In the end-of-the-year report, It’s common to hear churches talk about how many baptisms they had that year. Sometimes the numbers reach into the double-digits and a healthy percentage of them are kids of current members, but it’s always something to be celebrated regardless. People washing away their sins and becoming a “new creature in Christ” is never, ever a bad thing (2 Corinthians 5:17).

But baptisms shouldn’t be the goal.

At least, not according to Paul: “I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one would say you were baptized in my name” (2 Corinthians 1:14-15).

Did Paul mean that he was thankful that more weren’t baptized? Of course not. That would go against every intention of his life and ministry (Colossians 1:24-29). 

What was the problem, then? What Paul recognized was that people were forming little factions around their favorite teachers – a fact he mentioned in 1 Corinthians 3:3-9. He knew that the temptation was to link baptism by Paul to Baptism for Paul, thus establishing more factions and taking the focus off of Christ. As glad as he was that people were obeying the Gospel, he was also happy that those same baptisms weren’t also causing people to put the focus on something besides where it needed to be.

The Negative Side of Baptismal Reporting

Don’t get me wrong: baptism are great. They’re essential for salvation (Mark 16:16; 1 Peter 3:21; Acts 2:38 et. al.), they encourage others (1 Thessalonians 1:9), and they signal the start of a new life in Christ.

But they’re not the goal, not even close.

What should be? Discipleship.

When we fixate on a physical act like “how many people went through our baptistry,” we have a tendency to make that the be-all and end-all, with little regard to what got them there or what happens to them after. We bring our baptismal numbers to God like an obedient house cat, drop them on the porch, and expect God to be pleased with us.

The MASSIVE problem with this is that not everyone that is baptized will be saved. To argue against that is to claim a version of “once saved, always saved” that even the most staunch Calvinists will deny. Some will head back into the world, some will have been baptized just for show, while others will simply fall away. Baptisms are, by no means, a guarantee that an individual will never sin again, which means they can’t be our guidepost for spiritual growth.

A disciple,on the other hand, has been baptized because they recognize its necessity in salvation (see above). But they also are diligent Bible students, enthusiastic personal workers, staunch opponents to sin, and fantastic encouragers. Every church is made better if it’s composed by disciples, rather than dripping-wet pew-fillers.

Can disciples fall away, too? Absolutely. But a true disciple will react the way David did when confronted by Nathan: “I have sinned.” Recognizing the precariousness of their situation, they’ll turn back to the road, ask for forgiveness, repent of their sins, and start again.

Which One are You?

The hardest part with gauging a church by its disciples instead of baptisms is that the numbers are fluid. The math is easy with baptisms: you simply tally up how many people entered your baptistry and announce it to the congregation.

Measuring the discipleship of a church is significantly harder, which is why we don’t do it. We have to look out amongst ourselves and consider not only whether people have gone astray, but also where we can be more active. Can we study more? Can we resist sin more? Can we evangelize more? Yes, to all of the above.

True baptism happens once, but discipleship happens over a lifetime. 

That should be our goal.

Last modified: March 9, 2020