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We’re all familiar with talk of decline in the American Church. Fewer members. Fewer young people. And, in some cases, a departure from orthodox doctrine for a hipper, updated theology.

I don’t worry much about this chatter. The data suggests that it’s true, but I don’t worry about an “end of faith” in America or anywhere else. God preserves his Church. We just need to continue to be faithful where we are and with what we have. Not to mention, many of the Christians I know are very on fire for the gospel. Sometimes threats to the Church can make it stronger.

What I do become anxious about is the whole spiritual-but-not-religious brand of Christianity. A feely faith that steers away from the concrete practices of Christian living.

In particular, here, I want to address the issues of baptism and marriage. The importance of these traditions has dropped off far more severely than the number of bodies in pews.

Here are a few stats I recently read in an article from the Religious News Service.

The Southern Baptism Convention recorded barely 300,000 baptisms last year. There haven’t been that few baptisms since 1948, a year in which there were 6 million members in the SBC. Today there are 16 million, and still the baptismal tally is about the same.

Things are not quite as bad in the Catholic church, but they’re still on a downward trend. In 1970, American Catholics witnessed more than a million baptisms. In 2011, 790,000. This despite the fact that in both years, Catholics composed 23 percent of the country’s population. That means there are a lot more self-identifying Catholics now, but a lot fewer baptisms.

When it comes to marriage, I don’t have stats for Protestants, but I imagine it’s not much different than in the Catholic church. Again in 1970, 20 percent of all U.S. weddings took place inside a Catholic church. In 2011 only 8 percent of weddings took place in a Catholic church, even though many more people call themselves Catholics.

Obviously, I don’t want to suggest that there is anything wrong with getting married in a courthouse or on a beach. Those can be just a beautiful and just as Spirit-filled as any sanctuary wedding. But I think the drastic decline in church weddings suggests a move away not only from tradition (a move that is not always bad), but also away from the importance of a lot of Christian practices.

Faith is becoming more and more individualized, more and more compartmentalized. People may be moving more toward spirituality, but at the same time moving away from both dependence on God and love for the Church.

One of the conclusions I draw from the above data is a view that baptism is no longer important. That there isn’t much significance to beginning a marriage relationship in a house of God.

To be clear, neither of these are issues of salvation. But there is a great deal of meaning, history and theological weight in both baptism and Christian marriage.
The important thing here is the condition of the heart, not the sprinkling of water or where the altar is. But both of the latter have to do with heart condition. I might go so far as to speculate a correlation.

How do we “fix” this?

I think one thing we could do is better educate people about baptism. It’s incredibly theologically rich, and most people don’t know why. It’s a very beautiful picture and physical sign of grace, but it’s mostly misunderstood. Why would people get baptized if they don’t know what it’s for? Tradition alone isn’t, and shouldn’t be, the motivation.

In terms of marriage, I’m not sure there is anything that needs fixing. A more interesting statistic than whether or not a ceremony is held in a church might be how many weddings are overseen by a pastor or priest. Still, it couldn’t hurt — and could do a world of good — to emphasize how important it is to build relationships on Jesus. Going to church on your wedding day — one of the most formative, meaningful days of your life — might be a predictor of your readiness to go to church on the average rainy Sunday.

Those of us who value Christian traditions, especially regarding such staples as the sacraments and marriage, would do well to ask ourselves why. But if we decide these are traditions worth holding onto, we should continue to live them out in a way that makes others see how powerful they really are.

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