Impact of 'Everyone Can' assessed
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)--The ambitious goal for Southern Baptists to baptize 1 million people in 2006 was not met, according to yearly statistics reported by SBC churches.
Baptisms for 2006 instead declined by 1.89 percent –- 364,826 in 2006 versus 371,850 in 2005.
The baptism thrust was launched by the SBC's immediate past president, Bobby Welch, at the outset of his two years in office in June 2004.
Named the "'Everyone Can!' Kingdom Challenge," it targeted 2006 as the year when Southern Baptist churches, for the first time, would reach the 1 million milestone in baptisms -– in essence, more than doubling the number recorded in recent years.
SBC President Frank Page, pastor of First Baptist Church in Taylors, S.C., told Baptist Press, "To hear news of a continued decline in baptisms is discouraging. However, Dr. Bobby Welch's emphasis upon evangelism and soul-winning is nothing but an echo from God's heart. Therefore, his pleas are biblically based and God-inspired. However, our obedience continues to lack both substance and passion."
Page said he would be "working closely with our North American Mission Board, our state partners, directors of missions as well as others to bring to our nation a true long-term, flexible, multi-faceted evangelism strategy which will enable us to help our churches know better 'how' to implement the wonderful encouragement from Dr. Welch and others to be soul-winners."
"Please pray for this national, continent-wide strategy," Page added, noting that it will be partly unveiled during the SBC's June 12-13 annual meeting in San Antonio.
Welch, the newly named Strategist for Global Evangelical Relations with the SBC Executive Committee and retired pastor of First Baptist Church in Daytona Beach, Fla., assessed the positive results of the campaign and voiced concern about what the baptism decline means for Southern Baptists in a column for Baptist Press April 17.
The Everyone Can initiative sought to "challenge everyone to do their very best," Welch noted. "It has done precisely what was hoped for by so many pastors and churches. A large number of our people made their very best efforts for Great Commission evangelism-discipleship. Many broke their recent history records in baptisms and more set new benchmarks in evangelism-discipleship and baptisms.
"For these people, it has been life-changing, world-changing and eternity-changing," Welch stated.
Welch continued by stating that "while many did their very best, many others did about the same or less than before," prompting him to underscore his belief that "a collective commitment" for evangelism-discipleship is needed among "a vast number of leaders at all levels of the SBC -- national, state and association and especially the local church."
The decline in baptisms "in the face of an all-out effort by so many sounds the most urgent cry Southern Baptists will ever hear, and it comes from the handwriting that is now on our wall -– and it is this: BACK TO THE FIELDS!" Welch wrote, referencing the "harvest fields" of non-Christians across the nation and the world.
Harry Lewis, executive vice president of missions with the North American Mission Board, said a decline in baptisms "is never good news for Southern Baptists. However, for the 364,826 people who did receive Christ as Savior and follow Him in believer's baptism, it was the best news of their lives.
"Every Southern Baptist should be both informed and alarmed that our declining baptism trend means we are not coming close to keeping up with population trends," Lewis said, noting that many SBC churches are plateaued or declining.
"This should call us all to have a renewed passion for sharing the Good News with our family, friends and neighbors," Lewis said. "... We should be reminded that God's plan for reducing lostness in North America is still His people, in His church, sharing Jesus with every lost person, through the power of His Spirit. When we as Southern Baptists recognize the serious consequence for those without Christ and become intentional about sharing Christ with others, spiritual renewal will come to North America, and our baptism trend will reverse."
Roy Fish, the longtime professor of evangelism at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary who recently served as interim president for the North American Mission Board, said he was "grieved" by the latest report.
"This is what we will continue to see as long as churches are ministering outside the context of spiritual awakening," Fish said. Putting recent baptism statistics into the larger perspective of history, Fish said past significant upswings in SBC baptisms have been linked to larger spiritual movements.
