Sunday, June 15, 2008

By the Numbers

There’s been a lot of hand-wringing and gut-wrenching and soul-searching this past week over the baleful state of Baptist baptisms. Some, who actually attend Baptist churches on Sundays, have suspected for years that a little insidious inflation had been happening with Baptist’s stats. Sixteen million plus was the official line, but when you actually count who shows up “on any given Sunday” (as they say in the NFL, and which is where a lot of Baptists are, it seems, on Sundays) the number is more like a third of that. The numbers, it seems, just don’t add up. Baptists are not as different from other mainline denominations as they would have liked to believe. The numbers are declining. “Free fall” is how one put it.

Lots of reasons have been rushed in to explain this phenomenon to which Baptists had believed themselves impervious – postmodernism, secularism, paganism, narcissism, materialism, global warming (okay, I’m kidding about global warming). But while there is much debate over the causes of the decline, there is virtual unanimity over the solution – more baptisms! More baptisms mean more members; more members mean more numbers; more numbers mean more counting, and you know how we Baptists like to count!

The problem with this approach is that it confuses counting with Christian. Dunk ‘em, count ‘em, drop ‘em…but for God’s sake be sure to count ‘em. There is one obvious question no one, it seems, is raising: What precisely is being counted? The answer is clear: baptisms, not necessarily Christians. They are not the same. Becoming a Christian is not the same as joining a club (a fact that eludes many). Sorry. It’s more destructive, disruptive, disturbing than that. Listen to the New Testament images for salvation: death and resurrection; taking off and putting on; laying down and picking up. Hardly sounds like the Rotary Club, does it. Oh, and by the way, Jesus also said something about the "gate being narrow and the way being straight, and few there be who find it.” Not conducive to counting. Becoming Christian means enrolling in a Scripture-informed, Spirit-inspired, counter-cultural community that embraces a counter-value system captured in a counter-story that harbingers a new reality Jesus called “the kingdom of God.” Dunk ‘em, disciple ‘em…let God keep score. If being baptized and joining the church doesn’t actually make one "Christian," that is, enroll one in this kind of Story and enculturate one in this kind of community, then we're just counting new club members. Indeed, it’s more insidious than that. By enrolling new members into our “Christian club” and calling them “Christian” we inoculate them with just enough Christianity to keep them from ever “taking” the real thing.

Let me be perfectly clear about what I’m saying. I do not believe baptism alone produces Christians; it produces numbers to count. If what we want is more numbers to count, then “filler up!” But if what we want are more Christians, then we will have to enroll people in a Story called “Gospel” and enculturate them into a community called “Church.” That’s harder, takes longer, and can’t be done “by the numbers.”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good for people to know.