Gaming a Broken System With Baptisms

Gaming a Broken System With Baptisms July 21, 2018

Last time we met up, we talked about why so many Christians get re-baptized. I mentioned only briefly that churches have another reason to re-baptize members. Today, we’ll dive into that reason. In an age when Christian numbers are tanking almost across the board, re-baptisms make the decline seem a little less catastrophic.

The Jordan River. (Osmar Valdebenito, CC-SA.)

Why Baptism Rates Are Important.

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.

Thom Rainer, “Where Have All the Baptisms Gone?”

Churches boast when they can claim a healthy baptism rate. Traditionally speaking, baptisms represent people those churches are recruiting from outside the faith. The further right along the extremism spectrum we travel, the more this thinking holds. Many Christians even think that a church’s baptism rate is an indication of how much their god approves of them and what they’re doing.

Right-wing Christians often call a church with a good recruitment rate generative. They look down on churches that don’t do as much recruitment. Thus, many such churches view their baptism rate as a quick, extremely visible way to tell how well they’re doing overall.

That visibility matters enormously in the appearances-obsessed world of right-wing Christianity in particular. Not many people like belonging to a losing team, not even Christians, and especially not hardcore TRUE CHRISTIANS™. When such people decide on a new church to attend, they look at baptisms, among other things. Pastors know it, too. If you think that Steven Furtick’s the only pastor who plays footsie with that all-important metric, you’re one sweet summer child. He’s just one of the few who’s gotten caught.

Other subgroups within a church also care greatly about baptism rates and numbers. Overseas missionaries, for example, feel enormous pressure to inflate their success in these regards to impress their donors back home.

But.

Over the past ten years, fewer and fewer churches have been boasting. Recruitment levels have tanked across the board in Christianity. 

Almost everyone’s seeing fewer baptisms in Christian-Land. Way more people are leaving the religion than are joining it as brand-new members.

So when someone joins any given new church, chances are extremely good that that person is already a Christian and is just switching from one group to another, or else is simply returning to observances after a period of disengagement.1 And with fewer people than ever open to purchasing such a tainted brand as Christianity, churches squabble and increasingly more stridently with each other over an ever-shrinking pool of recruitment prospects.

Plunging baptism rates are only a small part of Christianity’s overall decline. Nonetheless, they constitute one of the most potent signs of that decline.

Gaming a System.

*:・゚✧ A tale as old as time, song as old as rhyme…✧・゚:*

When someone creates an arbitrary goal in a poorly-designed system, and then lavishly rewards people for reaching that goal, people will figure out how to reach that goal in other ways. The harder the goal becomes to reach and the more important the group considers it to be, the more extreme those other methods will become. Those who want to achieve that reward will even commit infractions of the group’s biggest rules, if the rewards are important enough.

No gods will hold them back from doing it. For that matter, their fellow group members probably won’t even guess that infractions had to be committed in order to hit the goal–unless they’re committing the same exact infractions themselves. Then the foxes will guard each other as they ravage the henhouse in turns.

I describe here what roleplayers know as min-maxing, or gaming the system. And it happens everywhere in every system. Take any goal–like here, someone wanting to make the most of a druid class character in a roleplaying system. Any person who plays that character for long will know a few things about how to get the most for that character from a limited number of resources. A good GM will become familiar with those tricks to head off potential abuses of the rules.2

In Christianity, though, we behold a uniquely broken system. There, final results matter infinitely more than the methods that make them happen. Appearances matter infinitely more than substance. Dishonesty and cheating are fine, as long as the results make baby Jesus chortle with glee.

Gaming Baptisms.

Alas, we are Southern Baptists and numbers are in our DNA. No escaping that.

William Thornton, who is 2/3 correct here

Christians go to extraordinary lengths to try to achieve a decent baptism rate. We’ve already touched on some of their methods. But the average church needn’t go to all that trouble. Why, their own members will help them fluff up those baptism numbers!

If pastors aren’t re-dunking people who become convinced they must do their baptisms over again, then they’re pulling forward from the ranks of their youngest members to try to meet their goals.

The table in question – click to embiggen.

I’ll take you through how they do it. It won’t take long. We’ll use the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) 2017 Annual Report, available here, to do it. The table you need is on p. 126.

First off: the SBC’s baptism rate has been tanking for many years. Last year was no exception.

In 2015, which is what their 2016 report covered, SBC member churches reported 295,212 baptisms. In 2016, which was detailed in their 2017 report, they reported 280,773.

We already know that their 2018 report will record 254,122 baptisms for 2017. These numbers track with drops in membership over all three years, from 15,294,764 total members in 2015 to 15,005,638 members in 2017.

Who Are They?

So who are those quarter-million people who got baptized?

We can make some good educated guesses. On p. 191 of the 2017 report, we learn that 83% of Vermont’s baptisms came from new churches. I couldn’t find what total that meant in 2017; probably not many. The year before, that meant 246 baptisms. We’ve already covered what significance the “new churches” has here. People switching into a new congregation often come from churches that have slightly different doctrinal stances on baptism. So they get re-baptized.

We also know that in 2013, the SBC convened a task force to figure out why their baptism rate was tanking so hard. In that report, accessible here and first snarked here, we learned some figures that probably gave those task-force members the vapors. A quarter of the SBC’s member churches reported ZERO baptisms at all. 80% of the churches reported 0-1 baptisms of people aged 18-29; 60% reported no baptisms in that all-important 12-17 age group.

