Monday, April 28, 2008

Report on SBC decline: A cause for rejoicing?

A recent LifeWay study (see the BP article) is creating a buzz in SBC circles. It reports a third straight year of decline in SBC baptism statistics:
The BP article reports:
The number of people baptized in Southern Baptist churches fell for the third straight year in 2007 to the convention's lowest level since 1987.
Although the SBC added 473 new churches and gave more than $1.3 billion to support mission activities around the world, Thom S. Rainer, president of LifeWay Christian Resources, said there's no escaping the fact that Southern Baptists are not reaching as many people for Christ as they once did. LifeWay gathers the year-to-year information on the convention's behalf.
According to LifeWay's Annual Church Profile (ACP), baptisms in 2007 dropped nearly 5.5 percent to 345,941, compared to 364,826 in 2006. (Baptism is a public act administered by the local church in which new followers of Christ are immersed in water. Baptism symbolizes believers' identification with Jesus in His death, burial and resurrection; signifies their new life in Christ; and anticipates the day on which Christ will raise them from the dead, demonstrating His victory over sin and death. Therefore, the number of baptisms is a key measurement of the SBC's effectiveness in evangelism.)
"This report is truly disheartening," Rainer said. "Total membership showed a slight decline. Baptisms have now declined for three consecutive years and for seven of the last eight years, and are at their lowest level since 1987. Indeed, the total baptisms are among the lowest reported since 1970. We are a denomination that, for the most part, has lost its evangelistic passion."Membership in SBC churches, 16,266,920, fell from 2006's total of 16,306,246, or .24 percent. It is the second drop in membership experienced by the SBC in the last decade. In 1998, membership fell 1.02 percent but increased the next year and recovered to a positive trend in 2000. Prior to that, the last drop in membership was 1926.
Southeastern Seminary archivist, Nathan Finn, offers a good analysis in a blog post titled, "Does the SBC Have a Future?" I especially like his comments on inflated baptism statistics:
As I have been saying for four years, don’t buy the statistics that claim we baptize 350,000 people a year. Those stats are bloated because of toddler baptisms, “rebaptisms” of tender-conscienced souls who are casualties of a tacky revivalism, and the immersion of new church members who have come to our churches from other types of churches that do not share our baptismal convictions. If we annually baptize 75,000 lost people over the age of 12 who are not already attending our churches’ activities, I would be shocked. We are far less evangelistic than you think we are, but too proud (and pragmatic) to admit it.
Why might this report be a cause for rejoicing?
1. It strikes at the heart of SBC hubris.
2. Fewer baptisms might mean fewer incidents of false assurance given to baptized non-believers.
3. It might encourage more thoughtful evangelism and more disciplined understandings of church membership.

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