You are hereDeclining membership, baptisms worry Southern Baptists
Declining membership, baptisms worry Southern Baptists
By Peter Smith, The (Louisville) Courier-Journal
For most of four decades, Southern Baptists could boast of rising membership even as more moderate and liberal Protestant denominations lost members in droves.
But with membership slightly down last year, and flat for the past five, Southern Baptists face a growing anxiety about their future as they gather for their annual meeting Tuesday in Indianapolis.
"We have peaked," Southern Baptist statistician Ed Stetzer wrote in an online commentary on the latest statistics from 2007. "...For now, Southern Baptists are a denomination in decline."
What worries Southern Baptist leaders even more than the membership numbers is a steady decline in the conversion ritual that gave their denomination its name — baptisms.
Annual rates of baptisms have steadily declined not only in recent years, but also during the past 35 years. In 2007, Southern Baptist churches reported 345,941 baptisms. That's down 12% from 2002 and 22% from 1972.
National figures show the ratio of baptisms to members is shrinking — meaning that it takes more members to achieve the same amount of evangelistic success than it once did.
Baptists and some other evangelical denominations view baptism as a central measure of spiritual vitality because they only baptize those old enough to make a commitment to Jesus — meaning that it measures how successful they are in spreading the Gospel.
Along with declining rates of baptisms, policies on who can become missionaries and a shortfall in donations to fund missions will be hot topics at the Southern Baptist Convention, which runs Tuesday and Wednesday.
For the declining baptism rate, some blame the downturn on Baptists' doctrinal divisions, including the battles of the 1980s and 1990s that led to a conservative shift in the denomination as well as more recent debates.
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