"In the early 1900s Southern Baptists saw their largest year-to-year increase in baptisms and that was in the context of a global awakening that was taking place," Fish said. In the 1950s nearly a full decade of baptism increases stemmed from what Fish called "the Mid-Century Revival." The 1970s, he said, "were also times of increase in our baptisms and that was a spill-over from the Jesus Movement."
Fish was quick to say that even outside the context of spiritual awakening, churches that are obedient and consistent in evangelism will see results.
"Even when the spiritual tide is out, there are still pools of God's activities, and churches will see success if they are faithful in sharing Christ regularly," Fish said.
States recording increases in baptisms in 2006 were (with number of the increase over 2005 in parenthesis): Alabama, 22,439 baptisms (up 1,070 over 2005); Alaska, 559 (147); Arkansas, 12,987 (591); California, 18,860 (11); Colorado, 1,935 (108); Florida, 39,148 (3,785); Hawaii-Pacific, 845 (391); Kentucky, 17,642 (272); Nevada, 1,512 (129); Ohio, 5,026 (221); Pennsylvania/South Jersey, 4,612 (169); South Carolina, 16,234 (18); Tennessee, 25,630 (877); Baptist General Association of Virginia, 8,136 (42); West Virginia, 1,162 (45); Wyoming, 381 (63).
States recording decreases in baptisms were (with number of the decrease from 2005 in parenthesis): Arizona, 2,840 (99); Dakotas, 240 (35); District of Columbia, 520, (175); Georgia, 31,185 (1,055); Illinois, 5,286 (1,193); Indiana, 3,451 (50); Iowa, 591 (81); Kansas-Nebraska, 2,635 (237); Louisiana, 10,219 (2,311); Maryland-Delaware, 3,380 (183); Michigan, 1,396 (71); Minnesota-Wisconsin, 407 (452); Mississippi, 12,829 (114); Missouri, 12,548 (512); Montana, 565 (9); New England, 1,191 (168); New Mexico, 2,269 (106); New York, 1,929 (102); North Carolina, 22,329 (680); Northwest (Washington-Oregon-northern Idaho), 2,101 (458); Oklahoma, 15,279 (652); Baptist General Convention of Texas, 41,953 (2,146); Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, 23,912 (612); Utah-Iadho, 905 (41); Southern Baptist Conservatives of Virginia, 23,912 (580).
Welch, in his BP column, noted, "One of the little-recognized deterrents to many people's earnest hard work in evangelism has to do with the last decade of poor seed sowing. It is impossible to reap much or anything where little or no seed has been sown, watered and cultivated. This last decade has seen many persons preoccupied with attempting to discover a magic way to do evangelism that does not call on people to go out into the world and intentionally sow seeds. We are now all faced with vast wastelands of seedless soil in North America."
Welch's hope that the Everyone Can campaign will continue to yield results is reflected at such congregations as Creekside Community Church in Bessemer City, N.C., where pastor Bob Wise recounted that he had begged God to let him leave the church prior to last June's SBC annual meeting in Greensboro, N.C.
"I was like, 'God, please. I want to be somewhere else. I can't take it no more. There's nothing happening,'" Wise said.
Creekside was meeting in a doublewide trailer beside a trailer park -– a transient community which left the church without enough stability to grow.
Welch's Everyone Can emphasis at the convention struck a chord with Wise, and he told his wife they had to take drastic measures at their church in order to see the kind of results Welch said were possible.
In September and October, the church was part of three evangelism events, including a Will Graham Celebration where church members served as counselors, and through those events they gained a substantial list of prospects.
"We just stayed at it for six weeks, knocking on doors and being obedient and talking to people and inviting people," Wise said. "And it just busted loose. We've had other people come and join the church that have already been saved and baptized and feel led to come help this church grow."
Last fall the church baptized 13 new believers, and in the first few months of this year they've baptized five people and have a couple more waiting, Wise reported.
With reporting by Mike Ebert & Erin Roach.