I never tire of seeing people baptized. Every one of them tells a unique story of God’s grace at work in the lives of individuals.
One I remember is Charlie Tanner. I led Charlie to the Lord in his living room almost 35 years ago. He came out of a Mormon sect in which most of his family was strongly entrenched. I felt like shouting when Charlie accepted Christ and was baptized. To this day he is a great disciple of Christ and an active member of First Baptist Church, Vancleave, Miss.
There are so many others like Charlie’s story, and so many ways God’s grace worked in each person’s life to bring them to their baptism moment. Each new brother or sister emerges from the water not yet fully knowing the joy ahead as they walk daily with our Savior.
Seeing a baptism makes me think of the day I was baptized and how Jesus raised my soul from the dead to walk in newness of life. I think of the joy I have in being at peace with God.
Jesus was good to give us this ordinance to always remember His victory over sin and death. Think how gracious He was to include us in His work by commanding us — us — to go into all the world winning, baptizing, and discipling people from every tribe, tongue, and nation.
Recently, I laid out Five Objectives for the Executive Board of the Tennessee Baptist Convention, which it unanimously approved. These Five Objectives established a direction that I believe we must go as Tennessee Baptists if we are going to be used by God to have a meaningful spiritual impact in the rapidly decaying spiritual condition of our families, friends, and neighbors. Those Five Objectives are:
(1) Seeing 50,000 Tennesseans annually saved, baptized, and set on the road to discipleship by 2024.
(2) Having at least 500 Tennessee Baptist churches revitalized by 2024.
(3) Planting and strategically engaging 1,000 new churches by 2024.
(4) Realizing an increase in collective annual giving to the Cooperative Program that reaches 10 percent by 2024.
(5) Realizing an increase in annual giving for the Tennessee Baptist Golden Offering for State Missions that reaches $3 million by 2024.
Over the next several weeks I will share some thoughts about each objective, but baptism is a good place to start because this is the first indicator of whether we are reaching lost souls with the gospel.
The number of people saved, baptized, and discipled by Tennessee Baptist churches has steadily declined for the last 40 years. In 1950 Tennessee Baptist churches saw 34,550 people saved and baptized. We continued to see between 25,000 and 30,000 come to know the Lord through the ministries of our churches for the next three decades. But beginning in the mid-1970s, a decline started that has bottomed at 21,708 baptized last year.
The decline in baptisms mirrors the inward turn of those in the church and indicates an increasing apathy toward the desperate spiritually lost condition of the people around us. God is still interested in seeing people come to saving faith in Jesus Christ, yet He still chooses to reach people through the proclamation of the gospel. And let’s face it; we Christians simply aren’t intentionally engaging the world around us for the purpose of sharing the gospel.
No, our lack of evangelism doesn’t limit God’s ability to “draw all men to Himself,” but Scripture is clear that God gave us a responsibility to reach people and that He holds us accountable for that responsibility. Counting the annual number of baptisms is the best indicator we have to understand if we are effectively moving out of our churches and back into culture.
So why 50,000? There has been an increasing gap between the population growth in Tennessee and the number of people we are reaching with the gospel. The number 50,000 represents a figure that closes the distance between growth and those coming to Christ. Yes, it is a big number, especially in comparison to where we are and where we’ve been; however, I recognize we will never get there without God’s intervention. The number drives me to beg God to send a revival in our churches that pulls us beyond our walls and into harvest-ready fields. We have 3.65 million Tennesseans from more than 100 countries who need someone — anyone — to share Words of Life with them.
I believe we can get to 50,000 individuals annually being saved, baptized and set on the path to discipleship, because I believe in the power of the Holy Spirit and not the programs of any human entity. I believe an increase in baptisms — especially toward the 50,000 number and beyond — will reflect a true and renewed passion to follow Christ in obedience. The equation is simple: Obedient disciples grouped together in vibrant churches equals changed lives and radically different cities and towns.
There are thousands of Charlie Tanner stories out there who right now don’t even know how badly their story ends apart from Christ. Join me in striving toward 50,000 annual baptisms, not because we’re trying to check a box, but because we want to see 50,000 (and more) stories share Charlie’s happy ending.