Archives For SBC

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?

Russ Rankin, “SBC Pastors Polled on Calvinism and Its Affect on Convention,” LifeWay (June 19, 2012).

LifeWay Research conducted a survey (this past April-May) in which they “presented a slate of statements about Calvinism to a randomly selected sample of senior pastors in the SBC to gauge their theological inclination and whether they are concerned about the impact of Calvinism in the convention.” 

With the discussion that preceded the SBC Convention, that continued at the Convention, this provides another important information piece to the SBC puzzle.

The conclusion to this survey?

Nearly equal numbers of pastors in the Southern Baptist Convention consider their churches as Calvinist/Reformed [30%] as do Arminian/Wesleyan [30%], although more than 60 percent are concerned about the affect of Calvinism on the denomination, according to a new survey from LifeWay Research.

Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research notes the following:

It is fascinating how much debate is occurring right now on this topic when most pastors indicate that neither end of the spectrum correctly identifies their church. However, historically, many Baptists have considered themselves neither Calvinist nor Arminian, but holding a unique theological approach not framed well by either category.

Stetzer states that the survey was carefully nuanced avoiding the one-word response of yes or no to “capture some of the complexity of the debate.” For example, the survey contained the following kinds of questions: “Christ died only for the elect, not for everyone in the world.” “God is the true evangelist and when He calls someone to Himself, His grace is irresistible.” “Before the foundation of the world, God predestined some people to salvation and some to damnation.” “It diminishes God’s sovereignty to invite all persons to repent and believe.” “A person can not, after become a Christian, reject Christ and lose their salvation.” (For how the responses to these questions breaks down in percentages, see the report at the link above.)

Stetzer’s summary to this survey:

There appears to be a lot of concern among Southern Baptist pastors on the impact of Calvinism, but the beliefs in these doctrines, at least measured by these questions, show quite a mix of beliefs.

Most Baptists are not Calvinists, though many are, and most Baptists are not Arminians, though many are comfortable with that distinction. However, there is a sizeable minority that see themselves as Calvinist and holds to such doctrines, and a sizeable majority that is concerned about their presence. That points to challenging days to come.

For another response to this survey, cf. Jeremy Weber, “New Research Suggests Calvinists Tied With Arminians In SBC,” Christianity Today Liveblog (June 19, 2012).

Ted Olson, “Southern Baptists Debate the Sinner’s Prayer,” reports on the SBC discussion/debate of the Resolution known as “An Affirmation of a ‘Sinner’s Prayer’ As a Biblical Expression of Repentance and Faith‘. ” This Resolution did pass, but the discussion did generally separate into Arminians who supported it, and Calvinists who had concerns about it. 

Here is the complete Resolution: 


WHEREAS, The Gospel of Jesus Christ offers full forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with God to anyone who repents of sin and trusts in Christ; and

WHEREAS, This same Gospel commands all persons everywhere to believe this Gospel and receive Christ as Savior and Lord (Mark 1:15; John 1:12; 6:25–52; Acts 17:30); and

WHEREAS, The Scriptures give examples of persons from diverse backgrounds who cried out for mercy and were heard by God (Luke 18:13; Acts 16:29–30); and

WHEREAS, The Scriptures also give numerous examples of per- sons who verbally affirmed Gospel truths but who did not personally know Jesus in a saving relationship (Luke 22:47–48; John 2:23–25; 1 Corinthians 10:1–5); and

RESOLVED, That the messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention meeting in New Orleans, Louisiana, June 19–20, 2012, reaffirm our Gospel conviction that repentance from sin and personal faith in the Lord Jesus Christ are necessary for salvation (Acts 20:20–21); and be it further

RESOLVED, That we affirm that repentance and faith involve a crying out for mercy and a calling on the Lord (Romans 10:13), often identified as a “sinner’s prayer,” as a biblical expression of repentance and faith; and be it further

RESOLVED, That a “sinner’s prayer” is not an incantation that results in salvation merely by its recitation and should never be manipulatively employed or utilized apart from a clear articulation of the Gospel (Matthew 6:7; 15:7–9); and be it further

RESOLVED, That we promote any and all biblical means of urging sinners to call on the name of the Lord in a prayer of repentance and faith; and be it finally

RESOLVED, That we call on Southern Baptists everywhere to continue to carry out the Great Commission in North America and around the world, so that sinners everywhere, of every tribe, tongue, and language, may cry out, “God be merciful to me a sinner” (Luke 18:13). 

Here is the blog post chronicling the June 20, 2012 SBC meeting: Three Resolutions were passed in the morning.

10:19 a.m. — The Committee on Resolutions’ scheduled time has passed, with only three resolutions having been debated (sinner’s prayer, On Appreciation, On 200 Years of Baptist Ministry in Louisiana). All passed. The other six resolutions will be considered at 4:05 p.m.

The remaining six Resolutions were passed in the late afternoon.

4:20 p.m. — Messengers moment ago passed six resolutions, including one on “Cooperation and the Doctrine of Salvation” and another on gay marriage and civil rights rhetoric. All resolutions passed overwhelmingly. 

You can read all nine Resolutions at the link above, which will be found at “7:50 a.m. — Messengers this morning will consider nine resolutions.”

From the Southern Baptist Convention’s (SBC) Annual Meeting which took place June 19-20 in New Orleans, LA. 

One of the issues highlighted from SBC President Bryant Wright’s message was the dialogue/debate within SBC about Arminianism and Calvinism. 

“My concern is that we can have Christ-centered, Bible believing Christians so engaged in trying to correct one another’s view when it comes to election, that the next thing you know the devil is standing over to the side, because we have taken our focus off of what Christ tells us our clear mission is, and that is the Great Commission. And [the devil] is going to be laughing and he is going to be mocking and he is going to be rejoicing that we’re no longer interested in rescuing the captives that God calls us to rescue with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

“Let us understand that these two views on election and salvation can co-exist as long as we stay Christ-centered and biblically based in our theology.”

Wright delivered “a word” to each group.

“To our Calvinist friends: A bit of humility would be most welcome. Any time there is pride, whether it is spiritual pride or intellectual pride or theological pride, it is always a sin. And we need to recognize that an attitude of superiority with those who may disagree over the finer aspects of theological belief is never going to build up the church of Jesus Christ.”

After several centuries of debate, the issue is not going to be resolved in the first few years of the 21st century, Wright said.

“To those who call themselves traditional Southern Baptists: The time for judgmentalism is over, because judgmentalism quickly moves into slander. And to lump all those who have a strong, solid, biblically based theology that is a more Calvinist theology” with hyper-Calvinists “is not only misguided but it winds up causing you to break the Ninth Commandment on false witness. 

“It is time to show some respect for those of differing views when it comes to election and when it comes to salvation.” 

This excerpt comes from “Tuesday’s SBC Annual Meeting Blog.”