I’m a Southern Baptist. We have a large family cooperating as the largest Protestant denomination. With such an expansive group of churches, it means that we do have a few family crazies that we still invite to our reunions. You never know when Southern Baptists are going to make the news. For all the good we do, there are also moments that cause us to shake our collective heads.
In some ways, the Southern Baptist Convention is in a healthier position than I can remember in a long time. Even despite struggles, I am very optimistic about the future. One of the scorecards we use to gauge our success is baptisms. Seems very appropriate given the context, right? It is. At the 2019 Convention, it was reported that baptisms were down by 3% from the previous year. The only good news is that it wasn’t down as high as 9% from the previous year.
In 2018, Southern Baptists baptized 246,000 people which is the lowest it has been since the 1940s.
Now, before we sound the alarm, can we celebrate that 246,000 people were baptized in our churches last year? In our current irreligious culture, that represents many people being transformed by the gospel.
It does represent something alarming though. In a growing culture, we are reaching fewer people.
Something needs to change.
While we do need to reach more people with the gospel, I am concerned that we are putting misdirected expectations on discouraged pastors.
Evidence of the Problem
At numerous associational, statewide, and national gatherings, I hear someone give a statistic like the one above and talk about how bad the state of our churches are. Oftentimes, it then goes to the next question:
“Do you know how many churches last year didn’t even baptize one person?”
At that moment, you can feel the tension in the room. Or maybe it is the deflating discouragement. As the statistic for that particular group is shared, I watch pastors all around the room who are preaching their hearts out be reminded that they are on that list, and they hang their head in shame. As if they need to be reminded that their churches aren’t growing, they hear it in the context of those they lock arms with as they serve in ministry. The place they come seeking encouragement provides the exact opposite.
Let me be clear: we must address the issues. We must challenge one another. But I do not think employing baptism shaming on struggling pastors is the most helpful strategy if we want to reverse the trend.
How many deadbeat husbands transform into sacrificial servants based upon the incessant nagging of wives who repeatedly remind them of their lack of worth? I’ve never seen it happen before. I don’t think it will work for pastors either.
Berating pastors who haven’t seen a baptism in years is not going to transform them into successful evangelists.
Can we stop the baptism shaming? I don’t think it is helping.
The Nature of Conversion
Before you read any further, I am not trying to defend my personal ministry. We are experiencing extremely encouraging baptism numbers right now in our church. I am concerned for brothers who are working their tails off right now and are being told that their lack of some intangible ability is the reason they aren’t experiencing the same thing.
We need to remember that if it is our tactics, abilities, or antics that are increasing baptism numbers, we may run the risk of giving false assurance to invalid believers.
We don’t save people. The gospel saves people. You can’t place a baptism quota on a staff, and you can’t manufacture a movement of God.
Did you know that God sometimes calls people to infertile ground? Isaiah was an eager prophet ready to be assigned, and God would assuredly send him to a place ready to harvest, right? Wrong. As soon as he eagerly expressed his willingness to go, God told him that he would continue to preach and no one would be changed (Isa. 6:8-11)! That’s why he asked how long would he have to do it, and God told him to keep going with no apparent fruit!
I know there are some preachers out there who are preaching feel-good sermons and neglecting to preach the gospel which is the power to salvation (Rom. 1:16). I know there are some churches who are more concerned with their comfort than they are others’ salvation. But I also believe there are some people out there preaching, loving, giving, and going, and for whatever reason, they aren’t seeing fruit. Their accomplishments are difficult to place neatly on a graph.
If a Southern Baptist foreign missionary retired after 30 years from the field with no converts, we would recognize them for faithful obedience, and yet if a stateside pastor preaches for 1 year without one baptism, we shame them into despairing mediocrity.
I do believe that all of us pastors could do a more thorough job of praying, studying, preparing, and delivering sermons. I do believe that all of our churches could do a better job of inviting, welcoming, and encouraging others as they connect with our churches. But I still want to give the credit where the credit is due.
I believe that the power for salvation is still in the gospel and not in our giftedness.
We need to address the issue, but maybe in place of our shaming, we could seek to encourage. If you are a pastor or a member of a church with low baptisms, have you prayed for a person with whom you could share the gospel? If your metrics are encouraging now, are you aware that God is doing any truly lasting work among you? Are you aware that there are those in other churches who need encouragement more than they need shaming?
The story isn’t over. God is still in the business of resurrecting dead stuff. Don’t give up (Gal. 6:9)!
Travis Agnew serves as the Lead Pastor of Rocky Creek Church in Greenville, SC. His most recent book is Just (About) Married.