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FIRST-PERSON: An encouraging day for Southern Baptists

Pastor Wayne Bray baptizes a new believer at Upstate Church in South Carolina.

It’s morning again in the Southern Baptist Convention. Today, in their communities across the country, members of Southern Baptist Churches will lead at least 622 people to faith in Christ and will celebrate their conversions by baptizing them. Four million people will plan their attendance this weekend at an in-person worship gathering at a Southern Baptist church.

Of those, 2.5 million will also plan to attend Sunday School or another small-group Bible study. They will not all attend every week, so that weekly attendance of more than 4 million people (if the nationwide statistics are similar to those from our own church in Farmersville) actually represents as many as 7 million people who are regularly worshipping at a church that is cooperating through the Southern Baptist Convention.

It is no secret that we have felt our way through the darkness of night in many respects over the past decade. For many of our congregations, the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted their congregating. A great many pilgrims, formerly progressing, lost the path for a while. Churches experienced conflict over COVID-related precautions. Attendances plummeted. Some pastors threw in the towel in the midst of it all. The night was dark indeed.

Today, the Southern Baptist Convention releases new annual statistics, compiled from the voluntary reports that our churches submitted in 2023. The numbers give us reason to celebrate. Attendance is up. Attendance in Sunday Schools and other small-group Bible studies was up 4.05 percent from 2022. Attendance in weekly corporate worship is up 6.47 percent. The solemn nighttime hours of the pandemic gave way to the morning after all.

The Southern Baptist Convention has also languished in a multi-decade decline in baptisms. In 1966, Time Magazine infamously suggested on its cover that God was dead. They were wrong – the Jesus Revolution was stirring right under their noses. Talking heads and the very publicly deconstructed have proclaimed not the death of God but rather the death of church. We have read incessantly about the “rise of the ‘Nones’” and the “Great Dechurching.”

As it turns out, right under their noses, God has been stirring the waters, and an upswing in baptisms has solidly begun. Not only have we experienced a second year of increased baptisms, but we have also witnessed a year-over-year gain – 25.94 percent more baptisms than in 2022 – that leaves no room for doubt about what God is doing among our churches.

Do you want our churches to be focused on evangelism and missions? As it turns out, they are focused there already, more so with each passing year. I have already mentioned their breathtaking 26 percent increase in baptisms from one year to the next. At the same time, they increased their gifts to SBC missions causes by nearly 10 percent.

The credit for the burgeoning evangelistic vigor among Southern Baptists belongs to God the Spirit, who is doing the work of conviction and conversion that Jesus promised. I can’t take any credit – I likely did not come to your town and lead to Christ any of the people whose conversions your church celebrated last year. You planted. You watered. God gave the increase. That’s what works.

What’s more, we have proven that the Southern Baptist Convention actually can do more than one thing at a time. We have witnessed gains in church attendance, and we have simultaneously made consistent progress in bolstering our churches’ defenses against sexual abuse. We have baptized more people, and we have simultaneously worked, through our annual meeting and through efforts like those of the Cooperation Group, to resolve theological differences in favor of biblical orthodoxy and biblical cooperation.

Maybe these are not competing interests after all. Maybe it is easier to convince parents to let their children attend youth camp or VBS and to hear the Gospel when they know that we take abuse prevention and response very seriously. Maybe when we resolve our differences and our gentle spirit is known to all, the good pleasure of the Lord kindles spiritual awakening in our midst and sends workers into the fields of harvest. Whatever the relationship between these important ministries, God has clearly given His blessing to all of these efforts, and for that I am greatly thankful.

We live in a world where people have learned they can make others do what they want if they can make them afraid or angry. That is why you constantly receive messages telling you that everything is falling apart. In the midst of that constant stream of negativity, would you make a little room to ponder this truth: “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go.”

Indeed, He has been with us every step of the way. He is faithfully by our side through the deep watches of the night, and He always brings His children safely through to the light of the morning.