The tragedy of the Southern Baptist Church

Tom Ascol is a Baptist Pastor in America. He also heads a group called "The Founder's Ministries", a committed group of Baptists within the Southern Baptist Convention who wish to return the denomination to its Reformed and Calvinist roots - which means of course that the guy has a LOT of hard work ahead.

Tom has just recently posted about the disgraceful way in which the majority of SBC Baptist churches report their Baptisms. Essentially he points out the fact that most SBC Baptist churches overstate and "fudge" the amount of baptisms that their church has when they report them.

The idea is that each Baptist church reports to the SBC on an annual basis the amount of baptisms that were performed in the previous 12 months. Because Baptists see baptism as the natural consequence of conversion (which, as a Presbyterian, I say "yes... but"), a successful Baptist church is seen as one that has seen more people converted to Christ - a process that is (theoretically) highlighted by the amount of Baptisms.

But Ascol's article points out that many Baptist churches get away with reporting false figures (ie inflating the number of baptisms) or baptizing many who have been baptised before (multiple baptisms) or baptizing people who have no real genuine faith in Christ. The figures look great, but a deeper analysis shows that there is something deeply wrong with the SBC.

It needs to be pointed out that the SBC is the largest protestant denomination in America, with over 16 million members. Moreover, it is, these days, a thoroughly conservative and evangelical church. So when we think about American evangelical Christians, we have to take into account that a large swathe of them are Baptists - and anything that afflicts the SBC will afflict American evangelicalism as well.

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, conservative evangelicals fought a bitter but successful war with the liberal/modernists who had taken over many important church positions, including teaching positions at various seminaries. But it appears as though this victory has proved to be hollow. Sure, the "scourge" of modernist theology may have been removed, but it is increasingly likely that it has been replaced by shallow pragmatism.

Fudging the numbers of baptisms - something that Ascol says is rife amongst the SBC - is a serious problem. It is a problem not just because the real picture of SBC church life is hidden (census figures indicate that the SBC is declining in number) but because the process of "fudging" indicates a complete lack of spiritual maturity by church pastors and deacons.

In order for a pastor or church leaders to deliberately fudge these figures, they need to have justified this sort of action in their mind. Moreover, they obviously feel that they need to impress men, rather than God - who, after all, knows exactly how many people have been coverted and/or baptized from the previous 12 months. This desire to impress men rather than God will obviously be translated into the pastoral relationships with members of the congregation to ensure that the church leaders are "seen" to be godly and successful. The congregation will model this behaviour to ensure that they, too, are "seen" to be godly. As a result, all sorts of sinful behaviour is covered up and/or justified.

Ascol argues that Considerably less than half of (the members of the church) show any consistent signs of being born of God's Spirit. Jim Elliff, former resident consultant for the Midwestern Center for Biblical Revival at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, says this about the Southern Baptists:

Out of the Southern Baptist's 16,287,494 members, only 6,024,289, or 37%, on average, show up for their church's primary worship meeting (usually Sunday morning). This is according to the Strategic Information and Planning department of the Sunday School Board (2004 statistics). If your church is anything like normal, and is not brand new, your statistics are probably similar. In other words, if you have 200 in attendance on Sunday morning, you likely have 500-600 or even more on your roll. Many churches have an even worse record.

Discerning who among us is regenerate is not an exact science, but a closer look at these numbers will at least alert us to the fact that most Southern Baptists must certainly be dead spiritually. That is so, unless, of course, you claim that there is no difference between a believer and a non-believer.

In the average church you can cut the 37% Sunday morning attendance by about two-thirds or more when counting those interested in a Sunday evening service, or other gatherings held in addition to the principal meeting of the church. In 1996, the last time the SBC kept these statistics, the number of Sunday evening attenders was equal to only 12.3% of the membership (in churches that had an evening meeting). One might ask what makes us claim that the rest are Christians, if they involve themselves with God's people only on such a minimal, surface level? How are they any different from the people who attend the liberal church down the street—the "church" where the gospel is not even preached?

Something is rotten in the SBC. Here in Australia we have a protestant denomination called the Uniting Church that has been dominated by gospel-less liberalism for decades. As a result, their churches are closing all over the place as congregations dwindle and merge with others. The result of gospel-less churches is always the same - decline and degradation.

But it seems as though the "conservative revival" within the SBC has not led to spiritual renewal. The gospel is not being truly proclaimed in the SBC and the word of God is not being taught either. Without the work of the Holy Spirit in and through the proclamation of the gospel and the word, the church starves.

Fortunately, people like Tom Ascol and the Founder's ministries are committed to long-term renewal. We need to pray for them and for the effect that they will have upon American evangelicals in the future.

From the Theosalient Department

© 2006 Neil McKenzie Cameron, http://one-salient-oversight.blogspot.com/

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