How should the guy in the pew react when he sees a headline like “IMB Baptisms hit lowest level since 1969”?
Overseas baptisms for 2015 dropped to 54,762 from the 190,957 reported for 2014, according to information submitted by the International Mission Board in response to a request by the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee. Likewise, the number of new churches fell from 13,824 to 3,842 over the same one-year period.
The baptism figure represents the lowest level reported in 46 years.
Or when we get the annual statistical report which most years includes the depressing phrase “baptisms decline”?
Southern Baptists also experienced a decline in baptisms, down 3.3 percent to 295,212. Reported baptisms have fallen eight of the last 10 years. The ratio of baptisms to total members decreased to one baptism for every 52 members.
In the bizarro world of SBC statistics no metric is more scrutinized than that of baptisms but there is also no figure less meaningful in some contexts than that of total baptisms. So, how does the pew-sitter sort this stuff out? Maybe by considering a few things.
In regard to the celebrated SBC annual statistical report published each year at the annual meeting, the number reported for total baptisms have trended downward for quite a few years. Ed Stetzer said in 2011 that, “for now, SBC membership is in decline, membership change is in a 50-year decline, and baptisms are in a decade-long decline and trending down over time.” The past five years have extended the downward slide of baptism numbers.
Churches baptize according to generally accepted practices: someone is saved, they are then immersed and the church reports one baptism for that person for that year. It doesn’t matter how old the person is, or whether or not the individual has had a previous baptism (even in the same church). I haven’t seen hard data on how many of our annual baptisms are re-baptisms but it would be a significant proportion, particularly in the roaring years of the 1970s through 1990s when Baby Boomers who had been dunked at young ages got old enough to fully grasp the concept of following Jesus. We all know evangelists who specialize in re-baptisms. Some pastors embrace the approach, though they will not tell you that they do so partly because it bumps up their church baptism numbers and thereby adds to the pastor’s stature among his peers.
A good percentage of churches fail to report their statistics and numbers are extrapolated and plugged in to the annual statistical report. Generally though, the baptism numbers show us what is happening in the SBC in regard to evangelism and church growth.
No argument from me that baptisms are down, any way you slice it or figure it, and have been declining for decades.
Overseas baptisms, on the other hand, are not so comparable or valuable in explaining our SBC work. According to the quote above, the number of baptisms reported by IMB dropped a staggering 71% from 2014 to 2015. Fully 136,195 less in 2015 than 2014.
What accounts for that calamitous drop? Our missionaries on strike? God takes a vacation in many countries?
Nope. Nothing like that. IMB changed the manner in which baptism are reported. It’s mildly complicated, but the article by Robin Hadaway, Understanding the IMB statistics, explains the changes made and why. Essentially, IMB practices had progressed to where our personnel were reporting data from some overseas national bodies with whom they worked or had worked. The general principle used now is for IMB personnel to report only “those numbers directly associated with IMB personnel who are also able to authenticate them.” While still rather loose, this policy avoids the massive numbers earlier reported, numbers that perhaps represented some historical ties but not any direct IMB personnel activity.
With IMB’s emphasis on UPGs and work in difficult, remote, and restricted areas, we should expect less reported baptisms. Critics can, and have, ignored the story behind the numbers and have assailed the IMB for being less effective. Such is SBC life these days.
I’m guessing that NAMB will be in for some criticism in regard to their church planting and baptism reports. We are starting more churches but some are reporting that these churches are showing fewer baptisms. I’d look at the raw data and chew on that before I conclude that the earlier NAMB was more effective than the present NAMB. NAMB statistics on church plants, church planters and other things were highly unreliable pre-2010.
I would note that the Florida Baptist Convention has stopped reporting the considerable numbers of baptisms in Haiti where FBC churches are heavily involved in the work. The FBC report on baptisms said, in part
According to our preliminary report we rejoice with 25,158 baptisms for the 2015 church year in our Florida Baptist churches. This number reflects 53.8 percent of our churches reporting their baptisms. We celebrate the 50,000 plus reported baptisms for the year in Haiti, but we will report only the baptisms from our Florida Baptist churches. The baptisms from Haiti have been added into the total Florida Baptist baptism numbers in the past. The number reported for Florida for the 2015 church year will only reflect the baptisms from our Florida Baptist churches and will not include Haiti.
If one had scrutinized the SBC state convention statistics for last year, one would have seen that the Florida Convention was far beyond all the states in baptism totals and baptism/membership ratio. This was because the Haiti figures were added to the FBC’s reported totals. No longer, though.
There are times when I think we would be better off by not being so number-focused. My church baptized several last month. Thank God for that and whether they get compiled into a grand number for 2016 or not, those represent individuals who have been buried with Jesus and raised to walk in newness of life. That counts.
But, alas, we are Southern Baptists and numbers are in our DNA. No escaping that.