Sunday, August 06, 2006

By the Numbers

Religion News Service offered the following press release:

New York, NY - In a recent survey conducted by the American Bible Society, 70% of 12-15-year-olds surveyed said there are correlations between the messages of the Bible and the way they apply those messages to their lives. African- American teens were significantly more likely to agree with this statement than teens of all other races and ethnic groups. More than 1,600 12-18-year-olds participated in a six-question survey conducted by Weekly Reader Research on behalf of the American Bible Society. The survey also revealed these newfound statistics:

  • 51% surveyed were introduced to the Bible by their parents, with African-American (60%) and Hispanic teens (50%) leading among the surveyed ethnic groups.
    18% of teens said a pastor or a priest introduced them to the Bible; 12.5% were introduced by a youth leader.

  • Roughly 56% of the respondents were introduced to messages of the Bible before age 10.

  • Children who read the Bible before age 10 were more likely to read the Bible regularly as teenagers.

  • More than half of the teens surveyed read the Bible daily, weekly, on Sunday or sometimes and an estimated six percent of the 30.2 million 12-18-year-olds in the United States read the Bible daily (with no significant age, race or gender differences).
American Bible Society president Dr. Paul Irwin explained, "We conducted the survey to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the role the Bible plays in the lives of teens in America. All of us were very excited to see, and have reinforced, the important role parents play in introducing the Bible to children at a young age.
There is much in these figures to suggest optimism. We have to be pleased that young people are being introduced to the Bible, predominantly by their parents, and with some frequency.

But statistics are often the enemy of faithfulness. There is a widespread, lamentable tendency to measure the quality and effectiveness of Christianity by statistics (membership rolls, baptisms, etc.). And these are precisely the kind of statistics that tempt some to conclude without warrant, "If we're gonna reach people, we must do it before age 10 or 12." The presupposition is that the gospel needs to be aided by our timing, that the gospel is not quite "the power of God unto salvation" unless we "reach 'em young."

That kind of reasoning, particularly coupled with the sometimes intense pressure from parents for pastors to baptize their little ones, results in younger and younger baptismal ages as a "rite of passage" or "entitlement" rather than as a sign of committed, informed discipleship. A wrong use of age-related statistics, sometimes coinciding with a good desire to see young people follow the Lord, produces manipulative and shallow evangelistic practices. And then there is the seemingly indomitable feeling of failure when youth programs and energy-draining outreach to children doesn't result in visible success and speedy fulfillment of the "build it for the kids and the parents will come" prophecy.

We desire to see disciples, not just professors. We want our children to follow and obey the Lord, not praise Him with their mouths while keeping their hearts far from Him.

For example, the study reports that "When asked if they turned to the Bible for education about sex and sexuality, 21% of all teens answered yes. Among those who said yes, 29% were African-American and 20% were Caucasian-White."

Any enthusiasm at a 50% or better Bible reading rate has to be tempered by a 20% application of the scriptures to an area of life as important as sex and sexuality. After all, following Jesus isn't as simple as merely reading the Bible from time to time.


Anonymous said...

I am a new reader to your blog, and have enjoyed it immensely thus far. Thank you for your writing ministry. I do have a question about this mornings post. This line gave me pause this morning:
"That kind of reasoning, particularly coupled with the sometimes intense pressure from parents for pastors to baptize their little ones, results in younger and younger baptismal ages as a "rite of passage" or "entitlement" rather than as a sign of committed, informed discipleship."
I would like your clarification of that last phrase, for it seems you are suggesting it would be wrong for a person to be baptized immediately after a confession of faith, as is the case in the Scriptures. Is that what you meant?

FellowElder said...

Thanks for reading the blog and joining the conversation with your question! Always happy to hear from another brother in the Lord.

Good question. My comment was really aimed at the practice of baptizing young children, many of whom show little understanding of the gospel. In my experience, a significant number of new members are people who "made a profession" at a young age, were baptized, then for some considerable length of time lived lives without any discernible fruit of conversion. I certainly don't want to presume any ability or right to judge whether someone was truly converted in such cases. But, I think it's safe to say that some were, some weren't, and in all cases discernment is needed.

As a pastor, I want to avoid contributing to any sense of false assurance on the one hand, and to promote a conscious, committed culture of biblical discipleship on the other hand. In the case of children, where the NT is silent on baptism (either by explicit instruction or example), I think it's generally better for the child and the church to instruct and disciple the child but to delay baptism until the child demonstrates a credible profession.

I understand that the trend and practice are quite contrary to this. But 100 years ago, what I'm saying was the norm. Baptist churches regularly reserved baptism until a person was in her/his late teens and in some cases early twenties and living the faith independently (that is, as an adult with lattitude to follow or reject the Lord). As a prudential matter, recovering that practice would be helpful in my opinion.

Does that clarify or muddy things further? :-)

Anonymous said...

