I mentioned in a previous post that I had been keeping track of last week’s Southern Baptist Convention. The big slogan and push there was what the current president of the SBC, Bobby Welch, calls his “Everyone Can Kingdom Challenge: Witness, Win, and Baptize One Million in 2005.” Now while I have misgivings about this slogan on several levels, I feel I must first note that nothing would make me happier than seeing a million people repent of their rebellion against God and bow the knee to Jesus Christ as Lord in what would be the biggest revival in church history. That said, the slogan and accompanying campaign seems more likely to result in a push to “close the deal” with people to be baptized who ought not be baptized. (And the campaign is, frankly, pretty cheesy – what, with Welch touring the country in a customized bus with the slogan across an American flag and the reported pep-rally style chanting going on in Nashville. Don’t believe me? Click here for a good summary including a view of the bus. Click here for an account of the pep-rally stuff.) But I digress….
Anyway… a broader concern is that this campaign echoes what may be a common theme in the way we approach the important task of evangelism: It makes baptism the primary goal, the end of the line. Biblically speaking, the goal of evangelism is not a baptized convert but a disciple, and baptism is a very important and symbolic beginning of one’s life as a disciple of Jesus. Look at the Great Commission in Matthew 28. Jesus says, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them…. and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”
When we treat baptism as the finish line, are we surprised when people don’t grow? In so doing we seem to portray the gospel as a spiritual life insurance policy- once you’ve got the afterlife covered you can enjoy this one. (Interestingly, if you look at the numbers at an average SBC church, you’ll see attendance figures that are WAY south of membership rolls…. I think there’s a connection to this issue, along with a likely problem of baptizing people who are probably not regenerate.)
Think about baptism. In it one symbolically dies to the old life of sin and is raised with Christ to new life in Him; it is a pictorial presentation of the gospel itself and a represntation of a change that has already taken place in the convert. The key is to see that the new life is a life of discipleship – one in which a believer learns to follow the narrow path in obedience to God.
I once heard a pastor (I think Daniel Montgomery) describe an interesting scenario. Picture a bunch of people who become convinced that they should run and subsequently decide they’re going to run a marathon (or a half-marathon if that’s easier to picture!) They sign up for it and get really excited – they buy shoes, lightweight clothing, all the stuff they’ll need. When the day of the race arrives they get to the starting line early and are really pumped up, brimming with anticipation. Finally the moment comes, and they hear, “Ready, Set, Go!” as the starting gun is fired. They cross the starting line and immediately stop. They begin jumping around excitedly, hugging each other, crying, “We did it! We started the race! We’re in the race!” Finally, after the excitement wears off, a few slowly trudge along while others go home feeling warm inside about having started the race.
Is that what we’re comminicating through our evangelistic emphases and methods? Do we make a hard sales pitch aimed at getting people into the water without really telling them what it actually means to become a disciple for life?