Editor: This column was originally published on First Things on 6-2-2014. It is reposted with permission.

The Southern Baptist Convention is the largest Protestant denomination in America and has been since around 1960 when it bypassed Methodism in this category. Riding the wave of the post-World War II evangelical boom, Southern Baptists long ago moved beyond their old confines south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Southern Baptist churches are now located in all of the fifty states. Led today by the Reverend Fred Luter, their first African-American president, Southern Baptists have become one of the most ethnically diverse and multilingual denominations in the country.

But all is not well in the Southern Baptist Zion. For some years now, annual church statistics have shown that the SBC is losing members. Although there are still more than 46,000 congregations affiliated with the SBC, total membership has fallen by upwards of one million since 2005—from 16.6 million members in that year to 15.7 million members in 2013. The loss of membership is reflected in another disturbing decline: the downward spiral of baptisms. The number of baptisms in the SBC has plummeted from an all-time high of 419,000 in the year 1999 to a low of 310,368 in 2013. That is the smallest number of baptisms since 1948 when Baptist president Harry Truman was in the White House.

To respond to these concerns, a “Pastors’ Taskforce on SBC Evangelistic Impact and Declining Baptisms” was established last year. The group will present its report at the annual meeting of the SBC in Baltimore in just over a week. Unlike many bureaucratic studies, this report is remarkable for its candor and for the stark analysis it presents.

SBC baptisms reached a plateau in the 1950s, peaked in the 1970s, and have stayed fairly constant since that time. However, the last six years show a downward trend in both SBC church membership and baptisms. The problem is even greater than these numbers indicate. Considering how the North American population has increased substantially between the 1950s’ baptism peak and today, these figures indicate how much ground we have lost and are losing.

The report encourages pastors in the denomination to “own” the problem and become a part of its solution.

The SBC’s declining numbers is part of the larger story of American religion in the early 21st century. In some ways, the SBC is a victim of its own success. Why should anyone think that America’s largest Protestant denomination would escape the difficulties facing every other religious body with a serious intent to attract a new generation of Jesus-followers? The generation of the nones and the nexts wants spirituality without religion, Jesus without the Church, and discipleship without the denomination.

Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research and an advisor to the taskforce, points to another impediment to reaching millennials and the next generation: the stuck-in-the-fifties syndrome. “I wish that the Southern Baptists would regain their historical passion for evangelism but do it in ways that are appropriate for the culture in which we find ourselves today,” said Stetzer. “If the fifties come back, a lot of Southern Baptist churches are ready to go.”

The taskforce did not speak to such sociological and cultural trends. On the premise that “judgment should begin in the house of God,” they have called on their fellow SBC pastors to pray for spiritual awakening, to model personal evangelism and disciple-making, and to equip parents and church leaders to pass along the faith intact to the rising generation.

Strikingly, the taskforce says nothing in its report about the act of baptism itself, its meaning and theology, what kind of catechesis should precede or follow from it, how baptism is related to the covenantal commitments of the congregation, or the ethical implications of being “buried with Christ and raised to walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4). Admittedly, such things were not in its brief. Its aim was to issue an urgent SOS—to stop the bleeding before it is too late—and the report does this very well. Yet is it just conceivable that the decline in baptismal statistics is masking another, more basic problem: the downgrading of baptism itself?

Two items in the report suggest as much. “We have a celebration problem,” the report frankly admits. Baptism has lost its place as a central act of Christian worship in many Baptist churches. No longer promoted as the decisive, life-transforming confession, witness, and event it is supposed to be, baptism is now often tagged on as a prequel to worship or added later in the service as an appendix to the “main event.” Although Baptists still perform baptism by total immersion, they do so in a prim, proper and quite decorous manner. Some churches have installed a newfangled baptistry in which the minister does not even enter the water but, standing behind a plastic shield simply reaches over and submerges the baptismal candidate who is seated on a reclining chair! But baptism should not be such a neat and tidy event. It ought to convey something of the trauma of death and resurrection, with real commotion and real water getting splashed around a bit.

Indoor baptistries only came into vogue around two hundred years ago. Until then, Baptist baptism was largely an outdoor event—hence the many Baptist churches named after sources of water: Dry Creek, Quail Springs, Two Rivers, Lakeside, Buck Run, Marble Falls, and the like. Public baptism,au naturel as it were, was a spectacle for the entire community, with many sceptics and potential converts among the onlookers. Baptism hymns, such as the Negro spiritual “Wade in the Water” connected outdoor immersion to salvific events in redemptive history, such as the deliverance of Israel through the Red Sea, Joshua’s crossing of the Jordan, and Jesus’s miracle at the stirring of the waters of Bethesda. Baptism was more than an act of individual piety. It was a way of construing reality in light of the mighty acts of God.

The report also acknowledges that “the only consistently growing age group in baptisms is age 5 and under.” One can mount a robust biblical defense of believers’ baptism as a conscientious act of repentance and faith, and there are well-reasoned arguments in support of infant baptism, but “toddler” or preschool baptism is something different, and relatively new in Baptist circles. Jesus took a special interest in children, received them into his arms, and blessed them. Based on this scene from the gospels, Baptist parents often present their newborn infants to the church in a service of prayer and dedication. But historically, baptism—like the vow taken by monks—has been reserved for a later stage in the journey of faith. It marks the putting off of the old life, and the putting on of a new one—a rigorous, disciplined life of faith.

It is well to remember that the Baptist witness was forged in the context of persecution and martyrdom. Something was decisively at stake for those early nonconforming Baptists who were willing to accept the loss of livelihood, the forfeiture of home, land, and family, even torture and death “for the testimony of God and their conscience,” as Menno Simons put it. While seeking to stem the decline in the number of baptisms, Baptists today would do well to recover the rich theological meaning of baptism itself as set forth by those who were first called Baptists.