With a few exceptions, annual baptisms reported by Kentucky Baptist churches have been in decline since at least 1980. In that year, Kentucky Baptist churches reported 20,457 baptisms with approximately 213,000 people attending worship services in those churches.
Based on these numbers, Kentucky Baptists were baptizing at a very healthy rate of just over a 10:1 ratio of worshippers to baptisms. In 2016 those numbers had dropped to 13,802 baptisms with 222,641 worship attenders—a ratio of 16:1. While there are many reasons for a decline in baptisms by Kentucky Baptist churches, there are also many ways to try and reverse the trend.
One of these ways involves the seventy local Kentucky Baptist associations. Warren Association in Bowling Green, while not the largest association in the state, has led the way in baptisms. In fact, each year Warren Association churches fill up several slots in the top twenty baptizing churches and the top twenty baptisms per capita. What is their secret?
Several years ago, an effort was started by then-DOM Jeff Crabtree, and continued by current DOM John Mark Toby, to try and impact baptisms in the association. They started praying for the churches in the associations who had not baptized anyone in recent years. They also asked some of their leading pastors to reach out to, and encourage, those pastors who had not recently seen people receive Christ and follow in believers’ baptism.
They started tracking baptisms throughout the year by asking churches to report on their baptisms not just once a year through their ACP report, but also every month or so.
The biggest difference-maker was when they began to celebrate those smaller churches who started seeing people trust Christ and become baptized. Large church pastors would call pastors in smaller churches and rejoice with them over baptisms. They shared baptism numbers at their annual meeting and celebrated those who had not baptized the previous year but who had done so in the current year.
What happened in Warren Association is that the pastors became a team working together, instead of individuals competing. When they realized they were on the same team, then they began to celebrate together and work together.
How can Baptist associations, and associational directors of missions, take the lead in their associations to help churches reach and baptize more people? Here are five actions to consider:
1. Assemble an association evangelism team: The team should consist of three to five evangelistic pastors in the association. The reason to use pastors is because of the principle of example: “As goes the leadership so goes the followship.” This team must be made up of, and led by, evangelistic leaders who are being used of God to reach others.
2. Schedule and promote evangelism training events: The association evangelism team should be involved in scheduling and promoting the type of events that can help other leaders be more intentionally evangelistic.
3. Pray for churches: The team can assemble a prayer list to distribute to all local church leadership, especially WMU, to begin to generate prayer for outreach and baptisms through the association’s churches. Pastor Richard Baxter, who lived in the 1600s, said, “The first task of the minister is to preach the Gospel to unbelievers for their conversion. Nothing must be allowed to thwart this great obligation. The second task is to baptize those who solemnly covenant with the Triune God” (Richard Baxter and Conversion, by Tim Beougher). Pastors need prayer so that they become focused and stay focused on this vitally important work of evangelism.
4. Celebrate baptisms in the association: The same team can engage other leaders to reach out to pastors regularly to encourage them in their evangelism efforts and celebrate with them when souls are saved and follow Christ in baptism. The association can also make a practice of receiving baptism pictures from churches who have recently baptized people and showing those pictures at their associational meetings. We tend to replicate what we celebrate, and if associations begin to celebrate baptisms more frequently, we may see an uptick in evangelism activity that results in more salvations and baptisms.
5. Set a baptism prayer goal: The association evangelism team can work with all associational church pastors to set a prayer goal for baptisms for the association. This can be done by dividing the number of churches by the members of the evangelism team. Then have team members reach out to each pastor to ask if they will set a prayer goal for baptisms for the year. Once the goal is set by each church, compile and publish it as the associational baptism prayer goal. Since this is a prayer goal, the entire association can pray together for the goal and celebrate each baptism along the way.