Baptists and Baptisms

Greg Strand – June 3, 2014 12 Comments

In its more recent history, SBC baptisms plateaued in the 1950s, peaked in the 1970s and have staying pretty consistent since that time. However, the last six years have revealed a downward trend in baptisms and membership. Statistics alone do not give the whole story. Concurrent with the decrease in baptisms and memberships is the increase of people in North America.

A Pastors’ Task Force on SBC Evangelistic Impact & Declining Baptisms was established “to assess and respond to stark patterns of decline in Southern Baptist evangelism and baptisms.” The goals of this Task Force were to “seek ways to help Southern Baptists own the problem and offer suggestions on how to start addressing the problem.” I appreciate the forthrightness of this report and the honesty and humility with which the Task Force asks SBC churches to admit and own the problem and then to be a part of the solution.

In commenting on this, Timothy George, Troubled Waters, connects this shift with broader Evangelicalism and the larger American story. What the SBC is facing parallels similar things in other denominations with the rise of nones, those who want Jesus but not the church, etc. However, George highlights two important issues not addressed in the report.

First, the task force did not speak to sociological and cultural trends. They focused on their own household, which is right. But there are issues outside that have affected this phenomenon as well.

Second, they said nothing about the act of baptism itself, its meaning and theology. George wonders if this statistic conceal a more basic problem, the downgrading of baptism itself? George thinks it does, and points to two items in the report. The first is that baptism has lost its place as a central act of Christian worship. The second is that the only age in which baptisms are growing is 5 and under. And  this, notes George, is relatively new in Baptist circles. He concludes that while seeking to figure out how to stop the decline of baptisms, even more importantly, “Baptists today would do well to recover the rich theological meaning of baptism itself as set forth by those who were first called Baptists.”

James Emery White, Why Baptists Aren’t Baptizing, notes some similar issues to George. Though he affirms these five issues are true/real and addressing them would make a difference in any local church, what is missing is the “how.” White acknowledges this question may go beyond the purpose of the task force, but it is vital if they are to think through appropriate next steps to address the problem.

White identifies three reasons why the how question is vital. First, he writes that “many churches are pursuing an Acts 2 strategy in an Acts 17 world.” For many, the church is viewed through a lens of a Christian day, not a post-Christian day. With this change in culture, strategies must also change. I agree with this. As I often say, our approach to people living today is not Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13) in which the Bible and its story are known, but rather Athens (Acts 17) in which the Bible is not known at all.

A second reason is that “many leaders are caught between a very unique rock and a hard place.” Though leaders may desire to reach the young and unchurched, they also know the reality is that many older and well-established in the church like it the way it is. If you move towards the young and unchurched, you alienate or lose the older, faithful people. If the status quo is maintained, there will be a slow and progressive atrophy. Often people pray the church will grow, but then when it does, they are not sure they like the answer to their prayers. This requires humble, gracious, convictional leadership.

“A final impediment to all things ‘how,’ noted by White, “is majority rule.” He concludes that congregationalism, or “raw democracy of majority rule,” is rooted in American democracy and leads to immature people making decisions. Decisions ought to be made by the “most spiritually mature.” Being a congregationalist, I take issue with White’s final point in that he incorrectly defines it and uses a worst case scenario to validate his point. Furthermore, since this is a Baptist report, one of the foundational marks of a Baptist church is congregationalism. In essence, if this is the problem, then the solution is to no longer be Baptist (or Free Church, in my case).

Christianity Today also included the summary from this report: Five Reasons Why Most Southern Baptist Churches Baptize Almost No Millennials

Since the EFCA shares much with Baptists and the SBC,

  • How do you read and summarize this report?
  • What are its strengths and weaknesses?
  • How would the EFCA fare with this same assessment (knowing that there are differences, which explains why we are two different denominations)?
  • What are some of the key issues in the EFCA that must be confessed and addressed?
  • More specifically, because we are congregational, what are the key issues in your local church that must be confessed and addressed?

Greg Strand


Affectionately called “Walking Bible” by his youngest daughter, Greg Strand has a ministry history that goes back to 1982. Since that time, he has served in local church ministry in a variety of ministry capacities: youth pastor, associate pastor of adult ministries and senior pastor. He is currently the EFCA's Executive Director of Theology and Credentialing. Greg reads voraciously and never stops learning — a passion reflected in the overflowing bookshelves that spill from his library to multiple offices. And he could tell you about each of those books! His hunger for learning pales in contrast to his great love for God and for teaching the Word of God.

12 responses to Baptists and Baptisms

  1. Great quote, Greg: As I often say, our approach to people living today is not Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13) in which the Bible and its story is known, but rather Athens (Acts 17) in which the Bible is not known at all.

  2. My reading and summary of the report would go something like this: Teach the Bible. Teach in words and deeds. Emphasize the importance of each person to Teach the Bible in words and deeds. (Congregationalism at its core.)
    Each congregation knows (or should know) its ministry area far better than any other congregation. Let it determine the season of ministry it is in, i.e. winning converts isn’t always the season.

  3. David Buchanan June 3, 2014 at 7:42 pm

    This article is excellent. The SBC report states some important truths. However, it contains very little that will actually accomplish what needs to be accomplished to bring people into the Kingdom. The Church needs to engage people with Truth that is relevant and send disciples into the world to spread that Truth. The EFCA does not suffer from some from some of the political infighting that plagues the SBC. It is also more willing to ask questions, rather than assert truth, than the SBC. Concern about reaching the current younger generations is appropriate and needed. Continuing to approach that with a degree of humility is crucial.

  4. I wonder if this decline is related to how baptism is not associated with conversion in our churches. In reaction to Rome’s ex opere operato view of baptism, do we err in the opposite direction?

    Peter didn’t say “repent and accept Christ as your personal savior”.

    • My sense in the EFCA, and probably the free church more broadly, is that there is such a strong emphasis on soteriology, i.e. conversion, that there is very little thought given to ecclesiology. They are not one and the same, but they are organically related to one another. I wrote about this in a recent EFCA Today article.

  5. We need to figure out how to persuasively talk with libertarians on Christ’s behalf, since libertarianism is just as much of a dead-end, and just as ultimately unsatisfying, as any other -ism.

  6. As someone raised in the both the “Bible Church” movement and the EFCA and now a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, I believe that the EFCA and similar movements have much to learn from the magisterial Reformers, i.e. Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Bucer, as well as the Puritans. They never disassociated soteriology from ecclesiology. They, by the way, also realized, at least for the most part, that proper ecclesiology called for more connectionalism than pure congregationalism. Actually, the EFCA, really doesn’t have pure congregationalism anyway. When I was a student at TEDS, one of my Free Church colleagues used to always joke about what Greek word would be used to translate superintendent and his answer was always episcopos. 🙂

    • Thanks for your thoughts, John. There has been a tendency to associate congregationalism with autonomy only, which is unbiblical and has been unhealthy.

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