Will Southern Baptists Ignore the Ongoing Decline?

A LifeWay report released today showed that overall SBC membership continues to decline-for the third straight year. Despite adding 162 churches across 42 state conventions, total membership slid from 16,228,438 in 2008 to 16,160,088 in 2009, a net loss of 68,350 members. The decline has occurred in spite of an increase of 7,539 baptisms year over year. The Annual Church profiles revealed a tiny (.36%) rise in total number of churches and a .37% increase in primary worship attendance.

As the chart shows, our membership appears to have peaked.
2009 ACP Graphs membership

Sometimes it is hard to know what to celebrate and about what to be concerned. The increase in baptisms is good news. Every baptism is a person being obedient to the teachings of Christ, publicly professing new life in Christ. The fact that there are more baptisms is a good thing, as is the slight increase in attendance.

Yet . . .

Saying this year’s increase in baptisms is good news is like bragging your state moved from the 47th to 46th state in educational achievement. It’s better, but it’s not time for a parade. The baptism numbers were the third lowest since 1993 (last year was lowest). It should break our hearts that this year’s baptism numbers are considered good news at all-it shows how far we have to go.

Is it the reversal of a trend in the number of baptisms? We hope, but we do not know. Baptisms have gone up and down on many occasions through the decades. This chart shows the pattern.
2009 ACP Graphs baptisms

On the other hand, membership change continues to follow its 50-year trend. The annual percent change of membership continues to move in the wrong direction.

LifeWay today cited our president Thom Rainer, “While the baptism numbers are encouraging, they do not necessarily signal reversal of fortune for the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.” He is right. We should always be encouraged by more baptisms but, put in context, today’s numbers are still a warning for us.

LifeWay’s long serving statistician, Cliff Tharp, first pointed out the trend several years ago-before membership had tipped into decline. Two years ago, I illustrated how the one-year decline was not a blip, but simply a continuation of the trend. In June 2009, Cliff pointed out that acknowledging the trend was critical to our future. Cliff said, “We have been slowing in our growth and have now passed into decline… But changes we make now can change that trend significantly. These stats are not new but it has never caught anyone’s attention until now.”

When LifeWay Research pointed out the trending membership change/dedline, some were upset-they said it was untrue. In the first year of decline, they said it was not a “trend” but a “blip”-and some said Southern Baptists were actually thriving. But, as the trend chart showed, that decline was not a blip but it was part of a larger trend line. And that trend does not end well.

Then came the second year of decline and some Southern Baptists warned that all this decline talk was just a figment of our imagination. As I said last year, that figment is rapidly becoming our future. Blips, untended, become dips… and dips, untended, become crypts.

2009 ACP Graphs membership trend

Note: this year’s membership fits right on the trend line… and that trend line is not our friend. The percent change trend line passed over to negative territory a few years ago.

Pretending it is not real won’t make it go away. There is more than one cause. Demographics, where we are located, and evangelistic lethargy, all play a part– but they do not make it acceptable.

We are a denomination in decline. Some don’t like to admit it. But, the decline of SBC membership is not a matter of debate. It is a matter of math. And, if trends continue, it won’t end soon. Expect to hear “membership decline” more times than “membership growth” over the next few years.

What are our options?

  • Option #1: Act as if nothing negative is really happening, proverbially fiddling while Rome burns.
  • Option #2: Acknowledge that the decline is real but blame some “other” segment of the convention for the decline. “It’s those contemporary pastors who have colluded with worldliness.” Or “It’s those old dusty pastors who have confused tradition with the power of the gospel.”
  • Option #3: Blame lost people for being lost. Perhaps complaining about the state of the country will make lost people want to be saved. Unlikely.
  • Option #4: Wish for something else. We can dream of a different future or pine away for a preferred past but without action in the present context of our churches, nothing with change.

The 5th and final option, and really the only option for us to really impact the world, is a serious self-examination as to whether how we make disciples is rooted in Scripture and delivering the gospel effectively to our mission field. We can scarcely hope to impact the world if we do not approach the gospel and kingdom of God in the same way that Christ did.

  • Do we value the kingdom as He did?
  • Do we love sinners as He loved them?
  • Do we serve as He served?
  • Do we remind our neighbors of Jesus and tell them of His gospel?

