FIRST-PERSON: Baptisms -- more than numbers

JACKSON, Tenn. (BP) -- As Baptist followers of Jesus Christ, we Southern Baptists have always emphasized the importance of believer's baptism.

As we see it in Scripture, believer's baptism is:

-- a public testimony of a new believer's faith in Christ and the church's recognition of that faith (Acts 2:38-41; 1 Peter 3:21).

-- a pictorial representation of the Gospel the believer has responded to in faith (Romans 6:3-5; Colossians 2:11-12).

-- the new covenant sign that a believer is part of the body of Christ (Galatians 3:27; Ephesians 4:5).

-- a key component in faithfully fulfilling the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20).

For Southern Baptists, baptism is also a key measure of evangelistic fruitfulness. Yes, we sometimes baptize someone who isn't really a believer. But false believers also fell away from the faith in the New Testament (Hebrews 6:4-8; 1 John 2:19). Granted, not every baptism is of a new believer. For example, we baptize longtime believers who were sprinkled as infants but have never received scriptural baptism. And yes, sometimes we "dunk" some folks a second time whom we shouldn't because they've already been biblically baptized. Think, for instance, of the sincere Christian with a tender conscience who struggles with assurance of salvation.

These caveats notwithstanding, baptism remains one important -- and biblical -- way to gauge how many unbelievers we've reached with the Good News of Jesus Christ. While the saying has become clichéd when it comes to baptism, we count people because people count.

Last June, Steve Gaines was elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention. Like many of his predecessors, the Memphis-area pastor has called for a renewed commitment to personal evangelism. His call is particularly urgent, however, in view of the present moment in time.

The United States is larger and more diverse ethnically and culturally than it ever has been. Immigrants and short-term migrants such as students and seasonal workers are flocking to our country by the millions. Our major cities have become enormous metropolitan areas that have absorbed the small towns around them. The U.S. Census Bureau, meanwhile, estimates around 46 million Americans still live in rural areas.

Yet, we're reaching fewer and fewer people with the Good News.

In 1950, the U.S. population numbered around 152 million and Southern Baptists baptized 376,085 people. We averaged one baptism for every 19 Southern Baptists. In 1972, our record year for baptisms, we immersed 445,725 people out of a total population of about 210 million. In 2015, the U.S. population stood at just over 320 million and Southern Baptists baptized 295,212 people. On average, it took 52 Southern Baptists to baptize one person.

No doubt there are many reasons for these declining baptism numbers that are unrelated to evangelistic faithfulness. Some churches have grown increasingly cautious about baptizing young children who might not yet understand enough about the Gospel to be clearly converted. Some churches don't include the baptisms of longtime believers in their reported statistics since those sorts of baptisms are more about the individual's obedience than they are the recent salvation of an unbeliever. And some churches fail to report their baptism statistics to the denomination for any number of reasons. U.S. birth rates, meanwhile, are declining, meaning there are fewer young people to reach. The vast majority of our baptisms have always been our own children and grandchildren.

Nevertheless, I doubt anyone really believes that these situations fully or even substantially account for our decline in baptisms. Simply put, we aren't reaching as many unbelievers as we once did, even as the proportion of spiritual lostness around us is growing all the time. Of course, God alone does the saving -- we can't force anyone to believe. Yet, as a general rule, the more we share the Good News through personal evangelism, the more people God saves through the proclamation of the Gospel.

The start of a new year is an ideal time to ask whether we are sowing wide enough. Am I sharing the Gospel as frequently as I could? Are you? Is my church doing all it can to reach our community? Is yours? Pastors, are you leading your members by example and by precept to be an evangelistic people? For most of us -- for me -- the answer is no.

Currently, there are approximately 46,500 Southern Baptist churches. If each of those churches averaged just one baptism a month -- 12 during the course of the year -- we would baptize 558,000 people in 2017. That is over 113,000 more baptisms than our record number for one year and nearly twice as many baptisms as 2015. One baptism a month, per church. Over half a million total baptisms.

Increasing our number of baptisms isn't about improving our statistics, or breaking previous records, or reversing recent trends. It's about reaching men, women and children who are created in God's image, whom Christ died for, and whom God loves and wants to save. The time is short because Jesus is coming back. The time is now because none of us is promised tomorrow. The place is here, there and everywhere, because the lostness is all around us. May we resolve in 2017 to sow more widely, pray more fervently and trust the Lord to save a multitude of sinners by His grace and for His glory.

Nathan A. Finn is dean and professor of Christian thought and tradition in Union University's School of Theology and Missions in Jackson, Tenn.
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