Back When the SBC Issued a Million-Baptism Challenge

Back When the SBC Issued a Million-Baptism Challenge June 1, 2019

Hi and welcome back! Off and on, we’ve been looking at the performance metrics of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). Last year, the SBC managed to slightly slow down its tanking baptism rate. It reminded me powerfully of something they tried some years back. Back in 2005, their top leader issued a firmly-worded Million Baptism Challenge. Today, let’s look at what that challenge involved, the context in which it was issued, and what happened at the end. And then, let’s look ahead.

hand in water baptism
(Fred Sprinkle.)

Goal-Setting: Not Exactly a Strength.

The SBC has a long and storied history of creating big challenges for themselves that end disastrously. Sometime or other, I’ll run the post I was researching about something they called their “Bold Mission Thrust” and what a sad disaster that turned out to be. (How big a disaster? See endnote.) The leaders of this huge denomination don’t appear to know how to set realistic, achievable goals–much less meet them.

Nonetheless, in 2005 we see their Annual Report talking about a big new evangelism project (p. 51). James Draper, then the president of LifeWay Christian Resources, retired that year. The denomination honored him with a Resolution of Appreciation. There, we see that he’d directed LifeWay to invest USD$1.6M in various SBC state conventions to help them achieve an ambitious goal: “achieving one million baptisms in 2005.”

Every year, the SBC’s current president issues an address during its convention. Having won the office by then, Bobby Welch provided it in 2005. In a long-winded sermon/rally speech (beginning on p. 120), he eventually mentions the million-baptism challenge again (p. 125). He’d been talking about this number since at least 2004. In fact, this one-million-baptisms idea formed his campaign bid for the denomination’s presidency–just like J.D. Greear’s successful campaign ran around evangelism.

In 2005, Welch made things official-like.

“Everyone Can.”

By 2004, the SBC had been in decline for years. Occasionally, they’d see an uptick in baptisms–notably in 1999, when they hit 419k. Usually, though, the numbers dipped up and down, but had a generally downward trajectory. In 2005, churches reported about 388k baptisms. That number wasn’t much higher than 1984’s 372k.

In his 2005 address, now-SBC President Bobby Welch indicated that this challenge would totally dunk one million people. I don’t think they’ve done that many baptisms in any one year in their entire denominational history. (See endnote about some failures along those lines.)

But in 2005, Welch set the goal anyway. See, someone had impressed him mightily with an evangelism campaign called “Everyone Can.” As you can guess from the name, the campaign implied that everybody could convert somebody. And why gosh, if every SBC member did manage to convert somebody, that’d totally double the denomination’s membership!

The Real Virtues of a Broken System.

Oh my gosh, the sheer blustering belligerence of this Bobby Welch guy must be seen to be believed. On p. 126 of the 2005 report, he tells his audience:

Allow me to reassure us all that this “EVERYONE CAN KINGDOM CHALLENGE” to witness, win, and baptize one million in one year is absolutely guaranteed to succeed. It is fail-safe and foolproof! “How can you say that?” someone might ask. The answer comes from our past experience.

WHAT past experience, you might ask?

Oh, he means the “Million More in ’54” effort, detailed in endnotes. He insists that all kinds of people have told him about the success of this older movement. But, uh, it netted them fewer than 400k baptisms. It failed to gain them one million baptisms. It didn’t even gain them 1 million new members. But in Welch’s revision of history, the SBC now counted the “million” figure from 1954 onward. He declared that unnamed Southern Baptists “always” told him, when speaking of that campaign:

“So you see, Brother Bobby, there is living proof all around the world that a Million More in ’54 was a success, regardless of what man might have been able to count! Undoubtedly, millions have been saved since ’54 because of the effort in ’54.”

Ain’t no liar like a liar-for-Jesus.

Welch set the campaign as lasting from October 2005 to September 2006. If successful, it would have represented about three times the number of baptisms the SBC had been managing up till then.

Continued Bluster.

