Turning the tide on baptisms

Meredith Flynn —  February 6, 2014
CONVERSIONS COUNT – “We have to help our churches focus on bearing fruit, and to keep up with that as a measure of how they’re doing,” NOBTS President Chuck Kelley told associational leaders in Illinois. “Fruitlessness is becoming endemic in Southern Baptist Life.”

CONVERSIONS COUNT – “We have to help our churches focus on bearing fruit, and to keep up with that as a measure of how they’re doing,” NOBTS President Chuck Kelley told associational leaders in Illinois. “Fruitlessness is becoming endemic in Southern Baptist Life.”

The SBC’s declining numbers are real. But there are solutions, says seminary president Chuck Kelley.

NEWS | Eric Reed

Since he began studying and teaching evangelism more than 30 years ago, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary President Dr. Chuck Kelley, told associational leaders in Illinois in January, we’ve been quoting the same statistic: 30% of our churches are growing, and 70% of all Southern Baptist churches are plateaued or declining. “The difference today is the 70% aren’t so much ‘plateauted;’ our churches are declining. We are a convention at a crossroads.”

Kelley is one voice in a chorus of national leaders calling on Southern Baptists to end the decline in baptisms and missions giving in our churches that threatens fulfillment of our kingdom work and the future of the denomination itself.

The head of the convention’s executive committee, Dr. Frank Page, also delivered a stark address in January. “…You say, ‘What is our future?’ I do not know. I’m asked that every week by someone, and I say, ‘I cannot answer.’ If things do not change, I can tell you in 20 years we will be happy to have 27,000, not 47,000 churches,” Page said.

In a “State of the SBC” address at Midwestern Seminary, Page cited “fault lines” in the denomination, where pressure has built and the fabric of the organization is threatened. Among them are the arguments over the nature and authority of Scripture in the 1980s, and more recently the debate over Reformed theology, methods of funding missions, and democratic-based church governance.

The effect of these “fault lines” is seen in declining baptisms and a 20-year downward trend in missions funding through the Cooperative Program. “We have argued over issues that have taken away our evangelistic fervor to the point that now our baptismal rates have reached a low not seen since 1948,” Page said. “God help us.”

Southern Baptists baptized 314,956 people in 2012, the most recent tally available. That was a decline of 5.5%. The figure compares to the post-war baptismal rate, when Southern Baptists numbered 6 million, in contrast to today’s 16 million. A decade-long focus on evangelism after World War II produced the denomination’s greatest surge of conversions, peaking at 445,725 baptisms in 1972, and the steam to power the next six decades downhill from there.

Leaders are hopeful that a final tally on 2013 baptisms and Cooperative Program giving, due soon, will show a slight uptick, and perhaps end the slippery slope. And in Illinois, baptisms and giving are up for 2013.

Still, national leaders are now talking publicly and regularly about the SBC as a denomination that is plateaued and declining, mostly declining.

Page’s speech, now being viewed widely on the internet, comes on the heels of “an open letter” from LifeWay President Thom Rainer calling on members of what is still the largest Protestant denomination in the United States to recapture their zeal for evangelism.

“Where is the passion in most of our churches to reach the lost?” Rainer asked. “I thank God for our affirmation of the total truthfulness of Scripture. I thank God for orthodoxy. But I pray that it is not becoming a dead orthodoxy – an orthodoxy that has lost its first love.”

“I have no proposal,” Rainer summarized. “I have no new programs for now. I simply have a burden.”

Kelley’s proposal

The history of every church and denomination is growth, plateau, and decline, Kelley told associational leaders meeting at the Illinois Baptist State Association building January 27-28. Pointing to Methodists, Presbyterians, and other mainline

denominations, Southern Baptists for many years expressed thanks we weren’t following their decline. Now we are. “We are seeing a growing gap in the rhetoric about Southern Baptists and the reality of where we are,” he said.

And the declines are in all parts of the U.S. “We’re losing the South,” Kelley said. “You need to be aware that the South is becoming more like Illinois; large blocks of unreached people, and churches that are smaller.”

And a new generation that is not following their parents’ lead by staying in church after they reach adulthood.

Kelley likened the denomination’s downward turn to an airplane in a tailspin: beyond a certain point, the pilot can’t pull the nose upward and right the plane. “We’re nearing that point,” Kelley said.

He identified four factors in this precipitous decline, problem areas that also point to possible solutions:

Elephant 1: Awakening

“We have a power problem,” Kelley said. “We have gotten so used to working without the filling of the Spirit of God, we don’t know it’s not normal. Kelley called for church leaders to encourage prayer for spiritual awakening: “This is like stacking the firewood for God to light the fire.

“We need to have solemn assemblies, for our people to seek a move of God… If God isn’t moving, there is an issue within us,” he said, pointing to the need for repentance.

Elephant 2: Conversions

As the numbers have dropped, Southern Baptists have moved away from publically counting baptisms as a measure of our fruitfulness. While Kelley acknowledged there have been misuses of the system in the past, he said our churches must return to a focus on fruitfulness. Specifically, we need to see conversions as a measure of “what God is doing in our churches.”

“Many of our churches have the Sunday school attendance posted somewhere, and last week’s offering,” Kelley said, “but I have been in very few churches that have in a public place how many people they have baptized – and even fewer that have a public goal of how many they want to baptize.”

He offered three measures of fruitfulness: beyond conversions, churches should measure ministry to the community. “Most churches do not have a muscle set for ministry to the community,” he pointed out, but it is community ministry that opens doors for evangelism.

And churches should measure church planting, their own participation in the reproductive process that brings healthy new congregations into existence, with members fueled by the salvations of their lost family and friends.

Elephant 3: Discipleship

While the rhetoric in our high-point decades was about evangelism (“A million more in ’54!”), the real genius of the period, Kelley contends, was in our dis

ciple-making mechanisms: Sunday school and training union. These methods focused on making new believers into disciples, who then led more people to Christ.

But, he said following extensive study, “Every methodology has a shelf life, and as the methodology wore out its shelf life, we did not replace it…. Our discipleship processes have been dismantled, not intentionally, but by attrition. Our discipleship has become a patchwork that is reinvented every year. It’s a series of things, not a cohesive strategy.”

In the last 20 years, Kelley said there has been a “megashift” in SBC life from the priority of discipleship to the priority of worship. One result is under-educated people who call themselves Christian, but whose lifestyles are little different from unbelievers.

“When I grew up, we still had a sense of being a stranger is a strange land. We were counter-culture…. I’m not calling for a return to the sixties. I am saying we have to find for today what a distinctly Christian lifestyle looks like and teach our people what living distinctly Christian lives is, so that we have evangelism that will impact our society.”

One of our needed conversations is how we will lead our congregations to spiritual maturity in this new era.

Elephant 4: Fighting

Finally, Kelley pointed to a significant shift he has witnessed from the seminary campus: “Today’s seminary students are not interested in going into existing churches, because they are scared. They have seen the results and heard the horror stories of church fights,” Kelley said.

Yet, that’s where the need is, in existing churches that are plateaued or declining. “If a pastor comes to bring growth, there will be conflict. We need to have conversations about how to have conflict.”

Kelley said leaders need to help their churches process conflict in ways that bring positive change and do not harm the Body of Christ. “Not all church fights are the result of failure on the part of the pastor, or of having ungodly people in the pews. It is the result of change. Leading change creates conflict,” Kelley said.

It also turns declining churches – and denominations.

Meredith Flynn


Meredith is managing editor of the Illinois Baptist newspaper.