After the Baptist baptism bus tour

They are some of America's most infamous religious statistics and conservatives have been known to quote them with glee.

The United Churches of Christ lost 14.8 percent of its members during the 1990s.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) was down 11.6 percent. The United Methodist Church fell 6.7 percent and the Episcopal Church another 5.3 percent. But there was nothing earth shattering in the Glenmary Research Center's 2000 data. The Protestant mainline has been fading for a generation.

The Southern Baptist Convention's new leader knows all that.

The Rev. Bobby Welch also knows that his flock's totals have crept higher in recent years. But he isn't gloating. He's worried about the fine print in the baptism pages of the North American Mission Board's "Strategic Planning Indicators."

"The last thing I would want to do is put down what people call the church-growth movement," said Welch. "We've got a lot of fine people doing fine work and we have some fine churches out there that are growing. But I do think that sometimes we forget that just because we have church growth doesn't mean we're growing the church.

"Sometimes, we get so focused on filling up our church buildings that we forgot to ask if we're winning any new people for the Lord."

This is the way Welch talks when he starts wrapping his soft northern Alabama accent around the scriptures, statistics and theories linked to his favorite topic -- evangelism. But the veteran pastor of the First Baptist Church of Daytona Beach, Fla., doesn't talk much about the kinds of large-scale evangelistic projects that grab media attention. His passion is for quieter forms of one-on-one persuasion that have a steady impact on church life.

That's why he cares that the number of baptisms has declined in Southern Baptist churches four consecutive years. What is just as disturbing, said Welch, is that the SBC's baptism rate had been parked on a statistical plateau since 1951 -- averaging 384,000 a year while the nation's population boomed.

Immediately after his June election as president, Welch announced a high-profile project to promote evangelism efforts from coast to coast and beyond. He got himself a star-spangled bus and set out on a 25-day, 20,000-mile marathon to visit each of the 48 contiguous states and, by airplane, Alaska and Hawaii.

The goal is to baptize 1 million people between June of 2005 and June of 2006, which would require a jump of 600,000-plus over last year's total of 377,357. The purpose of the bus tour was to get people to take this challenge seriously, he said, during a post-tour visit to South Florida.

Part of the problem, he said, is that too many Southern Baptists are camped inside their big, safe, healthy churches and think this is enough. Most of them believe that the church is supposed to win converts -- sort of.

"Not all evangelicals are evangelistic," said Welch. "They say they believe in evangelism, but they don't get out and do it."

The denomination's baptism statistics reveal other sobering truths. After the age of 11, it becomes increasingly difficult to win converts -- even among children in church families. Also, only 40 percent of the adults baptized into Southern Baptist congregations are true converts. The rest were already members of other Christian flocks.

Welch describes this in blunt language: "What that means is that we're not reaching the pagan pool. ... We're just rearranging the furniture inside the church."

Christians have all kinds of excuses for why they don't talk to other people about faith and forgiveness, heaven and hell, he said. It's easy to say that modern Americans believe that "soul winning" is rude and intolerant or that all religions are paths that lead to the same eternal destination. Truth is, some people don't want to talk with real people who are facing real problems in the real world, he said.

"It's no harder to talk to people about Jesus today than it ever has been," he said. "The problem is that we've been frightened away from even trying. We've become content to wag our finger at the world and tell it how sorry it is and how good we are, instead of telling people about the grace of God. We've got to get over that."