Warning: long post.
Thanks for taking the time to keep the conversation going. Your post served to bring thoughts on baptism to the front of my thoughts yet again. I hadn't focused on it much since T4G, where this issue came up regarding the Bethlehem position statement. A little background on me may be useful - I went to Bethlehem for 6+ years, graduated from TBI while there, and have been sent out in church planting (in FL) from there. I provide that to communicate I am a deeply committed Baptist and confessing evangelical who wants to honor the history of the church. I am also a young pastor (after 12 years in the corporate world) who realizes I have much to learn, so I deeply desire to approach this topic graciously and humbly. Finally, I am a father of four children, two of whom I recently baptized (ages 9 and 7 when immersed). I have appreciated your on-line deportment and wisdom, and thought I might gain from a discussion with you.
I agree with you that we must pray earnestly as elders of the flock of blood-bought sheep for discernment in administering this sacrament (end of your second paragraph). I deeply appreciate the care and carefulness you have communicated. But I struggle with the line of reasoning you mention at the end of your third paragraph. While the NT is silent on baptism for children, it is not so generally. I do not see any kind of “proof of credible profession” mentioned as being necessary for being baptized. The example of Peter (Acts 10:44ff) is repeated over and over. I would infer from the Scriptures that elders, walking closely with and living in the Spirit (Galatians 5), are given by the Spirit the needed discernment about a genuine profession of faith. They then allow that first step of obedience to immediately occur, and baptize people.
The more I have considered this issue, the more I am convinced that the Bible has no category for a Christian as defined as anything but a Christ-confessing baptized believer. So it seems we are creating a non-Biblical category by having Christ-confessing non-baptized believers waiting until they have their confession confirmed at some time in the future, all the while in a state of disobedience to their Lord. As with Philip and the Eunuch, should not the baptistry always be filled and ready to celebrate another one coming to the Lord? Or is that making something normative that should not be?
As I have discussed this issue with seasoned pastors, one conversation really stuck out. It was a pastor of a Reformed Baptist church who had been baptizing children (I think it was around 6 and up) for 20 years. He was able, by God’s grace, to happily report that they had fewer “miscarriages” of baptism for those children than of any older people they had baptized! It is important to note that they have what is the best and most thorough list of questions for the baptism interview that I have ever seen, for any age. And that interview was given to all baptismal candidates.
Of course, the Bible doesn’t mention baptism interviews either, does it? So, I myself could be called on that one. I am willing to concede the point because it seems wise for an elder (or elders) to discuss with a candidate their faith before baptism. And I could imagine that could have happened in the first century. Bottom line - it appears to me the Scriptures show that believers - applicable to children and adults - should be baptized as soon as possible after a confession of faith.
I feel my weakness in these things brother, and look forward to your response. I long with you to work for and serve our Lord in a way that creates a Pure Church.

FellowElder said...

Matthew Molesky,
Brother! I am humbled and challenged by the generosity of spirit and kindness in your last response! Thank you for the dialogue and the model of humility!

Let me see if I can respond to some of the good comments you raise.

First, you wrote: "I do not see any kind of “proof of credible profession” mentioned as being necessary for being baptized. The example of Peter (Acts 10:44ff) is repeated over and over."

I'd suggest we also consider the following passages: Luke 3:7-14; Acts 8:26-38, 19:1-5.

In each of these passages there is some "examination" of sort, from John's exhortation "to bring forth fruit worthy of repentance" to Philip's asking the Ethiopian official if he believed with all his heart to Paul asking the folks in Ephesus "what baptism did you receive." And notice, too, that in John's exhortation to his hearers he articulates rather specific examples of repentance consistent with the sins of the categories of groups in question. Repentance should be discernible or evidenced in some way.

If we add to these passages the more general instruction to "examine ourselves to see whether we are in the faith," I think we have warrant to attempt what I have called "a credible profession of faith." By that, I simply mean does the person profess and articulate BOTH repentance from sin and faith toward God through Jesus Christ. Does the person understand the gospel demands. I think each of the passages above gives principial warrant for trying to discern that. These passages DO amount to a kind of "baptism interview" in my opinion.

Regarding children, my premise is that the younger you go, the more difficult it will be to discern both repentance and faith, and therefore the more careful and patient we should be in admitting children to baptism. Most everyone I know who has participated in some reflection on the baptism issue agrees in principal that as you move down the age spectrum then at some age it's probably unwise to baptize a child. The question that's left, then, is at what age should we draw some general line (I don't advocated "age limits"). The "appropriate age", it seems to me, (a) varies from child to child and (b) is a matter of discernment and prudence, not clear biblical mandate.

Second, you wrote: "I would infer from the Scriptures that elders, walking closely with and living in the Spirit (Galatians 5), are given by the Spirit the needed discernment about a genuine profession of faith. They then allow that first step of obedience to immediately occur, and baptize people."

My question to you would be how is that discernment acquired? How does the Spirit give or create recognition of "a genuine profession of faith"? I'd argue that at the least such discernment requires asking some questions and observing behavior, probably of both the child and the parents. Your comment seems to suggest that it's intuited in some way that doesn't involve investigation. Am I reading you correctly?

Regarding Philip and the Eunuch and the immediacy of baptism, I think you see in that example (1) the kind of "examination" I'm advocating (Philip makes sure the official understands the gospel and believes), (2) something that probably is not normative given the supernatural activity happening around that account, and (3) an example of an adult conversion from a missions-like context (therefore, not particularly generalizable to the question of children raised in a Christian home or nominal Christian culture where repentance and faith isn't as immediately obvious as with the Ethiopian official).

Brother, I am right there with you when it comes to the weakness this issue (and others) provokes in my soul! Praying that the Lord turns the water of my understanding and best efforts into the best wine for His people!

Grace and peace,