Southern Baptist Convention projections show that 1978 will record a decline in baptisms for the third consecutive year and the smallest increase in membership in decades.
Projections compiled by the research services department of the Baptist Sunday School Board, based on information from 17,361 congregations, indicate that Southern Baptists will have baptized 336,356 persons in 1978. That would be a 2.7 percent decrease from 1977, which had seen an 11 percent decline from the previous year.
The decline is crucial, since baptism is the means by which nearly all new members join the church.
According to the 1978 projections, Southern Baptists will number 13,200,948 by the end of the year-an increase of only 0.9 percent over the 13,083,199 reported for 1977.
The figures were reported during the annual meeting of the evangelism directors of 34 SBC state conventions.
Martin Bradley, manager of the Sunday School Board's research services, said, "We actually are gaining church membership, but our rate of growth is declining. Last year, we had a growth rate of 1.2 percent. For the past 15 years our growth rate has gradually dropped. The rate of growth this year may be the smallest we have recorded. We know it will be among the smallest in several decades."
Despite the membership and baptism figures, projections indicate Southern Baptist congregations will show a 9.9 percent gain in total receipts and a 10 percent increase in mission expenditures for 1978.
According to C. B. Hogue, director of the SBC Home Mission Board's evangelism section, "what is happening to us is that we give more and more but do less and less. The average Southern Baptist, it appears, is interested in mission, but would rather give dollars than himself. We have talked boldly, but we have worked weakly."
Hogue warned that the trend indicated by the projections "may be a prelude to decline . . . it has happened to others." He suggested that "smugness" at being the nation's largest Protestant denomination may be a factor.
"I know of no other group in history that has been [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] persons a day,"Hogue [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] when we are confronted with the unchurched in our land, it does not leave room for us to be self satisfied. We have been proud to be known as the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, but we apprently have forgotten the responsibility that goes with that reputation."
Lack of emphasis on personal witnessing was mentioned as another possible factor by several of the state evangelism directors. J. W. Hutchens of the Baptist General Association of Virginia said, "Our churches believe in witnessing but in many cases have been reluctant to follow through."
Joe Ford, director of the evangelism development division at the Home Mission Board, predicted that an increase will be recorded next year for baptisms.