The good news is that in 2013, autonomous congregations affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) did what their name suggests and baptized more than 300,000 new converts by total immersion. The bad news is that the SBC baptismal tally during 2013 is down more than 100,000 from the number reported in 2009. The decline represents a 26% drop in yearly baptisms, and the lowest number of baptisms reported by Southern Baptists for any year since 1948.
Moved, no doubt, by sheer embarrassment as well as by genuine concern, the Baptists did what good American Protestants do best and formed a committee. In this case, the SBC’s North American Mission Board (NAMB) created a Pastors’ Taskforce on SBC Evangelistic Impact and Declining Baptisms to study the problem and to make recommendations. The Taskforce presented its report, ink barely dry, at the SBC annual meeting earlier this month in Baltimore.
In a lead article titled “Troubled Waters,” in the online version of the journal First Things ( 6/2/14), ordained SBC minister Dr. Timothy George, founding dean of the interdenominational Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and chairman of the Doctrine and Christian Unity Commission of the Baptist World Alliance, reacts to the pastors’ taskforce report. Those who keep up with such details realize that while the jobs of pastor and theologian often interface and sometimes even overlap, they are two distinct callings.
That said, Timothy George is a fulltime theologian by profession, and it should come as no surprise were he instinctively to detect some deficiency in the taskforce’s report to which its pastors-authors were thoroughly if innocently blind. And so, it seems, he does, as his opening lines suggest. “Strikingly,” he observes, “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).”
To be fair, George notes, the pastors who produced this report were not commissioned to write a theology of baptism. But perhaps that fact itself is also indicative of the fundamental reason for the 100,000 fewer baptisms. Is it even “conceivable,” Dr. George asks no one in particular and anyone willing to engage him on the topic, “that the decline in baptismal statistics is masking another, more basic problem: the downgrading of baptism itself?” But when it comes to measuring doctrine by their actions, Southern Baptists can find plenty of company, as we will see next.
A church’s doctrinal beliefs are easily eroded in theory and teaching, but Beeson Divinity School’s founding dean and Southern Baptist theologian Dr. Timothy George is focused on actual practice. Specifically he is concerned about the placement of baptisms within a service of Christian worship. “Baptism has lost its place as a central act of Christian worship in many Baptist churches,” he opines. Rather than presenting baptism as a “decisive, life-transforming confession, witness, and event,” it is now treated “as a prequel to worship” or “as an appendix to the ‘main event.'”
Even the replacement of outdoor public baptisms by indoor baptistries comes under scrutiny, especially a certain “newfangled” one that is built to keep the minister dry behind a shield while immersing the candidate in a reclining chair. Baptism should “convey something of the trauma of death and resurrection,” says George, “with real commotion and real water getting splashed around.”
In 2006, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life of Washington, D.C., polled Pentecostals in ten countries on issues of importance to that Christian constituency. Although “speaking in tongues,” or glossolalia, is arguably the most defining difference between Pentecostals and other Christians, the Pew study revealed that in six of the ten countries surveyed, 40 percent of Pentecostals said they never pray or speak in tongues. However, it is safe to say that most if not all of the Pentecostal 40 percent who are holding their “tongues” still insist on the importance of glossolalia as a defining “marker” of their identity as Pentecostals. They downgrade “tongues” in practice though not in doctrine.
For 200 years, the folks in the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement (which includes my own faith heritage of Churches of Christ), have practiced weekly Communion, insisting that its meaning merits such frequent attention. Today some time- conscious Churches of Christ are busily seeking ways to speed up the distribution of the Communion elements, shaving minutes here to give extra minutes for some other part of the service. Yet none of the congregations doing this would even consider a less-than-weekly frequency for taking Communion. Nor would they concede that their actions downgrade the Lord’s Supper, which they verbally declare so important.
Southern Baptists are not the only Christians afflicted with the ailment of declining baptisms. Nor are they alone in downgrading by actual practice some activity which in theory they vigorously affirm, not only as a cherished doctrine but even as one of several identity markers that define their uniqueness on the broader Christian landscape as a whole.