John Mark Yeats, Contributing Writer
Kansas City – The week of May 17 the North American Mission Board (NAMB) released the results from its baptism task force. A key study, the desire was to find out why Baptism rates in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) are plateaued and declining.
Over the last few years, accusations and suspicions have flown from different sections of the convention. Some laid the blame at the feet of Calvinists; others at failing discipleship or a lack of biblical preaching.
But it never was that simple. With 45,000 churches, a rapidly shifting culture and a denomination sorely in need of revival, the new study actually highlights some of the most disturbing trends. On the 2012 Annual Church Profile:
• 25% of SBC churches reporting had ZERO baptisms.
• 60% reported no baptisms of young adults (12-17)
• 80% reported either none or only 1 baptism in the 18-29 age group.
Thankfully, there was one area of growth. But don’t celebrate just yet. The one area of growth is the 5 and under group.
That’s right. Preschoolers.
We have become incredibly adept at baptizing preschoolers.
Brothers and sisters! This should not be!
At its best, baptizing so many who are very young, we run a high risk of minimizing the significance of baptism, and at its worst we have become semi-pedobaptists.
Historically, Baptists delayed baptism of children for a myriad of reasons. From a Scriptural standpoint, baptism demonstrated a renunciation of the former life and a clear commitment to follow Christ. Delaying baptism of children until they could demonstrate clear thinking on the subject was not uncommon. Especially when the choice of baptism was costly. Our Baptist brothers and sisters around the world delay in baptizing children until they are old enough to firmly stand and make a clear confession of faith. It costs them dearly to hold to the truths of Scripture. In addition, baptism placed you in the full membership of the church. Most SBC Baptist churches understand (read the church constitution) that baptism is one of the means of joining the church. Thus, when a child is baptized, they are placed on the membership roles of the church. This has significant implications:
• Baptists believe in regenerate church membership. If we are quick to baptize pre-schoolers who are not able to articulate or demonstrate the realities of the new birth, how are we to understand their commitment. Furthermore, the number of individuals we “re-baptize” as young adults because their childhood confessions were not genuine is significant.
• Members of a church are to share in the responsibilities of the congregation. We could think of that in terms of service in the church but let’s also think clearly about what that means in our congregational practice – unless stipulated otherwise in your church constitution, that means every baptized child in your congregation has full voting rights. Yes, that pre-schooler your congregation defined as a member can be swayed by parents and have her vote count.
• Members are subject to church discipline. If your congregation takes discipline of church members seriously, you should be aware that receiving children into your membership can muddy the waters on church discipline and the role of the congregation in spiritual growth.
Perhaps even more importantly, Baptism of very young children often confuses an ordinance for a sacrament. Baptists believe in two ordinances of the church: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. These ordinances are to be obeyed, but they do not contain any means of salvation in and of themselves. Many children I talk with who desire to be baptized actually conflate the gift of salvation in Christ with the act of baptism making baptism sacramental. Often parents or grandparents will make the same mistake seeking to “do the deed” so they have one less person to worry about.
So what are we to do? I believe there are some some serious pastoral considerations to take into account:
Do not prevent children from coming to Christ! A child can respond to the clear teaching of Scripture and the call of the Holy Spirit. As Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me” (Matt. 19:14 and Luke 18:16). We should celebrate every child who comes to Jesus!
Consider discussing this issue with your congregation and set into place some helpful safeguards:
• Consider a standard minimum age for children to be baptized. Criswell used the age of 12 as a standard because of the understanding of Bar-Mitzvah. Others place it at 11 or 13. Here’s the warning, though: since Scripture doesn’t place a minimum age, this is simply a determination by using wisdom, and you should expect some exceptions.
• Be clear on who can be a member according to your church constitution. It may be the case that it is best to not affirm any person for membership until he or she is 18. But be warned. De-coupling baptism from membership has its own set of ecclesial issues that warrants discussion at another time, but churches feel this is a better solution.
• Above all, see this as part of your overall discipleship strategy in your congregation. When I was a pastor, we created a four week class for the child who professed faith in Christ AND the parents to attend. We used Lifeway’s “I’m a Christian Now!” material that gave families the opportunity to fully discuss what baptism means. I gave the children and the parents a tour of the baptistery areas, and we reinforced the concept that baptism does not save (it is not sacramental)! We not only had the opportunity to see unbelieving parents come to Christ, but many of the believing parents also chose to delay baptism of their child until they could see marks of discipleship in their child’s life.
• Avail yourself of the literature available on this issue. Schriner and Wright’s book, Believer’s Baptism spends significant time on this very issue. Sojourn Church has a helpful booklet for parents of kids who desire baptism. Pastor Scott Maze has a great article entitled, “When Should My Child Be Baptized” that provides helpful info for parents.
I am sure this baptism report is going to create some intense discussion over the next months as we begin to wrestle with the ideas this report contains. Ultimately, it should drive us to our knees in weeping and crying out to God. We need a fresh movement from our God in our churches to see the salvation of souls.