One weekend every month, leaders at Vale Church move a mobile baptistry into the lobby of the church’s Bloomington building. “Baptism weekend,” held the fourth weekend of most months, is a time of church-wide celebration, said adult ministries pastor Nolan Recker.
“Personal is powerful,” Recker said, and the church’s baptism weekends highlight personal stories of life transformation. Baptism candidates pre-record brief testimonies that are played in the auditorium prior to their baptism. As the testimony ends, worshipers see live footage of the baptism happening in the lobby. When the person comes out of the water, Recker said, the symbol of new life is accompanied by worship music and cheering from the congregation.
Personal is powerful.
Vale is one of many IBSA churches celebrating new spiritual life on a regular basis through the practice of baptism. The Bloomington church baptized 125 people last year, more than doubling the total from the previous year.
Across Illinois, 3,553 people were baptized in IBSA churches last year, according to Annual Church Profile reports submitted by churches. The total is down 3.3% from 2018, but that year saw an increase of more than 200 baptisms after several years of decline. The Illinois numbers mirror recent trends in the Southern Baptist Convention, which has also reported multiple years of baptism declines.
“Last year, our statewide baptism total came from about 53% of the reporting churches,” said IBSA Executive Director Nate Adams, meaning 47% of IBSA churches didn’t report any baptisms. “Many of those zero-baptizing churches are wonderful fellowships of believers, and of course some are in very small communities.
“But just as both diet and exercise are vital to our health as individuals, church health requires a steady diet of worship and Bible study within a fellowship, and also the exercise of service, missions, and evangelism out in the community and beyond. We would love to help more churches discover new ways of sharing the gospel and seeing new believers baptized.”
Recker said his church is always trying to improve how they celebrate baptism, including considering how they could incorporate spontaneous baptisms. On a recent baptism weekend, the church baptized 11 people, one of which was unplanned.
Of Vale’s baptisms last year, around 50 came through a discipleship initiative called Rooted. The program, created by Mariners Church in Irvine, Calif., is focused on commissioning Christians for ministry. The majority of people who have gone through Rooted at Vale were already in a small group, giving regularly, attending faithfully, and serving, Recker said. But the initiative has also had a 20% baptism rate at Vale. Participants already believed in Jesus, Recker said, but many were compelled to intentionally walk with him through baptism.
At First Baptist Church in Bethalto, Allie Hugghins recognized baptism as the first step of obedience after accepting Christ as her savior. Surrounded by her parents and younger sister, the sixth grader was baptized Dec. 8, 2019 .
Hugghins made the decision to follow Jesus at Youth Encounter, an annual evangelistic outreach sponsored by IBSA and local churches. In a video her church made to celebrate her baptism, she explained how the worship music she heard at Youth Encounter led her to a decision.
“I knew I needed to repent, and I needed his forgiveness.”
The Annual Church Profile reports submitted by IBSA churches show that many congregations celebrated professions of faith like Allie’s in 2019. The metric was one of the highlights of the most recent ACP reports, which show professions of faith increased 2.3% over the previous year. Also on the rise: church membership among IBSA congregations, and morning worship attendance, which increased 1.5% to 67,851 attenders.
Giving through the Cooperative Program increased 3.6% over the previous year, and the annual Mission Illinois Offering was up 10.5%.
“These are challenging days, not just for Baptists in Illinois, but for Christians in American culture,” Adams said. “That’s why we’ve been challenging churches to renew the ‘pioneering spirit’ that first brought the gospel and Baptist churches to Illinois more than 200 years ago.”
Two years ago, IBSA introduced the Pioneering Spirit Challenge to encourage churches toward new passion for evangelism, church planting, giving, and leadership development. Around 250 IBSA churches committed to go new places for church planting, engage new people with the gospel, make new sacrifices in missions giving, and develop new leaders in the next generations of ministers and missionaries.
“The 2019 bounce backs in church membership, worship attendance, and missions giving are encouraging indicators that churches are rekindling that pioneering spirit,” Adams said.
He also noted, though, that the multi-year trends point to continued challenges. And while national SBC statistics from 2019 ACP reports won’t be released until later this spring, the 2018 numbers showed declines in baptisms, church membership, and average worship attendance.
“Even though several statewide numbers were up in 2019 compared to 2018, the 10-year and 15-year trends in most categories tell us that many churches are still in need of revitalization, especially if they are to grow strong enough to start the many new churches that are needed in our state,” Adams said.
“Many churches are recognizing that need and asking for help, and IBSA is already investing heavily in the spiritual assessment, coaching, and change processes that can help churches reverse those long-term trends.”
In response to the needs evident from ACP reports and the Association’s annual Church Needs Survey (see column at right), IBSA has made church revitalization a key priority for 2020. For more information about resources and strategies, contact IBSA’s Revitalization Team.
Photo: Allie Hugghins is baptized by Tim Drury, associate pastor at FBC Bethalto, surrounded by her mom, Holly, sister, Ashley, and dad, Ben. Photo by David Weigand