Dr. William H. Day, Jr. serves as the Gurney Professor of Evangelism and Church Health, and as Associate Director of the Leavell Center for Evangelism and Church Health, at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. He also serves as Pastor of Parkview Baptist Church in Metairie, Louisiana.
Last year the number of baptisms in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) was 331,008. Except for a minor increase in 2009, our baptisms have been declining since 1999. In just ten years our baptisms have declined over 87,000 (a 21% decrease). The number of baptisms in the SBC is now at the lowest since 1948 when we had 310,226. We wait each year to see a turn-around. After all, we’ve had declines before now. We console ourselves by remembering that periods of decline have eventually been followed by periods of increase. We think surely the end of our decline in baptisms will occur this year, only to be disappointed again and again.
While many know this decline in baptisms is bad, it is worse than people realize. Actually, baptisms in the SBC have been on a plateau since 1950. From 1936 to 1950 we had the greatest period of increasing baptisms in the history of the SBC, growing from 191,933 to 416,867. Since 1950 our overall situation has seen brief periods when baptisms increased followed by a similar period of decline. When you look at the total picture, our baptisms have been on a plateau for 60 years!
Nothing we have done seems to have changed this picture. We have hit what I call THE WALL. Evangelism campaigns, programs for Sunday School growth, emphases on revival, and the planting of new churches have not been able to knock down The Wall.
What is the solution to our baptism decline? How can we knock down The Wall? We could point to our denomination and say, “Fix it!” Let’s plant more churches. Let’s have a renewed commitment to evangelism. Let’s pray for revival. We could look to our churches and say, “Get on the ball!” Deacons, Sunday School teachers, and members stop being so involved in meetings and focus on our most important task – evangelism. We could say our baptism decline is a denominational or church problem. The downside of this approach is that it would take extensive planning, time, money, and work. While this approach may work over time, there is a quicker way to knock down The Wall.
In 2009 we had 122,285 clergy in the convention. Consider these startling ideas: If in 2010 each member of the clergy in the SBC had led one more person to Christ and baptized them, the number of baptisms in the SBC would have been 454,606 not 332,321. This number almost equals our best year in baptisms. Moreover, if each member of the clergy had reached one more person for Christ each quarter of last year and baptized them, we would have baptized 821,461.
Expanding this idea, if our clergy would set a goal this next year to reach one more person per quarter and in addition our deacons, teachers, and members followed this example, we would see millions saved and baptized. We must realize it’s not just my brother or my sister but it’s me Oh Lord standing in the need of sharing the gospel. Then, The Wall will come tumbling down.