By Dr. James Emery White, Crosswalk.com
There’s been a lot of talk about the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic in relation to the effect that needed safety protocols and other measures have had on churches in relation to either having to close or to severely limit in-person attendance.
For many, there was an expected financial hit.
Online attendance may have increased, but all attempts at in-person gatherings suffered.
Serving opportunities were often, by necessity, drastically curtailed.
But there is one metric I haven’t heard much talk about, and at Mecklenburg Community Church, it’s the only metric we track that went down.
In 2019, we baptized hundreds. In the year since the pandemic struck, we’ve baptized 60. I know, for many churches, baptizing 60 people in a year would be something to celebrate. And it is for us, too. Each one of those 60 people has a name, a face, family and eternity. We would celebrate the baptism of one person with as much fervor as 1000, because that one person matters so dearly to God and the celebration in heaven would be so great.
But in a time when many churches saw their finances stay steady, serving opportunities maintained, and the combination of online and in-person attendance hold serve, I don’t know of a single church that saw an increase in baptisms. Even the most wildly outreach-oriented and evangelistically minded ones.
In truth, this shouldn’t be surprising. There are many understandable reasons for the decline.
First and foremost is that baptism is an up-close and in-person event, with shared waters (if you baptize by immersion), in the midst of a pandemic featuring a highly contagious and sometimes fatal virus. I might wait, too.
Second, many churches don't have the natural in-person pushes and videos and testimonies promoting baptism. Even if promoted online, there are more distractions when watching online from home, and the power of a video or testimony may be lessened. And let’s be honest, some people only tune in when the message starts. (Unless you are one of my grandchildren, who love everything but when Papa comes on.)
Third, there is no ability to have spontaneous baptisms. Our baptism events have been held apart from weekend services (we have not had in-person weekend services since March 2020) with extremely limited attendance (immediate family only).
At Meck, whenever we have had baptism celebrations in the past, we always offered everyone – registered or not – the chance to be baptized. Yes, they were screened so that it was a proper administration of the sacrament, but the power of seeing other people boldly being baptized was a force to be reckoned with and an encouragement to many to step forward and go “public” as well. “Spontaneous” baptisms would often account for 20% or more of each celebration.
Fourth, baptism is something that people want friends and family to attend. With travel limited, family spread across the country, attendance limited, there was – again – a sense of wanting to wait until others could be present who had invested so heavily in their spiritual journey. When it’s a public profession of faith, it’s understandable that people want those dear to them to witness the profession.
Finally, in the past, we would offer periodic “decision weekends.” During these weekends, a clear call to decision was given, ending in leading people in a prayer to invite Jesus into their lives. I don’t know about other pastors, but I have found this to be more awkward and tricky when online. It is certainly something I’m having to work on and grow into, which is fine.
So for all those reasons and more, with the pandemic coming to an end, I’m not overly worried about the short-term decline regarding the number of people we saw baptized.
Now, if it stays low after we get back in full swing,
… then I’ll be writing a different kind of blog.
James Emery White
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunct professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book After “I Believe” is now available on Amazon or your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @JamesEmeryWhite.