Last month Directors of Missions and other associational leaders from around the state gathered at the IBSA Building for a time of leadership development, fellowship, and strategic thinking about how best to assist churches. Dr. Chuck Kelley, president of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, was invited to speak to us on “Fostering a Positive Baptism Trend in an Association.”
To set the stage, Dr. Kelley reminded us that the number of baptisms in SBC churches overall has been on a 50-year plateau, and has now actually declined six of the past eight years. Nationwide data for 2013 is not yet available, but in 2012 baptisms declined 5.5% from 2011, to only 314,956. That’s the lowest level since 1948, when SBC churches reported only 6 million members rather than the current 16 million. In fact, to give those numbers some further context, baptisms totaled 445,725 in 1972, and 429,063 in 1959.
Here among IBSA churches, baptisms were actually up 3.1% in 2013 to 5,063, building on the previous year’s 2.6% increase. Still, 2013 is our churches’ first year above 5,000 baptisms since 2009. And in 2005, IBSA churches reported 6,499 baptisms.
While all of us were eager to hear what Dr. Kelley would suggest, none of us were really surprised when he said there are no easy answers to reversing the current baptism trend. I was personally grateful to hear him underscore that we shouldn’t seek to affix blame or pass the buck. Instead, we all need to focus passionately and sacrificially on the urgent need to reach people with the Gospel in an increasingly challenging environment.
While I don’t have space here to recap everything Dr. Kelley shared with us, I can share his alliterated outline. He said we need to Focus on Filling (of the Spirit, or revival), on Fruitfulness (intentional evangelism), on Faithfulness (a return to true discipleship), and even on Fighting (embracing the inevitable conflict that comes when change is needed, yet with Christ-like attitudes and righteousness).
All of these points hit home deeply with me, and couldn’t have come at a better time. Not only are we beginning a new year of ministry here at IBSA, and in all our churches, but we are also beginning our planning and budgeting for 2015. We can’t keep doing ministry as usual and expect a much different result.
As Dr. Kelley urged, we must persistently ask God to fill us afresh with His Spirit, and bring revival to our churches and spiritual awakening to our land. We must focus much more intentionally on fruitfulness, starting new Bible studies and Sunday School classes and evangelistic ministries, and equipping believers to courageously share the Gospel. We must more carefully embrace true discipleship, investing God’s Word deeply in those who will be faithful to live the Gospel and pay it forward into the lives of others. And yes, we must be so committed to a different level of fruitfulness that we are
even willing to engage the conflict that often seems to come with change, even in churches.
Those of us leading and serving churches today have lived most of our adult lives on the downwardly sloping plateau of this baptism trend. In many ways we have been maintaining our processes and doing church in comfortable ways, and if we simply continue our current patterns in the face of a changing culture, we will soon see the downward slope of the current trend steepen dramatically.
So as we prepare to plot one more year of baptisms on the chart of history, it is this urgency of reaching spiritually lost people with the Gospel that must compel us, and our churches. Baptisms may not be the only measure of fruitfulness, but they are a measure that we cannot be content to see in even gradual decline.
Nate Adams is executive director of the Illinois Baptist State Association.