Visitors who enter Southern Baptist churches these days will usually see posters and pamphlets for everything from marriage enrichment retreats to tornado-relief fundraisers, from weight-loss classes to drives to find volunteers for African hospitals. But one thing is missing in the typical church lobby or fellowship hall, according to the leader of the denomination's LifeWay Christian Resources branch. It's rare to see appeals for members to join evangelism programs that strive to win local unbelievers to the Christian faith.
"Why is this? It's hard to say what happened to our commitment to evangelism. ... I'm not hearing any answers to this question that go deeper than anecdotes," said the Rev. Thom Rainer, who, before reaching what Nashville locals call the "Baptist Vatican," was founding dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions and Evangelism at Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, Ky.
"It's like our people lost confidence in the old evangelistic programs that our churches had been using for years and years," said Rainer, reached by telephone this week during the Southern Baptist Convention's annual meeting, held this year in Houston. "That's understandable, but the problem is that they never bought into anything new and moved on."
This sea change is directly linked to a recent statistic that should be causing "sorrow and rising concern" throughout America's largest Protestant flock, he said.
Think of it as the Baptist bottom line: Local churches reported 314,959 baptisms in 2012, a sharp 5.5 percent downturn from 2011. Baptisms have declined six out of the last 10 years, falling to the SBC's lowest number since 1948.
While hotter issues -- the Boy Scouts of America and homosexuality, for one -- will grab most post-Houston headlines, Rainer posted a pre-convention essay online seeking candid discussion of this painful question: "Where have all the baptisms gone?"
"Baptisms are our way to best estimate the number of people we reached for Christ with the Gospel," he wrote. "When someone declares that he or she is a follower of Christ in our churches, that person is expected to follow through with baptism. ...
"Of course, baptisms are an incredibly important metric for us in the SBC. We use that metric to see how we are doing on eternal matters. Yes, the metric is fallible. ... But that does not explain why we mention it less and less."
So what has happened in recent decades?
* The decline can, in part, be explained by the fact that nearly 20 percent of the convention's churches have stopped voluntarily reporting some, or all, of their annual statistics. "We don't know if some churches have stopped sending in baptism numbers because their annual number is zero," said Rainer.
* It's impossible to ignore the fact that the fastest rising statistic in American religion -- among those who attend church -- is the percentage of people who attend nondenominational Protestant" congregations. In previous generations, some of these megachurches would have had Southern Baptist signs out front.
The charismatic flocks in the Assemblies of God are growing as well, noted Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research. Meanwhile, evangelism efforts remain strong in the SBC's growing number of African-American and Latino congregations. "It seems that the decline is largely in our predominately white churches," he said.
* Southern Baptists are strong in the rural Sunbelt and, while population growth in Southern States remains strong, Americans are increasingly moving to big cities and their suburbs.
* A key question Stetzer and Rainer agreed deserves study: How many SBC churches have stopped requiring baptism by immersion for those who move their memberships from churches that use different baptism rites?
* Another unanswered question: To what degree have birthrates fallen in Southern Baptist congregations? A decline would affect the number of baptisms among children and teens.
* SBC leaders would, if pressed, have trouble finding as many as 6 million of the nearly 16 million people whose names are on membership rolls in their churches. Why? Too often, churches have focused on mere "incantation evangelism" that expects people to recite a few "magic words" that prove they are Christians, said Rainer. That brand of faith is not enough.
"We have baptized too many members who seem to show no evidence of salvation," he said. The millions of missing members are "certainly not the kinds of believers who win other people to true faith in Christ."