It has not been a good news cycle for Southern Baptists heading into next month’s annual meeting in Alabama. As Christianity Today titled their story on the convention’s most recent statistical report, “Southern Baptists Down to Lowest in 30 Years.”
Number of churches? Down.
Last year, a historic low of 246,000 baptisms were recorded by Southern Baptist churches. To put that into perspective, that is about how many people were baptized by the denomination back in the 1940s when it was less than half its current size.
As another Christianity Today article noted, “New findings released this year show the Southern Baptist trajectory more closely resembles the downward trend among the United Methodist Church (UMC), the nation’s largest mainline Protestant body, than fellow evangelicals in non-denominational traditions.”
There are many dynamics to this decline that can be explored: the rise of the “nones,” the growing influence of neo-Calvinism and the unavoidable missional debate it brings within the convention, outdated methods and misguided strategies… the list goes on. All have been discussed and debated at length.
But equally unsettling was the news story that only half of kids raised Southern Baptist stay Southern Baptist. In other words, not only are they not reaching new converts, they are not even keeping their own.
This has not been well-explored.
And to venture into uncharted territory even further, consider this question: What is the relationship between the rise of “toddler” baptism in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) and the recent rise in the number of Southern Baptist kids who do not stay Southern Baptist?
Just a handful of years ago (2014) it was revealed that the only demographic group within the SBC that was consistently growing in terms of baptisms were children younger than five years old.
Yes, you read that right. Less than five years old.
Let’s bracket off those traditions that practice infant baptism coupled with a later confirmation. I do not hold to that practice, but I respect the tradition. What is beyond my thinking is to hold a theological conviction in believer’s baptism, as Southern Baptists do, yet practice “toddler” baptism. Not only is it theologically incoherent, but arguably spiritual malpractice.
I have a five-year-old granddaughter, and eight more grandchildren under the age of five. I can tell you right now, as much as they would tell you they love Jesus, they don’t know what that means. They do not understand the cross, the nature of sin or what salvation means, much less how to ask for it. They do not understand heaven or hell. They have no concept of repentance (trust me on the repentance thing). They simply cannot enter into the kind of “belief” necessary to warrant baptism.
I love my grandchildren.
I want them to accept Jesus and be baptized.
But doing it now, at their age, would be ridiculous, no matter what might come out of their mouths. Side by side with “I love Jesus and have asked Him in my heart” could be “And I have 11 babies, three of which are unicorns.”
Could this be why, if we baptize them at this age, we create a spiritual crisis – or at best confusion – later on in life that leads them away from their spiritual roots rather than cements them? Granted, there are many, many more dynamics to consider (see above), but this can’t be helping the situation.
Our church recently had another of our weekend baptism celebrations where 174 people were baptized. Yes, there were children, making up around 30 or so of the total.
But they were ready.
At Meck, we do not baptize any child before they are in 2nd grade. Then, for those children between 2nd and 5th grade, we require a baptism orientation class that they take with one or more of their parents.
In that class, we go over the meaning of salvation, the meaning of baptism and much more—all to make sure they understand it, and have come to the decision on their own (and not just because Mommy or Daddy want them to do it). They must then write out a testimony of their decision, and have it reviewed by members of our MecKidz staff.
If all is well, then – and only then – do we publicly baptize them.
So what of those children, younger than 2nd grade, who make a sincere profession of faith?
I have no doubt that there is much parental pressure on pastors and churches, born out of spiritual insecurity, to get their children baptized as soon as they think they’ve “decided.” But since most Protestant Christians do not believe that baptism is “causative” (meaning that the act itself saves you), but “declarative” (it represents your salvation and constitutes your public profession of faith), there is no reason why you could not – and should not – delay that event for a child until they are of an age where the decision is truly consciously made, settled and the memory preserved.
There are many holes in the slowly sinking SBC ship. I hope they are patched. But let’s be sure to add to the list of concerns not only the shrinking numbers of people being baptized, but the readiness of those who are.
James Emery White
Kate Tracy, “Five Reasons Why Most Southern Baptist Churches Baptize Almost No Millennials,” Christianity Today, May 29, 2014, read online.
Lisa Cannon Green, “ACP: Worship Attendance Rises, Baptisms Decline, Baptist Press, June 1, 2018, read online.
Kate Shellnutt, “Southern Baptists Down to Lowest in 30 Years,” Christianity Today, May 23, 2019, read online.
Ryan P. Burge, “Only Half of Kids Raised Southern Baptist Stay Southern Baptist,” Christianity Today, May 24, 2019, read online.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunct professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.