SBC baptisms lowest since 1987; state down 5.6 percent
Wire 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.
The figure was disappointing for Oklahoma Baptists as well, with baptisms falling to 14,422 in 2007, down 5.6 percent from 15,279 in 2006. Unfortunately, the decline fell in line with a downward trend that has occurred over the past 25 years or so, according to Randy Adams, Church Outreach Team leader with the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma.
“We have been on a general decline for decades in baptisms,” Adams said. “We’ve also been noting a decline in Sunday School and church attendance for at least the past 25 years.”
So, what’s the answer?
Two things, Adams said.
“One is personal evangelism. We see less personal evangelism in churches than we once did,” he commented. “A church ought to see itself as responsible not simply to itself, but to the community. If a church feels responsble for the entire community, or if an association of churches feels responsible for an entire association, and all of the lost people in that association, that will drive them toward strategies that will help them share Christ with everybody in that association. Second, we know that anything new has the best chance of growing. Whether it’s a new Sunday School class or a new church. Growing churches always grow by expanding their base of workers of servants and of classes.
“So, if the Sunday School is growing, it’s because they have more classes and more teachers than they used to have. You can’t grow your Sunday School without starting new classes.”
Adams said the same thing applies to any denomination of churches.
“The only way any denomination grows is by starting new churches,” he said. “Churches are like people in a sense. Most churches eventually die. Some churches may live 150-200 or even 300 years, but we always have to be birthing new churches and re-birthing old churches.”
And, how is that done?
“Existing churches are revitalized when they look outward; when they look outward toward reaching people and become missional,” Adams said, “Looking outward toward winning the world to Christ and doing the things that produce that.
“Any time churches focus inward, they decline. Growth only comes when there is an outward focus. And churches shouldn’t focus simply on growth, but growth through reaching lost people. Churches can grow; but, most churches that are growing today are doing so by transfer growth, not by reaching lost people.”
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.
From 2000 through 2006, membership growth essentially was flat, registering .68, .58, .53, .42, .39, .02 and .22 percent respectively.
Total membership in Oklahoma fell by 6,132 (0.9 percent) to 748,760 in 2007, down from 754,892 in 2006.
Not all the news coming out of the ACP was negative. The number of SBC churches grew by 1.1 percent to 44,696; primary worship attendance increased slightly to 6.15 million; and total mission expenditures topped $1.3 billion.
In Oklahoma, the number of congregations grew to 1,758 from 1,740 in 2006, worship attendance dropped 2.9 percent to 185,192, and Cooperative Program gifts from churches grew by 1.4 percent to $25,125,528. The average CP gift by Oklahoma churches in 2007 was down by .52 percent to 9.18 percent, but was still much higher when compared to the 6.43 percent national average.
Missions giving is significant and far reaching. Through the SBC’s Cooperative Program, local churches voluntarily pool funds to support mission efforts in their states, throughout the nation and around the world. For example, Cooperative Program funds support more than 10,250 missionaries who engage nearly 1,200 people groups throughout North America and around the world. In addition, CP funds support six seminaries, the International Mission Board, North American Mission Board, the Ethics & Religions Liberty Commission, and other SBC entities. (LifeWay and GuideStone Financial Resources are self-funding.)
At the same time, CP funds support statewide efforts in evangelism, as well as children’s homes, disaster relief efforts, volunteer missions, colleges and universities, camps and much more.
Bright spots for the Oklahoma ACP report include an increase in discipleship enrollment, a small hike in music participation and a huge jump in mission projects participation.
Rainer pointed out that numeric/percent changes for certain categories could not be accurately figured for the 2007 ACP, as some state conventions did not ask for some items to be reported, or asked in a way that gave results that were not comparable to totals reported in the 2006 ACP. Also, 1,300 fewer churches submitted 2007 ACP data than the number in 2006.