Baptists, Just Without the Baptisms

A task force of Southern Baptist ministers reports its finding on the sect's declining rate of dunkings, saying, "We have a spiritual problem."
Reuters

For several years, membership in Southern Baptist churches has been in decline. The American denomination hit its peak in 2005 with 16.6 million members, and since then, communities have seen a steady drop, hitting 15.8 million members in 2012. That's nearly one million members lost in roughly a decade—a period during which the overall U.S. population grew by more than 18 million.

But arguably, the more significant decline is happening within church communities: They're not performing as many baptisms anymore. The top baptismal year was 1999; since then, the ritual has become more and more infrequent, dropping by about 25 percent. 

Baptisms Reported by Southern Baptist Churches            (in thousands)

Annual Profile of Churches, Lifeway Christian Resources

When the baptism numbers for 2012 were released last summer, the denomination's national organization, the Southern Baptist Convention, put together a "task force" on the sect's "evangelistic impact." Fifteen pastors and church staff members met over the course of eight months to do some soul-searching on their search for souls. Among other things, they concluded, "We have a spiritual problem."

Conversion is particularly theologically important for Southern Baptists. They aren't the only baptists in the United States, but they are the biggest group—they rank behind only Catholics in terms of numbers. More than 50,000 churches are united in the loose network that makes up the Southern Baptist Convention, which has a singular focus, according to its charter: "eliciting, combining, and directing the energies of the Baptist denomination of Christians for the propagation of the Gospel."

In other words, it's an evangelical community. It's not enough to "continue business as usual," the task force said; pastors "must intentionally model and prioritize personal evangelism." But according to their report, church communities are struggling with this: They pointed to pastors having a hard time keeping up the day-to-day management of their congregations, focusing on attendance rather than conversion, and choosing "to celebrate other things as a measure of their success rather than new believers following Christ in baptism."

It's significant that they label these specific aspects of church life as problems—the task force called them the "Leadership Problem," the "Discipleship Problem," and the "Celebration Problem." With membership falling nationwide, it seems understandable that church communities would have issues with operations and attendance—and that they'd want to point to any available measure of "success." But the task force sees it another way: "We have drifted into a loss of expectation."

This seems to be a conflict between logistics and belief, with everyday pastors focused on keep their churches running and national leaders fixated on getting souls saved. The task force would probably argue that the two are inextricably linked, but the data do not necessarily agree: The decline in baptisms started half a decade before membership started shrinking. Even in the denomination's best-ever year for church membership, baptisms declined by roughly four percent compared to the previous year. At least in terms of numbers, it seems possible to have a strong faith community with fewer baptisms. 

Most telling, perhaps, were the task force's conclusions on the denomination's "Next Generation Problem." Although our churches have increasingly provided programs for children, students, and young adults," they wrote, "we are not being effective in winning and discipling the next generation to follow Christ." In terms of baptisms, they're right: In 2012, 60 percent of churches reported that they didn't baptize anyone aged 12 to 17, and 80 percent reported they had either zero or one baptism of someone aged 18-29. Although the report calls for pastors to "renew their focus" on young people, it's unclear how that's supposed to happen. 

All of this points to a fundamental identity question: Did Southern Baptists start losing members because they stopped performing as many baptisms, or did they stop performing as many baptisms because of broader cultural issues facing the denomination? Clearly, the leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention believe the former, but even if pastors did get more people to go down in the river to pray, it's unclear that there would be more of the faithful to witness it.

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Emma Green is the assistant managing editor of TheAtlantic.com, where she also writes about religion and culture.

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