In 2005 and 2006, then, Bobby Welch went on a full-on bluster offense. In June 0f 2005, he told one Christian reporter that he saw the challenge as one that would indicate the overall health of the now-entirely-conservative-dominated Southern Baptist Convention.

Indeed, if SBC soulwinners couldn’t demonstrate that conservatives COULD TOO convert people, “it will be as clear as the handwriting on the wall,” Welch said. If the campaign failed despite the “extraordinary effort” being poured into it, he continued, “we are going to have to face some realities out here in the convention.”

The “extraordinary effort” meant more than just that “Everyone Can” thing, of course. In June of 2005, the SBC’s unfortunately-abbreviated NAMB subgroup (North American Mission Board) came out with a supporting campaign of its own called (OMG the cringe) “Who Cares?”

According to that page from very disgruntled Southern Baptists, “Who Cares?” never materialized into any tangible media engagements so maybe it doesn’t count.

Hm. Maybe it became vaporware because NAMB outsourced the whole thing to an outfit called InovaOne, which was owned by a paid consultant to NAMB, who was a good friend of NAMB’s president, Bob Reccord, who later had to resign his office “under pressure” over the whole scandal on April 17, 2006.

So the campaign did some good..?

And Even More Bluster.

Either way, the 2006 Annual Report address by Bobby Welch amped up the belligerence and bluster to arena-rock levels. I just can’t with this guy. Here’s a sample of the braggadocio on display:

It is not possible to tell you about all the people who have tried to talk me down from calling for a million baptisms in one year. They’ve said, “Bobby, you’ve lost your mind! Why would you say one million?” Personally, I wish there was a reporter here who had enough guts to put on the front page of their paper that “WELCH GUARANTEES ONE MILLION BAPTISMS IN TWELVE MONTHS!” You say, “That’s pretty tall talking.” Hang on, we’re going to do it! You say, “You don’t know that!” Of course, I know that. I would not make a fool out of myself in a crowd like this and say that if I did not know it! We will baptize a million in a year. Now, I don’t know if it will be this year! We COULD baptize a million this year if you’d get up and get out there and go to work!”

He did amend it slightly and immediately:

But if not this year, it will be one year.

Ain’t no deceiver like a Christian big-name leader.

(Mr. Captain: “You ever gonna tell me what’s had you giggling for the last hour or two?” Me: “Not yet.”)

… And What Actually Happened.

Welch was right about one thing. I couldn’t find any news outlets running the all-caps headline he imagined.

But that’s about all he was right about. Let’s mosey over to the 2007 Annual Report.

There, on p. 108, we discover that not only did the SBC not perform 1 million baptisms, but they declined by 7000 baptisms over the previous year (going from 371k to 364k).

At least they didn’t decline as far as they had in the 2006 report, I guess: 387k to 371k, which is a decline of 16k. This decline in 2006 represented their sixth year of decline over the past 7 years and their lowest total number of baptisms since the early 1990s.

Still very blustery even after the utter failure of his signature campaign platform, Bobby Welch predicted that if the SBC didn’t get off its duff about increasing baptisms, the denomination might well find itself “beyond the point from which there is no return.”

Hm. Maybe Welch was right about two things.

If so, then that’s two more things than he was right about before this silly campaign.

Why He Might Have Done It.

The people controlling the SBC since the culture-warriors’ takeover (called the “Conservative Resurgence“) are wingnuts, through and through. They simply lack any way to tether their ideas, claims, and beliefs to reality.

Thus, it’s not at all uncommon to find extremist zealots in any ideology making pie-in-the-sky promises, issuing wackadoodle claims based on no credible support at all, proclaiming rules that nobody can hope to actually reach to fit into, and expressing beliefs that would sound purely crazy if not connected to a widely-held ideological system like religion. And once you get two wingnuts of like mind together, their untethered beliefs, claims, and ideas only multiply.

