08 November 2007

how many conversions?

A few weeks ago over at "Thoughts & Adventures," Scott Lamb (a pastor at Providence Baptist Church in St. Louis, Missouri) posted some helpful and challenging thoughts on Calvinism, conversion, and evangelism in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) and in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA).

Scott's primary point was to rouse slumbering churches in which there are, say, a half dozen adult baptisms each year, but little or no long term increases in actual worship attendance - or, on the other hand, churches where there are only a meager one or two adult baptisms a year, though the persons who come to faith do seem to persevere in their profession.

He backed up his arguments with statistics from the Missouri Baptist Convention (MBC) and the PCA (very roughly similar in terms of number of congregations), looking at the average number of (adult) baptisms each year per congregation. In whatever way one interprets the data, he suggested, it seems our churches could be making a far more effective effort in proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ to every creature.

I heartily agree with all of that and don't wish to dispute the overarching point. But there are some complications in the data that Scott's post didn't address. I commented on his blog and we exchanged email and cleared this up, so I'm not saying anything here of which he is presently unaware.

Allow me to elaborate a bit. He provided the following statistical analysis based upon 2005 figures for the MBC and the entire PCA:
  • MBC total churches & missions: 1993
  • PCA total churches & missions: 1594
  • MBC has 399 more congregations than the entire PCA

  • MBC total baptisms: 12,755
  • PCA total baptisms: 7727
    • PCA total number of infant baptisms: 5279
    • PCA total number of adult baptisms: 2448
  • MBC average baptisms per church: 6.3
  • PCA average baptisms per church (including infant): 4.8
  • PCA average adult baptisms per church: 1.5
  • From these statistics, the MBC's evangelistic effectiveness is hardly stellar, but the PCA's seems pretty pathetic.

    Having admitted that, however, I think the statistics could use some further qualification. For instance, the average size of an MBC congregation is larger than the average size of a PCA congregation since total membership for the MBC in 2005 was 590,315, while the total PCA membership was 331,126. That means that in 2005, the number of baptisms relative to membership breaks down this way:
  • MBC had one baptism for every 46.3 members
  • PCA had one baptism for every 135.3 members (adult baptisms only)
  • PCA had one baptism for every 42.9 members (infant and adult baptisms)
  • Given that last statistic, it would seem that the PCA does slightly better than the MBC.

    Now, I don't particularly want to play the numbers game. But what I pointed out to Scott is that "number of baptisms" is actually a very poor measure of conversions within the PCA context and that this points to differences between Baptist and Presbyterian ecclesiologies and sacramental theologies.

    Scott had been assuming that all adult converts would be baptized in the PCA upon coming to faith. But this simply isn't the case.

    Many of those who convert in adulthood were baptized as infants - whether in an evangelical church, a mainline church, the Roman Catholic church, or whatever. But if an adult convert was at any earlier point in life already baptized in the Triune name by a church that officially professes the Nicene Creed, then (generally speaking) a PCA church will not (re-)baptize the convert (the exception is with converts from Roman Catholicism who are baptized again in many of our southern churches).

    This difference in practice is part of what defines Presbyterians over against most Baptists. And this is because historically Presbyterians didn't view baptism primarily as a profession of faith on the part of the person baptized, but as an action of God offering himself in Christ to the person, the promise of the gospel held out in water.

    If there's a time delay between the moment when a person was baptized, and her acceptance of what is offered to her in baptism, then that's seen as a defect on the part of the person baptized (and, in the case of infants, perhaps a defect in their context of Christian nurture and discipleship) - not a defect on the part of the God who baptized her. Thus, we don't (re-)baptize those who are already baptized, but rather give thanks that what God had once signified and offered in baptism has finally come to fruition in personal faith.

    Part of what this mean is that, in terms of actual adult conversions, our denominational statistics tell us very little.

    Infant baptism statistics only include infants and children baptized in the PCA. Some adult converts come to us already baptized and some don't, so "number of adult baptisms" isn't an accurate measure of adult conversions. The 2005 statistics indicate that "profession of faith by adults" was 5514, more than 3000 people more than the number of adult baptisms.

    Even the statistic for "profession of faith by adults" isn't a perfect measure. In general, one can join a PCA church by profession of faith, re-affirmation of faith, or letter of transfer. But there's no way of mapping that directly onto number of actual adult conversions, especially given the variety of ways in which a person may become a member of a PCA church.

    Some who join by "profession of faith" may already have been baptized believers who, for whatever reason, had never previously "officially joined" a church. Some who join by "letter of transfer" may be adults, just converted, now transferring with a profession of faith from a liberal mainline Presbyterian or other church, depending upon how the local Session handles "transfer of membership." Those joining by "re-affirmation of faith" may include baptized believers who are switching membership from a church that doesn't issue letters of transfer or they may be people who've fallen away from the church for a time, who are only now coming back.

    Thus, there really isn't any way to directly compare what "number of baptisms" in the MBC means in comparison to adult conversions in the PCA. Probably the closest you can get is an approximation based on the "number of adult professions of faith" in the PCA.

    In that case, the PCA statistics for 2005 indicate 5514 adult professions. That's 3.5 adult professions of faith per congregation or one adult profession for every 60 members. If we add in infant baptisms (as the other primary way we publicly bring people to Christ), then the total number of adult professions combined with infant baptisms is 10,792. That's 6.8 persons per congregation or one person for every 30.7 members, which is comparable to MBC.

    But, having worked out the numbers in a way that better reflects Presbyterian ecclesiology, Scott's larger and more pressing point still stands - the statistics indicate that we in the PCA have a lot of room to grow in terms of proclaiming the gospel in a way that draws unbelievers to Jesus Christ so that they may become faithful disciples.