ALPHARETTA, Ga. (BP)–“Go ye therefore and make converts, recording their decisions in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” This is how many Baptists have begun to read the Great Commission of late. But true Great Commission evangelism emphasizes disciple-making over conversions, and baptisms over simply recording decisions.
In order to make evangelism “good news again,” our denomination must again prioritize the celebration of baptism. Historically in the SBC, baptisms were the main church growth statistic. Biblically, this is also the case.
But some have viewed those who emphasized baptism as shallow, like polyester-suited salesmen meeting monthly quotas. Baptisms, of course, do not tell the whole story, but they do need to be re-emphasized. Here are some reasons why:
— Baptism is biblical.
“Buildings, budgets and baptisms” — sometimes I’m uncomfortable with the way we “keep score.” But of the three, baptisms are the biblical statistic. The book of Acts emphasizes baptisms. We should do no less.
— Baptism is public.
We encourage people to make a “public profession” by walking down an aisle or filling out a response card. But baptism actually is the biblical way a new believer proclaims faith in Jesus Christ. One of the keys to spiritual awakening during the “Jesus Movement” of the 60s and 70s was outdoor baptisms in pools, rivers and the ocean. What better way to encourage a new believer to “go public” with his or her faith!
— Baptism is primary.
Churches should make baptism primary for each new believer. In the Bible, baptism was not a reward for finishing “the bases” or completing some five- or 10-week new members’ class. It was the first act of obedience a new Christian could perform to show obedience to the command of Christ.
— Baptism is priority.
When I served as pastor of churches it was always difficult for me to explain that, even though baptism does not save a person, it is a command, not an option in the Bible. Jesus walked 60 miles to be baptized. Surely this emphasizes the priority of baptism.
— Baptism is catalytic.
The witness of baptism can lead to conversions of many other people. Some churches use the baptism service as an evangelistic event designed to attract prospects and share the Gospel. My prayer is that churches can reach a type of evangelistic “chain reaction” where each baptism results in another coming to Christ and in turn observing the ordinance. The North American Mission Board has launched a website to give churches, pastors and individual Christians resources to aid them in using the baptism service as an intentional harvest evangelism event. Go to www.baptismcelebration.org to access information and download lots of free stuff!
— Baptism is symbolic.
Some have downplayed the importance of recording baptisms because one can be baptized without trusting in Christ. “It’s conversions that count,” they argue. We should make sure that people truly trust in Christ before we baptize them. Since baptism is symbolic of one trusting in the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ, true conversion is vital before one is baptized.
— Baptism is motivational.
Some de-emphasize baptisms, saying that we are too “harvest oriented” in the midst of an “unseeded generation”. That sounds good on the surface, but actually emphasizing the harvest will lead to more and more sowing. The challenge of harvest goals is what motivates farmers to be more diligent in sowing and cultivating.
Baptisms should be reported. In 2004, more than 10,000 Southern Baptist churches did not report a single baptism. This testifies to the fact that many SBC churches have not made evangelism a priority. But this statistic may also attest to the fact that many churches are not reporting baptisms that they are conducting. Traditional, contemporary, ethnic and Anglo churches should share their joy by reporting their baptisms on the Uniform Church Letter each year.
Early in my Christian life I learned that God blesses obedience to His Word. Blessing awaits individual churches and our denomination as a whole as we become more obedient to the Lord by emphasizing the ordinance of baptism, and by “making evangelism Good News again!”
Toby Frost is the director of strategic evangelism coordination at the North American Mission Board.