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Less than half of the baptisms in the nation's largest Protestant denomination represent new converts to Christianity.

In a survey of recently baptized Southern Baptists, 60 percent of the respondents reported having been baptized before, with 40 percent of adults reporting a first-time commitment to Jesus as the primary reason for being baptized.And among those baptized before, 33 percent said the earlier baptism had been performed in a Southern Baptist church.

The findings indicate that church members who had relied on raw baptism figures as an indicator of church growth may need to place greater emphasis on keeping people active in church after their initial baptism, church officials said.

"We need to equip our members not only to lead people to Christ, but to disciple those people they are leading to Christ," said Thomas Wright of the evangelism section of the convention's Home Mission Board in Atlanta.

Southern Baptist churches usually practice baptism by immersion in water, modeled after the account in Matthew 3 of John baptizing Jesus in the River Jordan.

The immersion in water symbolizes death to an old life and rebirth to a new life in Christ. While it is not considered a sacrament like it is in the Roman Catholic and some other churches, baptism is a symbolic moment celebrating the change in the life of the individual. In theory, it is a one-time thing.

However, the denomination-sponsored telephone survey conducted last summer among 1,358 adults baptized in Southern Baptist Churches in 1993 found only 40 percent citing a first-time commitment to Jesus as the primary reason for being baptized.

"Projecting to the population, this means that of the approximately 150,000 adults baptized, only 60,000 represented conversions of the lost to Christ," the Southern Baptist report said.

Another 40 percent of those surveyed said they were rededicating their lives to Christ; 14 percent said they were baptized as a requirement of moving their membership from a non-Southern Bap-tist church; and 6 percent gave other reasons.

The Home Mission Board report said the results indicate a lack of clarity, or consensus, about baptism in the Southern Baptist Convention.

Among the questions the report raises: "Is the pressure to baptize so great that pastors are encouraging persons to be rebaptized rather than counseling them on assurance of salvation?"; and "Is the true meaning of baptism being taught in our churches?"

Noting that 10 was the median age at which those being rebaptized had been first baptized, Wright said the figures on rebaptism indicate the churches may not have done all they could after the first baptism to counsel individuals on what is required of new Christians.

Nor does the problem seem to have gone away: In gathering names and numbers for the survey, the report found that churches had already lost contact with about a third of the people they baptized in 1993.

"This causes concern that many newly baptized adults are not being adequately discipled and cared for," the report said.