In most cases, the decision to leave was not planned far in advance. Only 20 percent of these "church dropouts" agree that while they were attending church regularly in high school they "planned on taking a break from church once [they] finished high school."
This is alarming for a number of reasons.
1. It demonstrates that these churches have some serious problems. Many of our churches are de facto Paedobaptist institutions. A dropout rate this high says something about what is going on in the churches. It should be of particular concern to Baptists who criticize Paedobaptist churches. In my personal experience visiting the local PCA church here regularly, they do a very good job of retaining their students compared to the average Baptist church. Maybe this is because they are highly involved with RUF, but I think there is much more to it.
2. To a certain extent, I agree that it is a product of the gospel to which many of these are "won," eg. the gospel of semi-Arminianism, decisionism, and revivalism.
On the last of these, Fide-O and Founders are both hosting discussions at this time. I refer the reader there.
3. However, I also think, based on past interactions with some folks on the net and in person that there is a tension within Baptist circles relative to the simple question, "When should we baptize?" I have at times commented on that issue in comboxes, and I'd like to develop my comments further here. I will not deal at all with the issue of Paedobaptism.
Simply put, I agree with Mark Dever on the timing of baptism.
We live in an age where folks, particularly my brothers in TX, are talking more and more about "Baptist tradition." Well, if we followed "Baptist tradition" a bit more closely, we wouldn't be a de facto Paedobaptist institution.
It is sometimes argued that we should baptize a person (of any age) relatively close to the time of their conversion,because that is the pattern we find in Acts.
1. That's true, this is the pattern we find in Acts.
2. However, I would argue that the Bible actually contains no command or example intended to direct our answer to this question.
3. Indeed, we don't choose our deacons by lot and we don't run around with holy handkerchiefs. Not every example in Acts is an example for the church to follow in its normative state. As one of my former professors, Dr. James Peterson, once said, "Some examples in the Bible are there to tell us what not to do." Others are there to show us what they did then, but not necessarily for us to do today.
4. There are those who don't want to baptize quickly and "on the spot" because they feel that it would be giving too much to the Campbellites who affirm a form of baptismal regeneration,whereby baptism is an instrumental cause. The same can be said of the Oneness crowd. Typically, these folks affirm Zwinglian view of baptism in credobaptist form, that is, baptism is a symbol, not a means of grace. Benjamin Keach, of course, would disagree. On occasion, I have encountered those who will say we should do this quickly so that those persons can be communicants and partake of the Lord's Table.
5. We all agree it is an essential part of Christian discipleship.
What are we to make of all this?
First, when I read Scriptures like Acts 2, I see that their baptism was not the instrumental cause of their regeneration/salvation. Rather it was their profession of faith. Dr. Kostenberger, I believe, notes that John's baptism was "prospective," that is to say, it's purpose was, according to Scripture itself, intended to reveal the Messiah to Israel (John 1.31). It was Christological in orientation, not an end to itself.
In Acts 2, Peter tells them to repent and be baptized? Why would this be important? Simply, baptism - an act that was Christological in orientation under John the Baptist's ministry - now took on a retrospective orientation. Baptism still has a Christological orientation. It is, in essence, depicted as their public profession of faith.
When Paul speaks of people "confessing with their mouth 'Jesus is Lord'" this would be a typical baptismal creed. The accent here is not on baptism as an instrumental cause but on their faith in publicly professing Christ - in Acts 2 - in the heart of the very city in which Jesus had just weeks beforehand been crucified, in full view of the religious authorities who immediately begin trying to persecute them.
However, the next baptismal narrative takes place in Samaria. What happens? A group is baptized, and the first false professor, Simon Magus, is included. Later, he is put out of the church by Peter, the first example of church discipline. I would also note that the subapostolic church, which was already dealing with the rise of false teachers from the previous generation (which we read about in the New Testament itself and now in their own, came to separate baptism from a profession of faith often for this very reason. They also withheld the Lord's Table from the catechumenate.
The next narrative concerns the Ethiopian Eunuch. He is baptized upon profession too. I would say this is not normative, since there was nobody else to baptize him and he was heading far from the reach of the new Way at that time.
Then we have the baptism of Cornelius and his household. Note that here, the sign of the Spirit is given prior to their baptism, a thing which did not occur in Samaria.
From these four main narratives, then what can we say about the timing of baptism?
1. Baptism is a public profession of faith in Christ alone. It signifies, for the person baptized, their own experience and their public repudiation of their past way of life and of all false gospels and systems, in their case Second Temple Judaism, the Old Covenant administration, in favor of the New Covenant.
