Recently I have had the privilege of reading several articles and blog posts dealing with the decline in student baptisms in Southern Baptist Churches. While I agree that we are tasked by the Lord Himself to proclaim His name among the nations (evangelism), I would also state that we have in turn placed an unhealthy and unbiblical emphasis on baptism. Certainly, some who read this will automatically begin to question how I would prefer that we measure the effectiveness of a church’s evangelism ministry, and that is exactly the point. Baptism is identified nowhere in Scripture as a means for measuring the effectiveness of evangelism. Baptism is, however, a mark of identification for a Christ-follower. My concern is that by focusing on the necessity of increasing the number of students we baptize, I am afraid we are getting the proverbial cart before the horse.
Baptism is important. No one denies that fact. It is an act of obedience and identification. However, it seems that baptism is the mark at which we are aiming. This is a faulty aim for several reasons, not the least of which is that the very premise upon which we seem to predicate the act of baptism is unbiblical. First of all, we (those of us in ministry, myself included) often aim to persuade students to “make a decision” for Christ. We then use passages of Scripture such as Paul before Agrippa or Joshua speaking to the Israelites near the end of his life to urge those under our care to decide to be born again. Even a cursory reading of the text found in John 3 reveals that being born again (regeneration) is not something an individual chooses for himself apart from the work of the Holy Spirit. Instead, it is act initiated by God in the life of an individual. The danger with our apparent focus on baptism is that we often overlook this rather important detail. While this may be an oversight, and we merely assume that the Gospel must have its work before baptism takes place, the reality is that by focusing so heavily on baptisms, we may well be baptizing unregenerate individuals who have a false sense of security brought about by their baptism.
I know that many ministers have some type of pre-baptismal counseling they conduct to explain that baptism has no saving efficacy, but we often focus on baptism as the next step after their “decision” (as though it were a LeBron James television special) to the point that baptism is not their identifying mark as a believer, but rather it is their identity to become a believer.
Another particular danger with this focus on increasing baptisms is that to adopt this focus, we are forced to exercise bad exegesis of the Scripture. God’s plan of evangelism, according to the Great Commission in Matthew 28, is to make disciples of all nations. Looking at the original language, we find that within that famous passage, there is only one imperative verb: make disciples. All of the other verbs are in their participial forms. In other words, those other actions found within the Great Commission are occurring as a direct result of making disciples. The danger of not understanding this in the original language is twofold: first, we are tempted (and often do) place an undue amount of importance on baptism while neglecting discipleship, and second, by baptizing those who may or may not be regenerate individuals, we profane the name of Christ by identifying those as His who bear no resemblance to Him in their lives.
How do we ignore discipleship? Oh, let me count the ways! (I know, it worked better for Shakespeare). Paul told Timothy to commit what Paul had entrusted to him to other faithful men who could teach others also. This is not an overnight, one-time, one-stop shop. Discipleship is a slow and tedious process that gets messy as we do life together with those to whom God has called us to serve. If our focus is on baptisms, (and it seems to be) then as soon as we get someone in the water, we move on to find someone else thus creating the equivalent of spiritual orphans. Obedience to the Great Commission requires more than us merely taking the name of Jesus to the ends of the earth. It requires that we make disciples of all nations. That takes time. It may mean that we will not baptize more students this year than ever before. It may mean that we see some students who walk away from our ministries because the cost was too great for them. This happened to Jesus! What exegetical method are we using to think that if crowds walked away from Him when He shared what following Him would cost, they will flock to us when put on our performances? Biblical discipleship is not a let-me-show-up-on-your-door-and-win-you-to-Christ-then-baptize-you-now-we-are-through event! Without obedience to the Great Commission in the area of discipleship, we unknowingly and unwillingly restrict the impact of the Gospel.
