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If you want to predict the future of a country’s economy there are no shortage of metrics to which you can turn. Some leading indicators are broad-based, such as the direction of the Standard & Poor’s 500 stock index, while others, such as building permits for new private housing units, are based on specific areas of the economy.
There are even some indicators that seem bizarre, but do appear to correlate with the economic cycle. For instance, the Hemline Index, a theory first presented by an economist in 1926, suggests that hemlines on women’s dresses rise along with stock prices. In good economies, hemlines get shorter (as seen in the 1960s), and in poor economic times, (such as the 1929 Wall Street crash), hemlines can drop almost overnight. It sounds silly enough, but in 2010, research confirmed the correlation, suggesting that the economic cycle leads the hemline with about three years.
While there are numerous leading indicators that can foretell the future of a nation’s economy, there are few metrics that serve to predict its spiritual direction. Such metrics can be useful, though, which is why I want to make the case for what might seem like an unusual spiritual indicator: Annual baptisms in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC).
On first consideration, such a metric may not seem to be all that important — even for the SBC, much less to other denominations and traditions in American Christianity. As Dr. Paige Patterson, the president of the SBC’s largest seminary recently wrote, “The one statistic that does concern me is the diminution of baptisms.” But while increasing baptisms should not be the focus of the SBC (or any other denomination) I believe that metric can serve as a proxy for the growth or decline of what is often dubbed “mere Christianity.”
Christians believe, of course, that the spread and growth of the faith is ultimately dependent on the work of the Holy Spirit. But we also recognize that Jesus has tasked us with carrying his message throughout the world. In the passage often referred to as the “Great Commission,” Jesus says to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you (Matthew 28:19-20). Southern Baptists take this call so seriously that in 2012 the SBC adopted an auxiliary name for member churches that want to use it: "Great Commission Baptists."
To become a member of an SBC-affiliated church, an individual must undergo baptism by immersion in water, an “act of obedience symbolizing the believer’s faith in a crucified, buried, and risen Savior, the believer’s death to sin, the burial of the old life, and the resurrection to walk in newness of life in Christ Jesus.” After baptism, the new believer is expected to take up their role in evangelism and missions, carrying out the Great Commission to “make disciples of all nations.”
New baptisms recorded by SBC churches therefore serve as a unique metric that identifies a newly professed believer of the orthodox (albeit Protestant) faith who is willing to share the message of Christianity with the rest of the world. (This number can only be used as general metric for “new believers,” though, since some of the baptisms will include Christians who switched from faith traditions that did not require baptism.)
Despite the limits of the metric, there are several reasons why baptisms in the SBC may portend the future of Christianity in America.
The magnitude effect: The SBC is huge. With nearly 16 million members, it’s the largest Protestant body in the United States and the country’s second largest Christian body after the Catholic Church. Because of its size, the “mere Christian” elements of the SBC can serve as a potentially representative sample of what is happening in American Christianity as a whole. If baptisms are increasing or declining in the SBC, the numbers of Americans becoming Christian (in whatever denomination) is likely to also be increasing or decreasing.
The autonomy effect: The Southern Baptist Convention is a decentralized organization comprised of 46,034 autonomous, local churches. Each church in the SBC is an autonomous local congregation of baptized believers that makes their own decisions on staffing, budget, programs, etc. No organization — including the SBC — holds authority over them. This church autonomy aids in what social scientists call natural experiments. Because individual churches aren’t given direction about how to carry out evangelism and mission, the local churches have to figure out what works for themselves. We can therefore look at the number of new baptisms in individual churches to see what, if anything, is drawing new believers to the faith.
The cultural effect: Despite local autonomy, the majority of churches in the SBC are theologically and culturally conservative. For example, most SBC churches are opposed to abortion and same-sex marriage and believe in the truth and trustworthiness of the Bible. If baptisms are increasing or declining in the SBC, it may portend an acceptance or rejection of these cultural and theological values within the larger culture.
Now that we’ve looked at the reasons for considering SBC baptisms as a spiritual indicator, what does the current indicator reveal?
According to the SBC’s recently released Annual Church Profile, in 2012 there was a decline in baptisms of 5.5 percent to 314,956 people. Reported baptisms have declined six of the last eight years with 2012 the lowest since 1948. The ratio of baptisms to total members increased to one baptism for every fifty members.
As with economic indicators, the meaning and importance of leading spiritual indicators like this one is open to interpretation. During the denomination’s annual meeting this week, many Southern Baptists will discuss the lack of baptisms as a failure of evangelism on the part of individual churches and members. "While we celebrate every new baptized believer represented by these numbers, fewer reported baptisms is heartbreaking," said Thom S. Rainer, president and CEO of the SBC’s publishing house, LifeWay. "Southern Baptists cannot rest on what God accomplished through us in prior years. The message of the gospel is alive, relevant, and powerful today, and the Great Commission task of sharing it should excite and embolden us as Christians."
Others, however, will contend that the decline in baptisms is due to the culture’s rejection of theologically and culturally conservatives versions of Christianity. Molly Worthen, an assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina, believes the decline is due largely to increasing secularization. “Traditional religious organizations are losing their grip on the public sphere and their influence in the lives of individuals,” claims Worthen.
However we interpret the data, the increasing decline of baptisms in the SBC is worthy of consideration by believers of all denominations. The metric may be like the S&P 500, like building permits, or like the length of hemlines. But whatever we think the metric reflects, it’s likely to be indicating something significant about the future of Christianity in America.
Joe Carter serves as Director of Communications for the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, an entity of the Southern Baptist Convention.