangelistic church growth. This was also Donald McGavran's focus at the beginning of the movement.
- Mark

Tony Kummer said...

Dr. Lawless and the Billy Graham School seem to be a great example of zeal + knowledge.

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.

G. F. McDowell said...

Tony, perhaps some of us reformers are worried about the people sitting in the pews beside us and in the pews at a thousand churches who are headed straight to Hell, and don't even know it? Maybe if I wasn't so worried about the folks in my own church getting into heaven, I'd be able to pay attention to the masses outside on the broad path to Hell. Good Ol' Boy Numero Uno Bobby Welch let slip that the membership rolls are a good place to find candidates for evangelism. We are able to agree at that point, but when it comes to actually seeking to restore those people to fellowship with the church and bringing the rolls into line with reality, if not reality into line with the rolls, Bobby and I disagree vigorously.

If reform did actually take place, we would see a shocking decline in our recorded membership numbers. The first five years would see this convention shrink in the eyes of the world dramatically. I think this drop in baptisms is not the result of reform. It is the result of apathy.

Instead of talking about Soul Winning I want to hear our leaders talk about Preaching the Gospel, in season and out of season, and I don't mean a four-minute repeat-after-me horse and pony show tacked on to the end of a sermon, I mean we need to preach Jesus Christ and Him Crucified from the whole Bible and from every book of the Bible.

Instead of programmatic evangelism, how about being ready always to give an answer for the hope that is within us? Instead of knocking on doors of people we're 95% certain we'll never see again, why not share the Gospel with our unsaved family members, or our unsaved coworkers and actually take a risk for Jesus?

If every Christian in the Southern Baptist Convention shared christ with someone he was close to and loved, and was able to lead one person to repentance and faith in the span of five years, discipling them intensively from the very beginning, pouring time and effort into the relationship, we would have far more than a million baptisms a year before long. It's not sexy, and neither Lifeway, Bobby Welch, Frank Page, nor anybody else gets the glory for a winning "formula". God would get the glory and God alone.