WAKE FOREST, N.C. (BP)–By some accounts, three-quarters of Southern Baptist churches are static or declining in membership, a fact that makes evangelist Bailey Smith wonder if God has not removed his hand from many of the convention’s churches.
“I’ve heard, ‘People just don’t go to church anymore,'” Smith said. “That’s because they don’t hear what they used to hear.”
Smith, a longtime evangelist and former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, told students at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary on April 10 that when churches put their own priorities in front of God’s agenda of reaching the lost, church death will eventually follow.
“Even a lost, decadent world knows what the church ought to preach,” Smith said. “The churches of America today have made the decision to have something other than God.”
Preaching from Joshua 7:10-13 — the account of God’s warning to Israel of “accursed things” among them — Smith pointed to several examples of how modern churches have put their own priorities before God.
The first thing, Smith said, is that many churches place their possessions over God’s presence. He called the unseemly focus on things — whether ornamental tables, lush carpeting or luxurious fixtures — a “silliness” that displaces God’s agenda of reaching the lost as the central focus of the church.
“The most important thing is the message that only Jesus can get you to heaven,” Smith said.
The second bad decision many churches have made, he said, is to put their own prominence over God’s power. Many churches and pastors are so worried about being influential in the community that they forget about the forgotten, the sinners to whom Christ called the church to minister.
Thirdly, Smith said churches have placed their people over God’s promises. Churches are guilty, he said, of honoring the “good ol’ boy network” rather than honoring the Word of God and calling their members to live holy and righteous lives.
Lastly, Smith said modern churches have put their own peace over God’s purpose. An example, he said, is churches may emphasize the importance of fellowship and comfort while ignoring difficult tasks involved in serving the community and in evangelism.
“Sometimes the worst thing that can happen at your church is a good fellowship,” he said.
Smith pointed to several biblical examples — the three men in the fiery furnace, Paul in prison, Stephen being stoned to death — of those who were not comfortably fellowshipping but were right in the middle of God’s will.
“Churches have to be willing to be inconvenienced for the sake of the Gospel,” Smith said.