The first thing I look at when our statistics come out each year is our baptism figures. I don’t look at much else. I do this for two main reasons.
Firstly, we are called the Baptist Churches of New Zealand, so as a denomination we must value baptisms pretty highly, to such a degree that our forebears decided to call us Baptist.
I am not too much up with the play in regards to that; it was a long time since I did a paper on the history of the Baptist Church! But on the surface, if we were named after John the Baptist, he did baptisms!
If we were named to differentiate among other denominations then we decided somewhere along the line that the main difference was baptisms. So, whatever way you look at it, ever since day one baptisms have been high on the Baptist agenda.
So, what’s in a name? Well in this case, everything. We are called what I would think we value.
Quality vs quantity
The second reason I go to our baptism numbers is because baptisms is where the ‘quality vs quantity’ debate intersects.
You know the debate. I don’t spend a lot time on that debate anymore as it is often presented in such a way that the two oppose each other. I don’t reckon they do; actually, I reckon they are deeply tied together. But for those who think they are at odds with each other, then surely baptism is the defining thing and surely baptism is where both camps can agree.
Evangelism (quantity argument) should see baptisms increase. It is the one public sacrament that tells us that someone is wholeheartedly willing to follow God. It is more than bottoms on seats; it is a stake in the ground for a new follower of Jesus.
Discipleship (quality argument) should also see baptisms increase. Baptism must be part of discipleship. We as Baptists should be elevating it as part of the journey of discipleship. The more people we disciple, the more baptisms we should have.
See how the two arguments interact at this point? Baptism is a sign of church growth and baptism is a sign of quality discipleship. Simply put, baptism is pretty important.
So then, I have a deep concern that our numbers each year have continued to drop. In very practical terms, this drop does not look good for either the ‘quantity’ people or the ‘quality’ people, and it definitely does not look good for a denomination that, because of its name, publicly shows it is extremely important to them. And more importantly than all that, it does not look good for his kingdom.
Reasons for decline
Only 680 people were baptised in Baptist churches across New Zealand in the 2017/18 year. (It was probably more, as some churches did not submit their statistics, but then that happens every year.) Our baptism numbers are dropping. Only two regional associations have increased from the previous year. (Well done, you guys!) All other regions have had reasonably significant declines. Somehow this has to change, but how?
If this drop is a God thing then we can’t do much. But I am not convinced that God has changed his mindonbaptisms. If he has, then we had better reword that guiding passage for many of us in Matthew 28: 18-19. I’m not sure we are authorised to dothat!
Maybe we need to talk about it more at all levels of our church/denominational life. Is it something that we still value? Do we think it is an important part in evangelism and discipleship? I would like to think we wouldn’t have too much of a debate on that one. Surely the value of baptism has not changed for us?
I wonder if there are other really good things that have taken too much of our attention over the last while. As a result, baptism talk and activity have fallen by the wayside. Evangelism, mission, discipleship, church growth, personal growth, social justice, transformation, church planting, creativity in mission, leadership, community, programmes, small groups, and other words that you can add to the list—surely the intersection and one of the significant signs of doing well in these isbaptism?
How to increase baptisms
Here are some things that may help if you are wanting to strategise towards increasing your baptisms. (I am talking believers’ baptism here—that which our Baptist forebears stood up and were counted for.)
- Talk regularly about baptism when you talk evangelism and discipleship.
- Strategise towards baptisms when talking and dreaming with your governance board.
- Make baptisms fantastic times of celebration.
- Have your church name reflect your value of baptism.
- Regularly provide opportunities for people to talk about baptism.
- Preach/teach on baptism.
- Run baptism courses. When you do Alpha courses or other mission courses, add one on baptism.
- Regularly report on baptisms, or lack of baptisms, to the church and to your governance board.
- Identify people who could/should address baptism, and talk to them.
- Don’t give reasons (excuses) for not having baptisms.
- Have your constitution reflect a high value of baptism. (Open or closed)
Looking to Jesus
I believe that Christ gave us a clear and concise way of ministry and the two sacraments of communion and baptism are part of it. With ‘Foster simplicity’ it is like this:
- Jesus gave us an example of how to minister when he washed the disciples’ feet. In John 13:13- 15 he says this:
“You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”
- Jesus gives us our message. This is what we are reminded of every time we take communion. Our primary message is Jesus’ death and resurrection and why he died. It was from this event that we talk about grace, hope, love and, of course, salvation. The Apostle Paul puts it this way in 1 Corinthians 11: 24-26:
and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
- Christ commands our action and gives us our commission. You know the verse Matthew 28:19:
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
So, we share the message of Christ looking towards baptism as a significant step for a new believer and, as we do it, we are empowered with the Holy Spirit. In other words, Christ gives us a hand. The Spirit of Christ encompasses us as we share the message, look towards baptisms and work the mission. This is the story of the book of Acts.
“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
Wishing for baptisms is not enough
There is probably a whole lot more that could be said and will probably be said, but at the end of the day we need more baptisms.
There is a Māori whakataukī that is becoming one of my favourites. It says this: He manako te koura i kore ai. It means wishing for the crayfish won’t bring it.
Let’s first wish for baptisms, then add it to our conversations. Let’s pray for baptism and then let’s plan and strategise to see more. Surely, aren’t we at least asked to consider it in Matthew 28, if not commanded to do so?
Too simple? Perhaps, but it makes sense to me. ‘Evangelism’ and ‘discipleship’ or as we like to say today ‘mission and transformation’. Surely if we are to do these well and in a God-honouring way, then baptism is a quantity and a quality marker for us. Let’s talk about it. Let’s focus on it. Let’s aim for it and let’s just get on and do it.
Reflection: Peter Foster
Peter is the pastoral team leader at Whakatane Baptist Church. He got baptised at Glen Eden Baptist Church in 1984 after spending a year (too long) thinking about it. He had come to the Baptist church after spending his time in a Presbyterian church and observing all the significant faith milestone in that denomination. After thinking it through, Peter came to the conclusion that believer’s baptism was what was required of him. He has promoted that and ministry towards baptism since then.
An edited version of this article was in the Baptist magazine’s February/March 2019 issue (v135 n1).
Scripture: Unless otherwise specified, Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.