In fact, the task force discovered, “the only consistently growing age group in baptisms is age five and under.”

Wow. And that was five years ago. They haven’t repeated that effort, unsurprisingly. I can understand why.

I’d like to say something about that bolded part, too. Back in my day, the SBC I joined wouldn’t ever have dreamed of dunking such young children. I was considered barely old enough at 16. Now little kids are about the only group willing to go under the water with them. And I’m further betting that most of those little kids are the children of existing SBC members.

Pulling Forward, Twice.

I get truly sad when I encounter a bewildered (or weirdly bubbly) young child burbling about totally understanding what baptism means before getting dunked. I don’t know who’s fooled by these declarations. We wouldn’t allow a child that young to buy a car or house, get into a romantic relationship, or sign any kind of contract. It wouldn’t matter how knowledgeable the child sounded about the details of such an entanglement. Any responsible adult would know better, and would stop it from proceeding.

But Christian parents and leaders, all too often, seem only too happy to allow children to undergo these rituals. One Christian leader I saw criticizing the practice, Roger Barrier, even conceded that he, himself, had been baptized at seven years old. That age was fine for him, he declares, but implies that those other people getting baptized so young become “misguided hypocrites.” He offers no way at all to tell the difference between a future Roger Barrier and a future “misguided hypocrite.” Neither do any other Christians offering criticisms of the practice.

These entirely-too-young baptisms function to prop up the failing religion in two different ways.

First, of course, these children get marked down in the books as baptisms. Hooray Team Jesus!

Then, years later, when they get old enough to understand in reality what they claimed to understand years ago, these now-older kids want to get baptized again. (That’s when they just don’t leave the religion.)

Hooray! Now their churches get to mark down another baptism! Hooray Team Jesus!

If their parents and leaders had any sense at all, they wouldn’t allow this travesty to occur. I don’t know exactly why (yet), but I have noticed that dunking kids too early seems to lead later to those kids’ estrangement from the religion. Whatever causes that estrangement, the adults’ desperation and greed–or their fear of Hell–dazzle them too much to care. If I’m right about that correlation, then the more kids Christians dunk that young, the faster they hasten their inevitable collapse.

A Very Palpable Hit.

Now, it’s hard as nails to figure out what percentage of baptisms are re-baptisms and child baptisms. I suspect there’s a mighty fine reason why Christian leaders might not want to part with that kind of information. But to me, all of these figures speak to something very dramatic and important going on in Christianity.

They know they aren’t winning people outside the tribe. So they’re busting ass selling to people already inside the tribe–like how multi-level marketing (MLM) salespeople end up selling products primarily to themselves and members of other MLMs. These efforts end up artificially inflating their numbers, but it doesn’t seem like any of them care about that.

Appearances over substance, after all. They’ll do literally anything to look like the winning team, even if it means lying till “Jesus” makes it true.

When you see church members talking up their baptisms, then, keep these sketchy tactics in mind. Especially when you hear about astronomical gains in places like Africa and China, remember the HUGE pressure missionaries labor under to achieve conversions. That pressure exists in only slightly lower amounts back home.

Christianity is knee-deep in the middle of a very serious decline. If we had honest numbers out of Christians, that decline would look considerably worse than it already does. Their own inability to engage honestly with their decline has, in many ways, doomed them.

(I ain’t complaining tho’.)

NEXT UP: Monday, LSP; then we’re heading back to the Unequally Yoked Club for a spell as we look at the worst advice imaginable for mixed-faith couples. Also, we’re going to the beach to gawk at one of the most laughably failed SBC enterprises ever (hopefully the 2018 Annual Report will be out by then). Hopefully we’ll get time to laugh at the worst video game I ever played, too! Busy busy! See you soon! <3


Endnotes.

1 Disengagement means pulling away from doing Christian stuff. Disengaged people might still consider themselves Christian, but they no longer pray, attend church, tithe, etc. A deconverted person has rejected the religion entirely. Not all disengaged people are deconverted, and some deconverted people still perform those observances for various reasons. Sometimes you hear the term disaffiliated, too, which can go either way.

2 I heard about this one. Someone was in a Star Fleet Battles tabletop tournament in the mid-1990s. He was the last Federation ship–and surrounded by hordes of Klingon ships. All hope was lost. At this point he was trying to min-max how many enemies he took down with him. If he initiated a formal self-destruct sequence, that blared a warning–and the enemy would have time to withdraw safely. He ended up performing “a million illegal turns.” I’m probably mangling the terminology but it means he made a quick turn in a way his ship profoundly didn’t like. Making any one illegal turn has a chance of blowing a ship up without warning, but there was no time specified in the rulebook (back then) for how long an illegal turn took to perform. The rules lawyers huddled for an hour and raged, as did the Klingon players who saw exactly where this was going. Ultimately, my friend got his million illegal turns. He immediately blew up all of the enemy ships, along with his own. Nobody won that bout, but at least everybody lost. I can’t vouch 100% for the tale’s veracity, but dang, I can see it happening.

Also: Since I’m not sure when we’ll touch on baptism again, I found this video and thought it was interesting:

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About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. You can read more about the author here.
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