I blinked and had to look at the number a second time: 34%! Each year we gather the number of baptisms reported by Australian Baptist state associations, and there was a 34% increase from 2022 to 2023. Wow! But what to make of it?
It could be a whole range of things. Perhaps Australian Baptists got a whole lot better at reporting! (I imagine plenty of baptisms go un-counted, and while that’s frustrating for statisticians, it’s rather how things should be in a decentralised movement like ours.)
Or was it a post-Covid bump? Possibly, but I’m not convinced. Was it our National Baptism Week initiative? No, given the 6-month lag in collecting the numbers, they’ll show up next year. I had been expecting a rise of over 20% simply based on what I was hearing anecdotally from pastors and leaders. But 34% is remarkable – what could possibly explain it?
Well, I think the answer could possibly be Jesus. Why on earth would so many people want to be baptised? Hang on, why would they not? Let’s remember that belonging to God’s family through faith in Christ is the normal and sensible thing given the unfolding of his kingdom, the place in it he offers, and the promise of his Spirit! We can get lost in studying the tea leaves of culture and economy to see whether people will or won’t like Jesus – and find that we believe more in the power of culture and economy than in the power of the gospel to captivate people of all cultures and economies.
That said, I do wonder whether wave of baptisms is another indication of the ‘turning of the tide.’ The church in the West has long been adjusting to the end of Christendom and the loss of (mandatory) popularity that entailed. Many have become resigned to endless decline – a narrative that’s entrenched itself even as church participation has increased.
As Western culture increasingly becomes a spiritual desert, however, should we be surprised that spiritual thirst increases? Along with stories of baptisms, I’ve been inundated with stories of ‘gatecrashers’ – people (especially young adults) walking into churches that neither advertised nor invited them – and asking to be introduced to Jesus and Christianity.
Ten years ago the ‘New Atheist Movement’ held the floor among Western intellectuals, but it has died much faster than any church it mocked, and in its place we now see the ‘New Theist Movement’ – including such opinion-leaders as Jordan Peterson, Tom Holland and Ayaan Hirsi Ali (now openly a Christian). For more on this see Justin Brierley’s The Surprising Rebirth of Belief in God book and podcast.
So are we seeing the turning of the tide – even the beginnings of revival? It’s 20 years too early to say. But keeping our heads – indeed keeping our eyes on Jesus – our confidence to live for and witness to him should be based on him, rather than the fickle fashions of our culture. Let’s be absolutely confident in Christ, and in pointing people to him, regardless of whether they’re likely to applaud or imprison us.
Please support the Australian Baptist Easter Offering – which funds Crossover to Help Australian Baptists Share Jesus. For information on how to participate and run the offering, see crossover.org.au/offering
Andrew Turner is the Director of Crossover for Australian Baptist Ministries
Photo by Isaac Smith on Unsplash