2. Professor baptism does not always weed out false professors. Of course, we already know this.
3. Professor baptism should be done after, and not before, we can properly discern whether or not a person's profession of faith in credible. Here, by profession of faith, I do not mean full and complete or for that matter basic understanding of a standard confession of faith, though those do supply the basis of such a profession. Rather, I have in mind a very general idea of "credible profession" of faith, one that includes an understanding of basic doctrine, including justification by faith alone - particularly an understanding that their personal faith is in Christ and his merits alone, not their merits, a ecclesiastical community, etc.
4. There are some exceptions to this rule, for example, if there is no way to baptize a person except very quickly. This should not be normative, even on the mission field.
Within the trajectory of Baptist history, it is true that our forefathers often practiced close or closed communion. Why? Because they lived in a time of declension in the churches at large. Professor baptism was, therefore, for them, what it was for those gathered in Jerusalem on Pentecost. However, today, I would argue that such baptism is commonplace, so commonplace that it no longer has that significance. Rather, it's significance is more like the Paedobaptism that my Baptist forefathers witnessed.
Given that we know they view church attendance is highly indicative of the state of the heart, surely they would have much to say about the recidivism rate among the young people in SBC churches, not to mention the fact that less than half the "membership" of the SBC shows up to church on Sunday.
1. What then of the Lord's Table? Should we keep those making professions of faith but unbaptized from the Table? Baptist tradition says "Yes." I disagree. Why?
a. The accent of the NT is not on baptism - but the profession of faith itself, even in Acts 2.
b. I disagree that baptism is "the" sign of the covenant. It is, at most, "a" sign of the covenant. The Lord gave the sign of the covenant to the Lord's Table, not baptism. The proper requirement for the Lord's Table is, at a minimum, a (credible) profession of faith. Nobody in the New Testament partook of the Table and was unbaptized, but, again, the accent is on the meaning of baptism, not the act of baptism.
c. One can so fence the table that it results in little more than control freakery. I have in my library a history of the Charleston Presbytery of the Southern Presbyterians detailing the giving of communion tokens in the Antebellum period in lurid detail. This flies in the face of Scripture that, while I would agree licenses the elders of the church to fence the table by warning, does not license them to give out "communion tokens" of any kind. The Table, when we gather, is self-selecting. Scripture says "let each man..." It does not say, "You shall keep those making a credible profession but not baptized by immersion" away. That said, I believe that each local church should have its own say; it should not, in this matter, force its opinion on another. I'll also add here that the best way to fence the Table is to know your members and visitors and practice church discipline. No one should be cut off from the means of grace who is not under discipline, unless they are an unbeliever and have no way to say, "I know Christ died for me and I have appropriated His benefits by faith in Him alone." The job of the elder is to warn the people and equip the people, not hand out passes to the meal like tickets or, worse, put them under house arrest. Such actions make the eldership a paternalistic institution that varies little from that of Roman Catholic priests who hand out the wafer and keep the host, literally, under lock and key. As Steve said in August,and I second,
Since communion is a covenant sign, the only communicants should (ideally) be members of the covenant community. It would therefore be wrong for a pastor to knowingly administer communion to an open unbeliever.
However, one can easily get carried away with policing the communion rail. Various denominations begin to practice closed communion, as if each denomination held the patent to the Lord’s Supper.
And some of them become so petrified at the prospect of administering communion to the wrong person that they rarely perform communion, and put members through a screening process every time communion is scheduled. The pastor has to interview every member and issue a communion token to show that this member is preapproved to partake of communion.
All of this is well-intentioned, but it’s also an exercise in control-freakery. An otherwise valid principle as been overrefined to the point of absurdity, under the assumption that it’s better if no one rightly takes communion for fear one person will slip through the barricade and wrongly take communion.
It also assumes a very paternalistic polity, in which the elders are the official grown-ups while the laity is reduced to the rank of perpetual minors, in a state of diminished responsibility. The laity is no longer answerable for its actions. Rather, laymen are kept under curfew. They can only go outside with an ecclesiastical chaperon to escort them and keep them out of trouble.
Yet the true job of pastors is to equip the laity, and not to keep them under house arrest. Not only does this attitude keep the laity in a state of arrested spiritual and intellectual development, but it also has a corrupting influence on the clergy, for the clergy are by no means impeccable or infallible. Accountability is a two-way street.
The question may arise, "If that's how you feel about the Lord's Table, then why not baptize early since you are saying that a person should be allowed to the table who has made a credible profession of faith?" Don't those propositions pull in opposiing directions?
No, they do not.
1. Again, the Table is ultimately self-selecting. It requires a warning, not communion tokens. Also, visitors from Paedobaptist churches aren't generally there to be members of your church.
2. Baptism requires an adminstrator and is also viewed by us as "the" door, or at least "a" door to local church membership. It's requirements would seem more stringent. It is also possible to "police" baptism in a way that most Baptist churches cannot because of the way they celebrate communion.
