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Baptism Sunday: Evaluating Christian Claims

Baptism Sunday: Evaluating Christian Claims September 14, 2021

Hi and welcome back! Not long ago, we evaluated Christian claims of vast success — and found them seriously wanting. Those claims came about in connection with the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) and its newly-created holiday, ‘Baptism Sunday.’ It came and went this past Sunday. And indeed, I see more of those success claims swirling around it. Today, let’s check out the SBC’s success claims regarding this most recent Baptism Sunday — and see what might be going on there in reality.

baptism waters await
(Matt Power.)

(You can grab any SBC Annual Reports you want at this link — except for 2021, which you can find here.)

WTF is ‘Baptism Sunday,’ Anyway?

Baptism Sunday is a special holiday created by the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). The main one usually takes place around Easter, with another go-round in the autumn that’s aimed at students. On Baptism Sunday, churches try extra-hard to score a few baptisms.

This is all kinda new. Until 2020 (p. 151), Annual Reports didn’t even mention Baptism Sunday. I can see why. Until their big decline began in earnest, most churches — even small ones — probably saw at least a few baptisms a year. It wasn’t until they began to reach the nosebleed numbers in their ratio of baptisms per existing members that many churches began going entire years without a single adult baptism to report.

J.D. Greear, the denomination’s president at the time, created an EVANGELISM TASK FORCE (remember them?). That committee originally brought up the idea of ‘Baptism Sunday’ in 2018. In turn, Greear outlined the idea toward what he expected to be the end of his time in the position (August 2019). He also seems to have worked out the details with the unfortunately-acronym’d North American Mission Board (NAMB) subgroup of the SBC. NAMB handles missionary-style evangelism in the United States. (The International Mission Board, or IMB, handles all the other missionary stuff.)

And at first, the SBC planned to have it in September alone, though that changed quickly enough.

Cage Fight: Baptism Sunday vs. Fill the Tank.

On Baptism Sunday, SBC-lings are supposed to make extra efforts to pester their non-SBC friends, neighbors, and family members to attend church with them with the goal of getting those visitors to their churches’ baptismal fonts.

Churches seem to have gotten into the spirit of things, often combining this initiative with another called “Fill the Tank.” The phrase actually means filling up the church’s baptismal tank of water, since churches don’t fill those tanks unless they need to do so for an actual baptism.

The phrase might also be a play on Christianese meant to make listeners think about filling their imaginary personal tanks with Jesus Power. (Back when I was Pentecostal, we often talked about praying ourselves up and whatnot.) The combination nets us some unforgettably hilarious gibberish like this September 2nd headline:

More than 600 North Carolina churches registered to Fill the Tank on Baptism Sunday

For some weird reason, incidentally, that story leads me to think that whoever came up with “Fill the Tank” kinda resents J.D. Greear for pissing in their sandbox with “Baptism Sunday.” Whatever the case, it looks like they got 675 churches in total involved with Fill the Tank. Aww, out of 47,000 churches total, or 1.43%, that’s not bad! (Caring Well, their laughable response to the sex abuse crisis, netted them about 750 churches.)

Greear himself seems to have pushed both Baptism Sunday and Fill the Tank last year. But I’ve heard little about Fill the Tank this year; now they’re more focused on Baptism Sunday. There’s also no mention at all of Fill the Tank in either 2020 or 2021’s Annual Report.

So Baptism Sunday is a very new made-up holiday for the SBC. That said, it appears to be the one that survived the cage match. In their 2021 Annual Report, I see projected dates for Baptism Sunday all the way through 2026! 

What Happens on Baptism Sunday.

For Baptism Sunday, as noted, churches should expect lots of guests who aren’t SBC already (or might be lapsed SBC).

At least Fill the Tank had a whole, if maddeningly vague, website devoted to resources for all ranks of a church’s hierarchy. You have to search hard to find anything like that for Baptism Sunday. Eventually, I located a short PDF on NAMB’s website. This PDF offers “4 Key Elements of a Baptism Service.”

Most of the elements seem self-explanatory: order baptism supplies, decide what date to have the baptisms on, get volunteers recruited and trained, etc.

Then it tells pastors to “call for response.” This is a new, kinda trendy way to phrase an old sermon idea. It’s based on ask for the sale, an old salesmanship rule. After all, goes the wisdom, if you don’t explicitly ask the customer to buy the product you’re selling, chances are good they won’t. They’ll walk on by.

After covering objections, the PDF continues by telling pastors, “Tell people specifically what to do and when.”

So on Baptism Sunday, pastors should be extra-careful to specifically ask candidates to get baptized, then assume that of course that’s what’s going to happen.

(A strikingly similar “call for response” post about sermons can be found here.)