If we cannot answer in the affirmative to these questions, then we will continue on the present path. If we can or will embrace these concepts (and others), then we can trust that God will work through us to affect a move of gospel influence across North America and the world.

I, for one, will work for the latter. Let’s unite around our common mission and do it together.

Baptism and the Great Commission

Southern Baptists have been discussing a Great Commission Resurgence for a couple of years now. One related discussion concerns the relationship of baptism to the Great Commission. Some Baptists at least tacitly downplay the role of baptism and instead cast the Great Commission as simply the advancement of the gospel to all nations. Other Baptists argue that baptism is a crucial component of the Great Commission, and without it, the gospel may indeed be advancing but the Great Commission is not being fulfilled. So who is right? It seems to me that much is hinges upon how we define the Great Commission.

It has been popular since at least the 18th century (and possibly earlier) to refer to Matthew 28:19-20 as the Great Commission:

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.

In Matthew 28:19-20, part of Jesus’ commission is the command that we baptize new disciples. So if this passage alone is the Great Commission, then there is no doubt that baptism is a necessary component of the Great Commission.

But most missiologists argue that Matthew 28:19-20 is only one of five different articulations of the Great Commission found in the New Testament. Rather than equating the Great Commission with the Matthew passage, these scholars instead argue that the Great Commission is more broadly Jesus’ sending of his followers to preach the gospel to all people. Note the following:

And he said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:15-16).

And said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:46-49).

When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld” (John 20:20-23).

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth (Acts 1:8).

Of these other passages, the only one that mentions baptism is Mark 16, which is a disputed passage that many scholars believe is not original to Mark’s Gospel. Even if the Markan account is original, one could make the case that if all of these passages are indeed the Great Commission, then it cannot be argued that baptism is necessary to fulfilling the Great Commission since it is not mentioned in every version.

For my own part, I think both sides are right. I do agree with missiologists that the Great Commission is a broader concept than is found in Matthew 28 alone. The Great Commission is Jesus’ sending of his followers to proclaim the gospel to all nations. But I also believe that Matthew 28 is the fullest account of what it means to proclaim the gospel to all nations, and Matthew’s version makes it clear we are commanded to baptize in the name of the Triune God.

This question is important because Southern Baptists are not just a generic group of missions-minded Christians-we are Baptist Christians. And as Baptist Christians, we believe that New Testament churches are regenerated assemblies of immersed believers. When Baptist Christians spread the gospel to new places, we “do” Matthew 28 because we not only win the lost to Christ, but we baptize those new disciples and then attempt to teach them all things in the same way we honestly believe happened in the earliest New Testament churches.

I do believe there is a sense in which non-baptistic churches are pursuing the Great Commission, broadly speaking-they are preaching the gospel to all men and planting new churches among all the peoples of the earth. But as a Baptist Christian who wants to follow all the commands of my Lord, I also believe that baptistic groups alone are fulfilling the Great Commission in the totality of the way intended by our Lord through the planting of local churches of baptized disciples among all the peoples of the earth.

So what is the application? Well, part of what it means for us as Southern Baptists to embrace a Great Commission Resurgence is a renewed commitment to planting healthy churches in every corner of the globe. As we understand the Scriptures, this means those churches should be assemblies of disciples who have repented of their sin and trusted in Christ alone for their salvation and followed their Lord publicly through the ordinance of believer’s baptism. This is the New Testament way.

Southern Baptists should celebrate how God is working through many Christian groups to spread the gospel to all nations. I even think we should look for ways we can in good conscience cooperate with other Great Commission Christians in spreading the gospel to all people. But we must continue to hold fast to our New Testament commitment to plant churches of baptized disciples who will in turn plant more churches of baptized disciples. To do anything less would be to disobey our Lord’s commands about all that it means to “go therefore.”

Further Thoughts on the Marks of a True Church

This is a follow-up to my earlier article “On the Marks of a True Church: A Question.” Thanks to everyone who offered a comment. What follow are my own thoughts on this issue.

I first began to think deeply about this question during my doctoral studies. During my college and seminary days, I unhesitatingly embraced the so-called Reformation definition of a true church. But there was a problem: as a Baptist, I am honestly convinced that practices like a regenerate membership, believer’s baptism, and congregational polity characterized the local churches of the New Testament. So if I believe that a right administration of baptism is tied to the essence of a true church, and if I am a convictional Baptist (as opposed to a Baptist by conditioning or convenience), then it logically follows that I must reject all pedobaptist churches as true churches ispo facto.