Leaving aside any issues relative to administrator baptism and baptisms on the mission field and their relation to local church membership or sponsorship (Wade Burleson has addressed these already), I would argue that, in our present situation, because of the way we Baptists in places where the churches are already established, index baptism to church membership, we should baptize later, rather than sooner.
What does Baptist tradition,therefore, say about this? First, in the modern period, delaying baptism is common on the mission field, while Tony Hemphill (Practice of Infantile Baptism), noted that between 1977-97 there was a 250 % increase in SBC baptisms of churches under the age of six. Baptists in England tend to disapprove of baptisms at young ages in comparison to Southern Baptists.
What of the older Baptists?
According to Mark Dever ("Baptism in the Context of the Local Church" in Believer's Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ, ed. by Thomas Schriener and Shawn D.Wright, p.246, footnote 24):
John Gill was brought up in a Baptist home and baptized at age 19.
Samuel Medley, was brought up in a Baptist home and baptized @ age 22.
Richard Furman was brought up in a Christian home, baptized at age 17.
J. Newton Brown, baptized age 14.
J.M. Pendleton (a name known to my Landmark brethren), baptized aged 18.
P. H. Mell, brought up in a strong Christian home, baptized @ age 18.
J.R.Graves, also brought up in a Christian home, baptized age 18.
Sylvanus D. Phelps, also brought up in a Christian home, baptized @ 18.
John A. Broadus, former SBC President and President of SBTS, baptized age 16.
Charles Fenton James, baptized @ 20 while a Confederate soldier.
Charles Spurgeon baptized his 2 sons when they were 18.
John R. Sampey, age 13.
Frank Stagg, age 11.
Dale Moody, age 12.
E.Y. Mullins, reared a Baptist in a minister's home, baptized @ age 20.
H. Wheeler Robinson, brought up by a Christian mother, baptized @ age 16.
I humbly submit that we should baptize, at this point in Baptist history, prudently, given the current state of the churches. Each church should decide this matter for itself. Just be certain you are not conflating a biblical example with a biblical command. Those who are de facto Paedobaptist churches should repent immediately. It is no shameful thing to put off baptism from a profession of faith for some time, for persons of any age, as long as it is recognized that baptism is an essential part of Christian discipleship. I think the Lord would rather us be careful than careless. We have been careless far too long. Let us not, however, run to the absolute polar opposite and put it off as if it is not at all important,for that would be even more careless.
One more thing - a suggestion. Many of us Reformed/Sovereign Grace Baptists are often chided for not practicing an "inviation," to wit,the altar call. I would suggest that your gathering around the Lord's Table on Sunday is a perfect time to do this, if your church is of a size that allows for it. I've seen this done with up what appeared to be about a hundred people. It could easily be done in larger churches if you had more than one aisle.
Brother David Rogers will like this idea. Practice, if you do not already, for a change, common cup communion. Segue from your sermon to, ideally, a baptism if you have folks who need to be baptized. So, you'll need to do whatever it is you do before baptism to schedule that event. If there is no baptism, segue to the Lord's Table. Fence your table through your explanation of the elements. Tie your sermon into your hosting of the Table too. Then, have all those who are believers walk the aisle if they are able (take the elements to those who are physically unable). Ask unbelievers to remain seated. If you choose to close your Table to the unbaptized, then do so. As I said, each church should make its own decisions in that regard. If you practice close communion proper, ask the non-members to remain seated. This will be your "altar call."
Notice that it turns the idea of the altar call on its head, so to speak. Typically, the altar call is made to those who need to "make a decision." It is used for everything from receiving new members to making professions of faith, to asking the elders to pray for you.
Folks, the Lord's Table, like baptism, is also a public testimony. We sometimes forget that. The churches have gathered around a table since the beginning of their common worship. This table is what is often called the "altar." Indeed, do we not already place the elements upon it when we gather around the Table? Put it to good use. Instead of passing round some crackers and little cups, have your people actually walk the aisle and do a proper altar call. Make their walking the aisle a testimony to the unbelievers (or any others if you so choose) present. Paul said this was a testimony of the Lord's death, burial, and resurrection, and His coming, for it is to be done until he returns.
Won't this make the unbelievers feel uncomfortable? Yes, it probably will. It should make them ask questions. It should "provoke them to jealousy" as it were. We are accused of not practicing the altar call. True enough for many of us, but maybe the real problem is the already improper use of the altar call, not simply its abuse. I would suggest that it is for the members of the church, and the most proper way to practice it as a tool for evangelism is this way, not be having the unbeliever take a stroll to the front as if walking the aisle or making a decision constitutes conversion, but having your members do so to testify to the unbelievers around them. Note, if you choose to have only the properly baptized participate, not simply those who are professing believers, then you can also use this as a testimony with respect to Christian discipleship in baptism (be sure to include this in your explanation of the Table if you do so). The choice is yours and your church's to make.