Baptism Sunday: Gaslighting and Preaching to the Choir.

Interestingly, NAMB’s writeup for Baptism Sunday also includes attacking objections in the sermon. These objections include the usual kind of straw objections that literally nobody would say along with the gaslighting we expect out of evangelicalism by now:

  • “I’m not ready”
  • “It’s not that important”
  • “I was baptized as a baby”
  • “Well, it’s really inconvenient”
  • “But I don’t have a change of clothes!”
  • “But I came with people… they’re going to want to go eat after this.”

These objections just get trampled with Christianese, Bible verses, and emotional manipulation. Most of those responses seem to exist to impress the existing flocks with how oh-so-very-totally-important baptism totally is.

Meanwhile, the more perfectly reasonable objections get the same treatment, but geared more toward emotional manipulation and the hard-sales evangelism techniques that evangelicals think works to create lasting converts.

The last objection made me giggle, though. Literally no evangelical would ever be upset about getting held up for lunch at Steak & Cake if it meant someone they brought wanted to be baptized. They’d be coasting on the glory of that success till their dying day.

At best, the techniques suggested in the PDF might bully someone into accepting a baptism they ain’t feeling, just so they can get away and then block the number of the Christian who invited them there. But it’s hard to imagine these ideas working to create converts for the long haul.

So How Did the SBC Do This Year?

Good question. It might be a bit early to find out. All Baptist Press offers so far is anecdotes about mild-sounding success. I see no numbers reported yet.

That said, Baptism Sunday (and for that matter, its competition Fill the Tank) has existed for a couple of years now. Here are the numbers from the last few Annual Reports (bear in mind that each report covers the previous year’s numbers, and “baptism ratio” means baptisms per existing members):

  • 2019: 246,442 baptisms; 14,813,234 members. Baptism ratio: 1:60.
  • 2020: 235,748 baptisms; 14,525,579 members. Baptism ratio: 1:62.
  • 2021: 123,160 baptisms; 14,089,947 members. Baptism ratio: 1:114.

We’ve talked about the SBC’s dismal 2021 performance; it’s almost certainly due to the pandemic. But what was their excuse for 2020’s report? Their big grand baptism initiatives — both of them — managed to snag almost 11,000 fewer baptisms than the year before, and they lost almost 300,000 members total from the denomination.

I’m guessing Baptism Sunday didn’t do quite as much for the SBC as this Baptist Press article wants to pretend.

And That’s the Best Case Scenario.

That anecdote-riddled Baptist Press article (relink) offers some disturbing insights as to the people who are coming forward to get dunked by a group that still hasn’t meaningfully addressed its sex-abuse and racism crises.

We get an anecdote about one pastor preying upon his young son’s “best friend.” He’s apparently extensively pestered the parents of the boy, but he promised this time he’d leave them alone forever if they’d just attend THIS ONE SERVICE. (It reminds me of Biff making the exact same promise regarding pestering me over having children for him. I learned at great cost never to trust evangelical men’s promises.)

We hear about another church that clearly pestered members’ grandparents (or an old folks’ home — don’t get me started).

Another baptize-ee is a longtime domestic worker for a member’s family.

This is all very disturbing stuff; it speaks to SBC members preying upon vulnerable people who are beholden to the members for their livelihoods or kindness. How free were any of these people to reject these so-called invitations?

(See also: Meaningful consent.)

Here’s the Worst Case.

The article finally, thankfully ends with a North Carolina pastor, Michael Bowen, gloating about his church’s performance during the pandemic:

“In the middle of COVID we baptized 150 people in the past 12 months,” Bowen said. “We had a tent revival that lasted five weeks with 313 saved and 113 baptized under the tent. COVID hasn’t slowed our church down one bit.”

I’m not sure any pastor should be crowing about being basically a superspreader event that’ll likely kill more people than it “saves” from imaginary perils. That said, if he really has added over 300 people to his church during the pandemic, I’ve no doubt we’ll be hearing about him in the years to come.

See, to the SBC that’s superstar evangelist status right there. Too bad for them that they can’t bottle that kind of lightning!

Meanwhile, they still refuse to address the real, entrenched, systemic problems that cause so many people to leave their ranks and refuse to get involved with them — and will likely cause most of their baptize-ees on Sunday to drift away as soon as they safely can.

NEXT UP: Christians themselves might well be the most important factor of all, when it comes to young adults sticking around or leaving church culture behind. In other words, Christianity is sunk. We’ll explore that idea more tomorrow — see you then!


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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. She lives with an adored and adoring husband named Mr. Captain and a sweet, squawky orange tabby cat named Princess Bother Pretty Toes. At any given time, she's running out of bookcase space. You can read more about the author here.

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