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Southern Baptists Have Fewest Baptisms Since The 1950s And Are Losing Members

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Baptisms in the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant denomination, have dipped to their lowest point in 60 years, according to a new report.

Last year, there were 332,321 baptisms in the church, which is 17,416 less than 2009, according to the report from Nashville-based LifeWay Christian Resources. There was only one baptism for every 48 Southern Baptists in the country in 2010. Sixty years ago, there one baptism per every 19 church members. In eight out of 10 years, the number of baptisms performed have declined.

Baptism statistics are an important measure of the church's vitality because -- unlike Catholics and other Protestants that baptize infants -- its members practice "believer's baptism," in which the person being baptized has to make an active choice to join the faith.

The church's highest year of baptisms was 1972, when there was 445,725, but baptisms have largely plateaued since the 1950s.

"I pray that all of us will see the urgency of the moment," said Thom Rainer, president and CEO of LifeWay, in a statement. "These latest numbers should be received with a broken spirit and a God-given determination to reach people for Christ."

The organization, which is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, released its survey ahead of the church's annual national meeting, which will take place Tuesday and Wednesday in Phoenix.

LifeWay had more bad news for Southern Baptists.

Church attendance and Sunday school enrollment declined in 2010. Membership, currently 16.3-million, is down for the fourth year in a row.

Donations to missionary work are down too. The denomination's International Mission Board received $145.6 million during its annual drive last year -- almost $30 million shy of its goal. The number of missionaries, which was 5,656 in 2009, dropped to 5,000 last year.

The report has prompted some soul searching among Southern Baptist leaders.

"This report should break the heart of every Southern Baptist," wrote the Rev. Ted Traylor of Olive Baptist Church in Pensacola, Fla., on his blog. "It should have us on our faces, crying out for awakening… We need freshness. We need repentance. We need revival."

"For many people, they attend church as 'customers' of religious goods and services," said Ed Stetzer, vice president of research and ministry for LifeWay, in an interview with The Huffington Post. "To thrive, we need a lot less consumers and more co-laborers -- people who are showing and sharing the love of Christ with their neighbors."

Stetzer said he believes the decline can be attributed to less interest in evangelism and an aging Southern Baptist population that is having fewer children who are joining the denomination.

On the Southern Baptist blog Between The Times, Stetzer highlighted four areas where he believes the church needs to focus on order to grow: converting more people, planting more churches, developing young leaders and promoting diversity.

"We've been so Southern and so white for so long that the annual meetings look like a loaf of Wonder bread," Stetzer said. Black, Hispanic, Asian and other minority congregations make up 19 percent of Southern Baptist churches.

A major denominational restructuring that church leaders approved last year to funnel more funding to missions and church planting in order to gain new converts has shown mixed results, the report indicated.

While the worship attendance was down a fraction of a percent to 6.2 million in 2010, LifeWay did find an increase in the number of churches. There were 45,727 Southern Baptist churches last year, compared to 45,010 in 2009.

"I do find encouragement in the increase in the number of churches," Rainer said. "Hopefully a church-planting trend in our convention will lead to the gospel of Christ being shared with more people than ever before."

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