Ken Whitten: Three reasons baptism rates are falling

Ken WhittenWhen our Lord began His ministry, He commenced it with these words, “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men” (Mark 1:17). When He finished His ministry, He concluded it as He echoed these words, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20). That, by the way, was not a suggestion but a commandment. Interesting. He said if we follow Him He will make us something. Not more disciplined, not more spiritual, not more organized, not a better spouse or student, but, “I will make you fishers of men.” So in the average American church, why are baptisms down and few salvation conversions taking place? May I suggest three reasons: 

1. We have made discipleship optional, not essential.

If you asked the average church member to define discipleship you would probably get one of two answers. We define discipleship by “what he knows.” Information. Have the right answers. Taking the right hermeneutical classes. The second way we define discipleship is by “what he does.” Conformation. A system of teaching people to “commit” to doing the right things and not doing the wrong things. Surely if we are not doing bad things and commit to doing right things, and we have a lot of biblical knowledge, we must, by our American definition, be a good disciple. But discipleship is not living for Jesus. It’s not knowing a lot about Jesus. It’s not committing to Jesus. It is dying with Jesus. Galatians 2:20 says, “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live, yet not I but Christ liveth in me: And the life which I now live in the flesh, I live by the faith of the Son of God who loved me, and gave Himself for me.” Jesus took my life from me, to give His life to me, so He could live His life through me. 

Discipleship isn’t a class. It isn’t optional training. It isn’t for the super spiritual in our churches. It is for every follower of Jesus Christ. It is essential. Instead of growing our churches, what if we were more concerned with making disciples in the cities. And we reached our cities with the Gospel. Instead of talking about “getting them in,” what if we talked about “sending them out?”

2. We have made the Gospel a presentation, not a conversation.

In Acts 4, Peter and John said, “For we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.” They were saying, “We’ve seen something. We have heard something. We must say something.” A witness tells what he has seen and heard. How did we make sharing good news so convoluted? It’s not for those who have had the “class.” It’s not reserved for those who are the elite in our churches. We have reduced witnessing to a night in our church. To a special group of spiritual Green Berets. We must have the presentation down. When was the last time you had a Gospel conversation with a neighbor, a good friend, a family member or a co-worker? It is a conversation, not a presentation. 

3) We have convinced ourselves we are still following, even though we are not fishing.

Listen, outreach isn’t visiting people who have visited our church. That should happen and that is good, but let’s not convince ourselves we are doing outreach. That’s in-reach. Outreach is every follower fishing for the souls of men, and in the words of Jesus in Luke 5, “to catch men.” Literally, “Rescuing them. Liberating them to life.” It’s pretty simple. I believe evangelist Dawson Trotman said it the best, “If we’re not fishing it means one thing, we’re not following.” Ouch! 

Let’s be followers. Let’s be disciple makers. Let’s be fishers of men. It’s not optional, but essential. The Gospel is a conversation, not a presentation. If we are following, the proof is we’ll be fishing.

Ken Whitten is senior pastor of Idlewild Baptist Church in Lutz, Fla.

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