Many of the SBC bloggers (go here, here and here for example) have already jumped on the recent report by LifeWay about the second straight year of decline in baptisms in the SBC (2005 was a drop of 4.18% and 2006 was a drop of 1.89%). What makes this remarkable is not just the fact that all other statistics in the ACP report were up, but that baptisms went down during the two years where there was the strongest push to baptize more people. Bobby Welch, president of the SBC during the years 2005-2006, developed a vision to baptize a million people during each year that he was presiding over the convention. The slogan “Everyone Can! I’m It!” became the driving focus to inspire all Southern Baptists to join in reaching the goal which Welch was convinced would be accomplished. During his presidential message at last year’s annual meeting in Greensboro, Welch’s theme could be summed up in the thrice-repeated anthem, “More!” In his outgoing article in SBCLife, Welch writes,
“My quest is to see the Convention do MORE then ever before — MORE going and MORE giving!”
Coupled with optimism and warning, Welch concluded his presidential address, declaring:
‘I’m it. I may not look like much, and I may not have much. Bless God, this is Jesus calling, and I’m not missing it. I’m coming with what I’ve got, where I am, and I’m doing it now — because everyone can, and I think I’m it.’
“That’s all that needs to be decided by this Convention. The rest is only a distraction. Everyone can, and you’re it. God help you and God help us not to mess this up with this great opportunity of ours.”
Apparently, this “great opportunity of ours” has been messed up. One reporter has already assessed the impact of the “Everyone Can!” campaign, and Bobby Welch has also seen the handwriting on the wall, providing his reasons why the goal was not achieved. For whatever reason, not every Southern Baptist thought they were “it” and the battle-cry for more has only resulted in less. How are we to interpret such a thing?
I write this on the heels of an excellent discussion that was held today at SBTS on the ordinance of baptism. Baptist theologians Drs. Greg Wills, Tom Nettles, Russell Moore, and Stephen Wellum held a forum discussion on why baptism matters. Let me encourage you, especially if you are Southern Baptist, to download the audio when it becomes available. Students were given an opportunity to ask the panel questions, but time was limited. My question, which was not asked, had to do specifically with this current efforts to baptize more with the report that in effect we are baptizing less. While their answers must be reserved for another day, there are a couple of things I would like to mention in passing for consideration.
First, does not setting an arbitrary number for baptizing people make the ordinance of baptism superficial? I find it really hard to believe that due diligence and careful consideration of the baptismal candidate is somehow overlooked in the rush to baptize as many people as we can.
Second, should there be a separation from the goal of baptizing and the goal of producing disciples? The Great Commission is not simply to baptize them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but making disciples through “teaching them to observe all” that Christ has commanded us. It seems most appropriate to me that the goal of simply baptizing more misses the heart of the Great Commission and furthermore prevents future baptisms. This is because those who are not being discipled will not in turn be leading people to Christ, teaching them God’s Word, and developing them into Christ-like messengers of the gospel.
Third, when it is said that “everything else is a distraction,” does this unfortunate use of words undermine the outworking of Christ’s Church and discharging all her duties to administer the gospel to our world? Is truth and doctrine a distraction? Regenerate church membership? The emphasis of a visible church and church discipline?
Fourth, does not the philosophy of pragmatism to simply do more prove ultimately very harmful to the health of our churches when we see the dogma of “more” as the end-all be-all to our methods and practices? It is without question that pragmatism rules the day, but does that mean it should go unchecked?
These are just some preliminary matters of baptism that come to my mind. What will be the direction the SBC takes on baptism in the future? Will baptism be seen as pragmatic gauge for ministerial success or approached with a robust ecclesiology where it symbolizes much more than a statistic? Will Southern Baptists take a fresh look at our methods and reasoning regarding why and how we baptize people? Will the professed church membership continue to outstrip the faithful attendance of God’s people, thereby evidencing a growing unregenerate denomination? These are questions that must be addressed–questions that will show how much baptism matters.
As I conclude my thoughts, let me suggest that there are things which I wholeheartedly agree with Welch. Baptists must work together and focus our efforts on the Great Commission. We need to discharge all efforts to win the lost and see new believers identified with the local church. We should mourn over our lethargic attempts of the past and renew ourselves for the work before us that God has prepared. And it is precisely because of this reality that our hearts should be broken, our knees should be hitting the floor, and our mouths readily professing the glorious message of new life in Jesus Christ. May God so grant us to live a gospel-centered lives as ones “sent” by God so that others would not only pass through the waters of baptism, but be ravished by the realities of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ of which that ordinance so powerfully points.