But the fact is I don’t actually think that pedobaptist churches are not true churches. Wrong on baptism and perhaps other ecclesiological practices? You bet. But not false churches, or mere religious sects or societies. So the dilemma is this: either I needed to reject a widely used definition of what constitutes a true church or reject the validity of pedobaptist churches. I chose the former.

In his comment on yesterday’s post, Paul Brewster mentions my SEBTS colleague John Hammett, a theologian whose expertise is ecclesiology. In his fine work Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches (Kregel, 2005), Hammett distinguishes between beliefs that are essential to a true church, and beliefs that are important, but not essential to what constitutes a true church. A right understanding of the gospel is part of the being (esse) of a church, while a right administration of baptism (or the Lord’s Supper) is part of the well being (bene esse) of a church (Hammett, 62-66).

Southwestern Seminary administrator and theologian Thomas White makes the same argument in his chapter “What Makes Baptist Valid?” This chapter is found in a helpful recent collection of essays titled Restoring Integrity to Baptist Churches (Kregel, 2008), which White co-edited with his SWBTS colleagues Jason Duesing and Malcolm Yarnell. White argues that the gospel, a belief in the ordinances, and the intentional gathering of believers are of the essence of a true church, while beliefs/practices like having pastors and deacons, practicing discipline, a correct view of baptism, and an emphasis on missions are beneficial and preferable, but not essential to the church qua church (White, 113).

I agree with Hammett and White (some of yesterday’s commenters also made similar remarks). The right administration of baptism is more about the health of a church than it is the “trueness” of a church. What makes a local church a church, rather than a more generic group of like-minded folks, is most fundamentally belief in the good news of all that God has done on behalf of sinners through the person and work of Jesus Christ. So in my classes, I define a true church as followers: a true church is a gathering of believers where the gospel is rightly preached, the ordinances are administered in such a way that they do not reject or redefine the gospel, and the gathered individuals understand themselves to be a local church.

I think our Baptist Faith and Message is helpful in this discussion. Article VI is devoted to “The Church,” and says the following:

A New Testament church of the Lord Jesus Christ is an autonomous local congregation of baptized believers, associated by covenant in the faith and fellowship of the gospel; observing the two ordinances of Christ, governed by His laws, exercising the gifts, rights, and privileges invested in them by His Word, and seeking to extend the gospel to the ends of the earth. Each congregation operates under the Lordship of Christ through democratic processes. In such a congregation each member is responsible and accountable to Christ as Lord. Its scriptural officers are pastors and deacons. While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.

The New Testament speaks also of the church as the Body of Christ which includes all of the redeemed of all the ages, believers from every tribe, and tongue, and people, and nation.

Note that the BF&M refers to Baptist churches as “New Testament” churches. This is because Baptists believe their churches more closely conform to the New Testament pattern than other types of churches. (And lest you think this is arrogant sectarianism, rest assured that every other group, including non-denominational types, believes this about their churches as well.) I like the “New Testament” language for two reasons. First, it allows me to be appropriately exclusive-I believe Baptist churches are more biblical than pedobaptist churches in several important areas. Second, it allows me to be appropriately catholic-I believe pedobaptist churches that embrace the gospel are still churches, even if some of their practices are inconsistent with the New Testament pattern.

In my thinking, we have to allow for a category of true churches that are defective in some of their practices, like baptism. Some of our Baptist forbearers called such churches “irregular”-they are really churches, but they are also really wrong on the ordinances. Frankly, this seems like a charitable approach to take; after all, even though I think Baptist churches are “New Testament” on baptism, there may be blind spots where we fall short of the New Testament witness. And we need other types of churches to speak prophetically to us in such areas, just as we want to speak prophetically to them about certain ecclesiological convictions.

So in closing, I reject the Reformation definition of a true church because, if I were to accept it, I would be forced to argue that the vast majority of Reformation-era churches were not, in fact, true churches. All of the magisterial reformers failed to rightly administer baptism. Some of the radical reformers failed to rightly preach the gospel. (The Catholics missed it on both counts.) The church is first and foremost the community created by the gospel. The ordinances are important-very important-but are not of the essence of the church.