Southern Baptists are concerned that the number of baptisms is way down. (And yet many of their churches are growing. Is it that converts, new members, and the Millennial generation are unwilling today to be baptized?) But one demographic of Baptists is getting baptized in greater and greater numbers: children five and under.
That is not all that different from what we Lutherans practice as infant baptism. Traditionally, Baptists–who require faith as a precondition of baptism, rather than seeing baptism as a means of grace and the faith that receives it– have insisted that infants and young children cannot have faith. I have never understood that. Of course babies and toddlers can have faith. They have faith–which has to do with trust, a sense of dependency, and relationship and is never just intellectual knowledge–in their parents. Why not in their Heavenly Father? So I salute this trend among Baptists!
While the number of baptisms is down for most age groups, “the only consistently growing group in baptisms is age five and under,” the task force reported. Granted, baptisms in this group comprise a small number of the total number of baptisms, but the preschool age group saw a 96 percent increase from 1974 to 2010. In fact, this group had the strongest trend line over the 37-year period. Just behind the preschool group was the senior adult group (ages 60 and up), with a 67 percent increase. And is the approximately 4,000 annual baptisms of children under 6 a small figure? Consider that North American Mission Board president Kevin Ezell today announced that in the most recent year of reporting (2012), the SBC’s 2010 church plants baptized 3,394 people. . . .
Credobaptist traditions like the SBC usually baptize children at the “age of accountability” or “age of reason.” The Baptist Faith and Message asserts that children are not morally accountable until they are “capable of moral action.” Based on the coming-of-age celebration in Jewish culture (bar mitzvahs for boys and bat mitzvahs for girls), some place the age of accountability around ages 12 and 13. However, since children develop at different rates, there is latitude on pinpointing personal spiritual maturity. Still, Southern Baptist churches have traditionally said children cannot make a legitimate profession of faith until preadolescence. Thus, baptism is typically reserved for prepubescents on up. . . .
Yet numbers show a continuing upward trend in preschooler baptisms. Alvin Reid, evangelism professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and task force member, said he suspects the main reason for the increase is “well-meaning parents so want their children to follow Jesus that pastors have been pressured and have not taught well biblical conversion and discipleship.”
Women’s Missionary Union preschool ministry consultant Joye Smith said she hasn’t heard much concern from church leaders. She said she is not concerned about young children being baptized if the family of the child “is actively involved in the church and are going to give the discipling that the child needs in order to grow in faith.”
Timothy George, founder of Samford University’s Beeson Divinity School, said, “Baptizing younger and younger children is a way of inculturating them to be Baptist.” But George doesn’t believe this trend is favorable for the Baptist tradition. Rather, it “calls radically into question what Baptists have historically said baptism means.”