Southern Baptists, perhaps more than most denominations, have touted their convictions about the importance of evangelism. We rightly call ourselves a Great Commission denomination. For certain, the International Mission Board is the major international mission agency in the world. Even with the recent financial challenges of the IMB, the mission efforts of Southern Baptists have few peers.
The denomination and international missions are intricately related. The Board of Foreign Missions, later the Foreign Mission Board, was established in 1845, the same year the Southern Baptist Convention began. That year would not end without the appointment of the first missionary for the SBC, Samuel C. Clopton. China was chosen as the first mission field.
Similarly, the denomination has been clearly identified as an evangelistic force in North America. Since SBC churches began reporting statistics, baptisms have been one of the few common metrics. Denominational organizations of the SBC at the national, state, and associational level have historically had personnel specifically emphasizing evangelism. Some of the largest meetings of Southern Baptists historically have been evangelism rallies.
It would thus be unfair to label our denomination as nonevangelistic, even with the declining baptismal statistics of recent years. You will rarely see an organization sustain a Great Commission emphasis as long as Southern Baptists have. Nevertheless, we cannot ignore the baptismal decline. The numbers shout a reality that is both uncomfortable and challenging. While acknowledging that baptisms are not a perfect metric for conversion growth, they do tell a fascinating story about our denomination.
There are essentially two ways to look at baptism metrics. The most obvious is total baptisms, whether the total is for a church or for the denomination. The second is per capita baptisms, where the number is related to membership or attendance. I prefer the latter metric. For example, you would expect a church of 3,000 members to have more baptisms than a church of 100 members. You can compare the churches easier if the baptismal statistics are expressed as a ratio related to members.
In 2014 the Southern Baptist Convention congregations baptized one person a year for every fifty-one members. Stated more colloquially, it took fifty-one of us a year to reach one person for Christ! In 1950, one of our best years for baptismal effectiveness, it took only eighteen Southern Baptists to reach one person for Christ in a year. According to these metrics, therefore, our denomination was three times more effective at reaching people for Christ sixty years ago than it is today. The metric of total baptisms tells a similar story. In 1972, the SBC had a total of 445,725 baptisms. In 2014, total baptisms had fallen to 305,301. You would have to go back to 1948 to find baptisms at this low level. Explanations for the decline are conjecture, but there is sufficient evidence to make educated conjectures.
Eight possible reasons for the decline in baptisms in the Southern Baptist Convention:
1. Decline in “cultural baptisms.” Over the past few decades, cultural Christianity has been waning. It is no longer necessary to be a part of a church to be accepted as a good-standing member of a community. We have sufficient anecdotal evidence that suggests many of our baptisms were of unregenerate members.
2. Greater economic affluence. Affluence of church members and conversion growth are typically inversely related. While correlation cannot prove causation, there is good reason to believe we stop evangelizing as actively when we have a more comfortable lifestyle. Of course, Southern Baptists have moved more and more to become a suburban and urban denomination from its more modest rural economic roots.
3. Failure to replace programmatic evangelism. Programmatic evangelism has been discarded by many congregations as its effectiveness has waned. The problem is that the programmatic approach was not replaced with some thing else. A church that does not have an intentionality about evangelism is unlikely to be evangelistic.
4. Busyness of churches. Church calendars are often filled with more activities than hours in the day. As a consequence, church members can be so busy doing good things that they fail to do the best things, such as evangelism.
5. Busyness of church members. Our busy culture does not lend itself toward the intentionality of evangelism. Too many church members have passively disobeyed the Great Commission with calendars filled with temporal activities.
6. Unbiblical concepts of church membership. For too many church members, church life has been inwardly focused: What have you done for me lately? The church has become more like a country club than a biblical congregation. Members who are obsessed about getting their own preferences met are not likely to be evangelizing others.
7. Dissension and conflict. Church conflict has become normative. Many pastors and church leaders are not tired of church, but they are tired from church. Conflict and criticisms deplete physical and emotional resources that should be used toward reaching people for Christ.
8. Prayer deficits. Evangelism is on the front lines of spiritual warfare. We must not assume we have the charisma or persuasion skills to convert people. The Holy Spirit convicts. We must be praying to the Triune God for his strength, power, and authority.
Though some pundits may suggest the culture is no longer as receptive to the gospel as it was a few decades ago, I am not sure that argument has merit. My research indicates receptivity to the gospel or to a simple invitation to church is high. We may not be reaching people for Christ because we are not trying to reach people for Christ.
*This article is an excerpt from The SBC and the 21st Century: Reflection, Renewal, and Recommitment. Edited by Jason K. Allen (B&H Academics). The culmination of a landmark symposium on the campus of Midwestern Seminary, this book features contributions from President Allen, Frank Page, Ronnie Floyd, Thom Rainer, Albert Mohler, Paige Patterson, David Platt, Danny Akin, Justin Taylor, Collin Hansen, and more on the future of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Available to purchase online at Amazon.com and B&H Publishing and in LifeWay Christian Stores. Learn more at jasonkallen.com/sbc21book.topicsSBC, Southern Baptist