In Christianity, I noticed as far back as the 1980s that people in my tribe often made ludicrous goals for themselves that they couldn’t even hope to accomplish. They attributed these goals to divine direction, which they thought meant that their god would help them accomplish a goal that they wouldn’t be able to manage otherwise.

I really think that’s what happened with Bobby Welch and his million-baptism campaign. I think he thought Jesus told him to do it and then, more importantly, promised Welch some divine aid to reach that goal.

Bad Ideas, Christian-Style.

You can likely think of all kinds of similar obviously-disastrous ideas. Some years ago, we all joked about how silly all those Republican Presidential candidates were who kept claiming Jesus had told them to run for office–before losing.

It happens way more often than anybody’d like to think about. Like when I was Christian, I made more than a few mistakes along those lines. And often, I heard of two people with no business being in any kind of relationship who suddenly decided to get married. Or maybe someone with no people skills at all would become a pastor and open a church plant. Or a big-name SBC leader would get a bee up his butt about baptizing more people in one year than anybody had ever managed in the history of his denomination.

If anyone expressed doubts about the idea, the Christians involved invariably warbled in unison, “See? That’s how we know it must be Jesus who put the idea in our heads!”

I get that same intense false-certainty from Bobby Welch’s 2006 President’s Address (in that year’s Annual Report). He seriously thought that Jesus wanted the denomination to go out and baptize 1 million people, and so he figured it must be something they could actually do.

Except they couldn’t.

A Sobering Thought for Christians, Perhaps.

Maybe Jesus likes watching his followers fail? I mean, the idea fits the data we have. Either that or Bobby Welch is a false prophet. I mean, if not both. (major wink face emoji here)

Either way, no wonder the 2007 Annual Report doesn’t even mention that entire campaign. Instead, the new SBC President, Frank Page, issued a speech called “The Maginot Line” (p. 96) that talked about spiritual warfare.

Now we have the SBC mustering for a new initiative. J.D. Greear’s big evangelism push didn’t do nearly as much as he’d hoped–at best, it might have slowed the decline in baptisms very slightly compared to previous years’ performance. (The SBC can’t deal with the fact that his ideas didn’t even work that well in his own actual church when he tried them out.)

With that new initiative looming soon, I just thought it’d be fun to look back at one of their most chest-thumpy campaigns. It’s now their third million-baptism attempt, and I’ve no doubt we’ll see at least a couple more before it’s all over for this denomination.

I hope you got as big a kick out of this journey into the past as I did!

NEXT UP: Lord Snow Presides on Monday, and then a look back at the questions about Hell that somehow I never thought to ask while I was actually Christian. See you soon!


Endnotes.

Regarding the Bold Mission Thrust: It ran from about 1979 to 1999. The SBC’s leadership hoped it would catapult them into new and dizzying levels of growth. They listed 14 “priority concerns” as part of the initiative. They couldn’t actually objectively measure the one item on the list that relates at all to what Jesus actually told his followers to do (“ministering to persons in need, such as the alienated, homeless, hungry, displaced and abused”), so they didn’t bother trying to work out any tangible way of meeting that one.

Each year, they tended to score well on flinging missionaries around and raising money via undesignated church receipts. However, goals regarding Sunday School enrollment, average attendance, and of course baptisms failed consistently. (Back to the post!)

About “million baptism” challenges in past years: I mean, in the 1944 Annual Report they talked about doing the same thing for their centennial in 1945 (though the whole 1945 meeting got deferred because of WWII, which was yet another big event that Jesus hadn’t tipped them off about). But the 1946 report (p. 421) reveals 256k baptisms. (Back to the post!)

Regarding the “Million More in ’54” challenge: It netted them 396k baptisms. That number represents a 35k increase over the year before. They added a total of 283k members to their rolls between 1953 and 1954, as well. So this campaign wasn’t exactly a roaring success, whatever Bobby Welch thought. (Back to the post!)


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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 volunteered in church (choir, Sunday School) and 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. And she still can't carry a note in a bucket. You can read more about the author here.
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