A common concern among Southern Baptists is our decline in both the number of baptisms and the ratio of members to baptisms over the past decades. The data indicates a significant problem. How do we reverse this trend and baptize more people?
The most frequent suggestions, including much of my writing and speaking on this issue, has focused on improving our evangelistic effectiveness. To be sure, that is an ever-present challenge as we continually strive to communicate the gospel effectively to as many people as possible. But lately, another problem seems to be contributing to the decline of baptisms. We seem to have a growing reluctance to call people to baptism as a public act of Christian obedience and discipleship.
That last sentence was hard to write. As a lifelong Baptist, with a historic appreciation for what it means to be a Baptist, it is hard to admit some Baptists are devaluing baptism. Our martyred forefathers would be chagrined by this digression. Here are some observations on how we are minimizing baptism.
When baptism is featured in a worship service, the explanations for doing it often sound more like an apology than a confession—“baptism does not save you, baptism does not wash way your sins, baptism does not make you a Christian, baptism does not make you a member of our church, etc.” In addition, baptism is often presented as optional for believers, an act that can be handled privately to avoid embarrassment, and certainly not a prerequisite for church membership. To be clear, baptism is a necessary discipleship step, is a public declaration, and is essential to maintain a confessional membership. In addition, and to my surprise, more and more Baptist pastors are asking me about accepting the baptism of people who practice some mode other than immersion after a profession of faith in Jesus Christ. My answer is, and will be, no!
Another practice that devalues baptism is failing to call people—clearly and often—to be baptized as an obedient response to a public invitation in a worship service. It struck me recently how infrequently pastors extend a public invitation and specifically include “come publicly and request baptism” as part of the appeal. Baptism—not signing covenant or being introduced publicly—is the defining public declaration of Christian faith. People must be called to obey in this way.
Another devaluing habit is holding a baptismal service only once or twice per year—because it is more convenient to do it that way rather than deal with the hassle more frequently. This one really puzzles me. When I was a pastor, we took the opposite approach. We tried to do baptisms in as many services as possible. Yes, it was cumbersome to fill the baptistery, do the clothing changes, and clean up after only one person—but it was worth it. Nothing declares the need and importance of baptism like a baptism. When people see it, they are brought face-to-face with this reality—they either have or have not experienced what they have just seen. Another great thing about frequent baptisms is the joy they bring to a service—including seeing many friends and family come for the moment. Many unbelievers, while they may not understand everything about baptism, know it’s important and will come to support a friend or family member who is being baptized—thus hearing the gospel and seeing it portrayed through baptism.
Enough about the negative. Next week, in part two of this blog, we will consider some positive steps your church can take to re-emphasize baptism as the essential Christian practice it is intended to be.