I have been captivated by Jesus’ parable of the sower and the soils since my youth. My first sermon as a fifteen-year-old boy was from this text. I still have the handwritten note cards I used to deliver that message.
The parable is clear: when we are faithful to sow the seed of the Word of God, the Lord is faithful to give a harvest. In some settings, the yield may be one hundredfold; in others it may only be sixty or perhaps thirty. But the text is clear—there will always be a crop when seed is sown. The seed of His Word will not return void (Isaiah 55:11)!
As I read our SBC Annual Church Profile submitted by churches each year and see the declining numbers of baptisms, I wonder what our Lord thinks about Southern Baptists. Is He pleased at our evangelistic efforts? Or does He see a people who have left their first love of “noising abroad” His glorious salvation?
This year’s baptism numbers are a heart-break. I remember when our Convention set a goal of eight to one (8:1)—eight Southern Baptists to win one new convert to faith in Christ. In 2013, our ratio of church members to baptisms is more than fifty to one (51:1). This year’s report reveals several interesting matters worth mentioning (see chart below).
First, our churches reported 310,368 baptisms this year, the lowest number of baptisms since 1948—which, by the way, was the first time baptisms had topped three hundred thousand.
Last year’s reported baptisms came from 27,179 cooperating churches in the Convention. This means that 18,946 churches had either a no-report or a zero in the baptisms category. Some churches submitted an incomplete report, leaving the baptisms category blank, or did not submit a report at all. Others reported zero baptisms.
Second, of the 27,179 churches that reported one or more baptisms last year, their collective baptism ratio was forty members for each reported baptism (40:1). If we include all 46,125 churches, the membership-to-baptism ratio rises to fifty-one members for each baptism. No matter how you parse it, this analysis reveals the desperate need to revitalize our churches for personal evangelism. NAMB’s research reveals that upwards of 70 percent of our churches need revitalization strategies and another 15 percent are in imminent peril of closing their doors.
Third, the most effective ratio of members to baptisms came from churches at both ends of the membership spectrum.
More than twelve thousand churches (12,039) that reported one or more baptisms have a membership of two hundred or fewer. And here is the amazing thing—the baptism ratio for these 12,039 churches was seventeen members for each reported baptism (17:1). This wonderful news points to the value smaller churches bring to their respective communities and to the Kingdom!
Only forty-two churches that reported one or more baptisms have a membership of more than ten thousand. The baptism ratio for these churches was twenty-seven members for each reported baptism (27:1). Again, this is encouraging news and cause for rejoicing.
God’s Enduring Assurance
Overall, none can dispute that our evangelistic effectiveness is sluggish. Some may object that not every seed falls on fertile soil. True. In every generation, some seed falls on the wayside, some on stony ground, and some among the thorns. But, in each generation, ours included, God is always at work preparing good soil that will gladly receive the word of His salvation.
One of three things must have happened along the way. Either the Gospel is no longer the power of God unto salvation (Romans 1:16). Or, the promises of God to multiply His sown Word have term limits and we’ve outlived their effective date. Or, we just aren’t sowing the seed of the Word of God in people’s hearts the way we used to.
We know the first two options are false. The Bible contains this clear and enduring promise: The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: but the word of our God shall stand for ever (Isaiah 40:8, KJV).
Given this promise, the case can be made that we just aren’t sowing seed in sufficient quantities to yield an abundant harvest.
The reasons are predictable—competing factions within the church and conflicting visions for the church; pastors forced to meet unrealistic expectations from demanding church members; lack of training resources to equip church members; a rapidly changing culture. Cannot we agree that these distractions come from the Adversary? His divisive devices are designed to divert our energies from the main task of evangelizing and discipling the peoples of this fallen world.
Each year the Convention adopts a ministry calendar. Soul-Winning Commitment Sunday is set for October 5. I want to issue a challenge to each church in our Convention for this year’s Soul-Winning Commitment Day.
What if . . . each church began praying intentionally and specifically at every worship service for one more soul during the next year. If your church baptized none, pray for one precious soul to come to faith in Christ and be baptized during the year. If you baptized two, pray for three. If you baptized twelve, pray for thirteen. If you baptized twenty-seven, pray for twenty-eight. If you baptized 534, pray for 535.
What if . . . each church that baptized at least one this past year prayed intentionally and specifically at every worship service for a sister church in your association.
What if . . . each church that baptized at least one reached out to a church that baptized none and offered to help in any way that wouldn’t threaten that sister church.
This thing can be turned around.
God hasn’t changed—He is [still] able to save to the uttermost those who come to God through Him [Christ] (Hebrews 7:25, NKJV).
The Holy Spirit hasn’t changed—The wind [still] blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit (John 3:8, NKJV).
The Scriptures haven’t changed—Faith [still] comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God (Romans 10:17, NKJV).
The power of the Gospel to transform people’s lives hasn’t changed—For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is [still] the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek (Romans 1:16, NKJV).
Baptisms Reported on the 2013 Annual Church Profile
|Number of Churches Reporting One or More Baptisms||Membership Range of Churches Reporting One or More Baptisms||Total Members of Churches Reporting One or More Baptisms||Reported Baptisms||Ratio of Members to Baptisms of Churches Reporting One or More Baptisms|
|293||did not report membership||4,327||n/a|
|18,946||Churches either did not submit an ACP report; submitted an incomplete ACP report; or reported no baptisms on their ACP report.|
|Totals Reported on the 2013 Annual Church Profile|
|Number of Churches||Total Members||Reported Baptisms||Member/Baptism Ratio|
Frank S. Page is president and CEO of the SBC Executive Committee and is a member of Clearview Baptist Church in Franklin, Tennessee.