Perhaps one of the greatest dangers to our over-emphasis on baptisms is that, by baptizing unregenerate members, we have profaned the name of Christ. Many churches try to hold baptismal services as soon after the “decision” to follow Christ has been made as possible. Their determination is admirable, but perhaps misguided. I am afraid that by so doing, churches are baptizing people who are unregenerate. Unregenerate people live like unregenerate people. In other words, when we baptize someone who has not truly been born again, and they return to live the same unrighteous lifestyle they were previously living, the name of Christ is profaned. I certainly know of no churches where this is happening intentionally, but it has occurred as we have stressed the significance of baptisms.
Maybe even greater than damaging the testimony of Christ, is that our focus on decisional regeneration and baptisms are unknowingly emptying the cross of its power. When we talk about the churches who are “getting it done,” we tend to focus on what I like to call the three B’s: butts, budgets, and baptisms. We want to know how many people (or students) they run, what their budget is, and how many baptisms they had in a given year. Where is the saving power of Christ in that? Where is the Gospel in that? Where is the fact that a Holy God in eternity past knew that the people He created would rebel against Him, so He chose to send His only Son to leave the glory of Heaven and enter life as a baby born in a manger, live a perfect life to be the substitutionary atonement for that very humanity who rebelled against Him, suffered the torturous death of a cross, and raised up that Son after the three days, overcoming death, hell, and the grave, to redeem that very fallen and rebellious humanity to Himself? Where is that in our focus on the three B’s? Answer: It is not there! Like it or not, we can accomplish success in the three B’s and never be dependent on God. That is antithetical to the Gospel. The Gospel declares our dependence on God! Our over-emphasis on baptisms has emptied the cross of its power in the lives of the people God has called us to serve because we have led them to focus on those three B’s rather than the greatness of our Lord!
I am often confused by those who see discipleship and evangelism as mutually exclusive of one another. Nothing could be further from the truth. When discipleship and evangelism work synergistically, the results are astounding. Think back to the Book of Acts for a moment. Jesus had spent three years of His life pouring into those 11 Apostles. By the Day of Pentecost, there were about 120 followers of Jesus. However, that day alone over 3,000 were added to them. Before you start talking about how that was a special time and a special place, allow me to ask you a couple of things: was this not the result of a group of believers being empowered with the Holy Spirit, and do believers today not have this same Holy Spirit dwelling within them? Certainly I am not saying that you should or will see 3,000 added to you tomorrow. What I am saying is that those 11 men whom Jesus poured His life into literally changed the world by pouring their lives into the lives of others. Where biblical discipleship occurs, evangelistic efforts will multiply as a direct result of simple math. Seven disciples can do more than one. Twenty-one disciples can do more than seven, and so on.
The question I hear most often from the laity of churches reflects their confusion with why we have become so numbers conscious. Some see the emphasis on numbers as a means to determine success. Most of those to whom I have spoken, however, see the emphasis on numbers as a sign that they are not truly valued members of God’s household. There are a couple of reasons for why we have placed such a high priority on the amount of baptisms: budgets and ease.
Years ago a well-loved, conservative pastor who championed the cause for a return to expositional preaching compiled a guidebook for pastors in which he proposed that each new staff member should pay for himself by bringing in twelve additional families to the church. While the number may or may not be accurate any longer, many pastors have read that guidebook and have chosen to model at least some aspects of their ministry after the author’s. No doubt the author of this guidebook made his assertions in an effort to be good stewards of the resources that God has entrusted to a church. As a result of this, there are those who have placed such emphasis on baptisms in order to bring in more families and thus, justify the existence of their ministry positions.
The second reason this occurs is related to the first, but perhaps is even more dangerous: ease. It is easier to see people make decisions than it is to lead people to become disciples. As has been stated previously, discipleship is a slow, tedious, messy, and long-term process. Unfortunately, not all churches or staff members are willing to invest in such a way. We like celebrations, and when we see people celebrating their decision, that is easier and more exciting than the daily grind of discipleship.
The cold hard facts are in: we are not doing a very good job at evangelism, and we are doing an even worse job of discipleship as indicated by the amount of students leaving the faith post-high school. There is a solution, but there is no “silver-bullet.” The solution is a return to biblical discipleship, and that takes a long-term commitment on the part of the one doing the discipling as well as the one who is being discipled. After all, is that not what both Jesus and Paul taught?