NEW ORLEANS (BP) — John Bisagno, the featured speaker for the Gurney Evangelism Lectures at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, is best known as the longtime pastor of First Baptist Church of Houston.
In Bisagno’s 30 years as pastor there, the church saw tremendous growth, including some 15,000 baptisms. Since his retirement in 2000, he has been an author and sought-after speaker.
But before all that, Bisagno was a talented trumpeter and Dixieland jazz musician. Sixty years prior to his lectures at NOBTS, Bisagno was on tour with his Dixieland jazz band to, among other places, New Orleans’ own Roosevelt Hotel.
“You can’t learn to play Dixieland out of a book. It’s either in you or it’s not, born in your soul,” he said. “The last places I ever played were down on Bourbon Street in 1952, the Parisian Room, the Roosevelt Hotel, Keesler Air Base in Biloxi, Miss., Craig Air Base and officer’s club in Selma, Ala., and the statehouse in Jackson, Miss.”
After that tour, Bisagno’s band took some time off, which took him back home to Oklahoma. While there, a street preacher invited him to Oklahoma Baptists’ Falls Creek Conference Center for a youth rally. By the fourth night, Bisagno said, “God started getting at my heart.”
On the last night, the week’s preacher said, “I don’t care if just one comes tonight, but I want one that means business.”
“I was the first one out of 9,000 that night to walk down the aisle and get on my knees,” Bisagno recounted. “I want to tell you, for 60 years I’ve been following Jesus. It isn’t always easy.”
Bisagno put down his trumpet and took up preaching. Just a few years later he was a young preacher speaking at churches around Oklahoma. He said it was some seven years before he ever preached to a hundred people at one time.
One night, he was driving home after a revival meeting where only a couple people had responded to the Gospel and he’d received a $60 love offering. Driving home, his dilapidated car had a flat tire. After finally getting back on the road, Bisagno, discouraged from his lack of success, turned on the radio to hear an announcer say, “From the beautiful Parisian Room atop the Roosevelt Hotel in downtown New Orleans, La., the music of Tony Almerico and the Dixieland Allstars.”
“The devil said, ‘Come on back,'” Bisagno recounted.
He immediately turned the dial to hear, “From Minneapolis, Minn., Billy Graham and the Hour of Decision.” George Beverly Shea then began to sing, “I’d rather have Jesus than silver or gold.”
“Jesus was saying, ‘Follow me,'” Bisagno said. “That struggle stayed with me for years and years and years.”
Men and women drop out of the ministry each year because of morals, money, conflict in the church, discouragement and disappointment, Bisagno said, exhorting the seminarians in New Orleans to stay committed to their calling.
“I plead with you to be that generation that preaches the Gospel, wins souls, changes hearts, changes the world, and saves this country while there’s still time.
“I kept on driving. Keep driving,” he said.
Bisagno’s call to commitment comes at a crucial time in the Southern Baptist Convention. Preston Nix, director of the seminary’s Leavell Center and professor of evangelism, set the context as he introduced Bisagno prior to the first lecture.
“The decline of evangelism in our convention has been well documented, with three-fourths of our churches plateaued or declining in membership,” Nix said. “Less than 10 percent of those growing are growing by conversion.”
Of the more than 45,000 churches in the Southern Baptist Convention, Nix said, 7,627 reported no baptisms in 2011 and an additional 3,313 did not respond to the question about baptisms.
“So likely, they didn’t baptize any,” Nix said. “Therefore, 10,940 [churches] did not record even one baptism for an entire year. That is a fourth of our churches. We’ve got a problem.”
Bisagno, in his Sept. 25-27 Gurney lectures, addressed the topic, “What’s happened to the harvest: The decline of evangelism in the Southern Baptist Convention and proposed solutions.” In his first lecture, he focused specifically on evangelistic preaching.
Bisagno pointed to a number of factors he believes has contributed to preaching in the church lacking evangelistic elements. The first, he said, is the influence of the post-Christian era in America on the church. Bisagno pointed to Supreme Court decisions in 1962 and 1963 that eliminated prayer and Scripture reading from public schools.
“In 1963, the Supreme Court asked God to leave the public forum in American life, from the classroom to the White House,” Bisagno said. “God is a gentleman. He left.”
Limiting the role of God and faith in the public square, Bisagno argued, has had a direct, detrimental impact on all aspects of life.
Besides conditions outside the church, theological debates inside the church could have impacted evangelism over the past decades, Bisagno said. He mentioned specifically the ongoing discussion over the interplay of God’s sovereignty and the free will of individuals. Bisagno said sometimes those two points of theology are portrayed as opposites or enemies.
“Are [grace and works] two enemy combatants fighting against each other in mortal, theological conflict? No,” Bisagno said. “They are soldiers standing back-to-back, fending off two different aberrant doctrines.”
Grace fights against the idea that people may be saved by works, Bisagno said, while the biblical call to do good works combats the idea that people may be saved by a simple profession of faith yet exhibit no lifestyle change.
He phrased it this way: “Salvation is predicated on grace, activated by faith, authenticated by works.”
Bisagno also touched on elements of “seeker sensitive” worship services and how they have impacted preaching. On one hand, he said preachers can be so “sensitive” to unbelievers that they fail to urge them to make a decision. On the other hand, churchgoers sometimes resist current musical trends that appeal to younger people.
Music is only sound waves, or vibrations in the air, Bisagno reminded. Some worship with a pipe organ, others with pianos, still others with electric guitars and drums, and others with primitive drums and acoustic instruments. In all cases, the music is but vibrations in the air, Bisagno said.
“Do you think God cares what makes their air vibrate?” he asked. “What are you going to do if you get to heaven and find out God likes rap?”
His conclusion: “Methods and means are not sacred, but the message is.”
Bisagno set forth a series of guidelines for effectively injecting more evangelism into sermons. First of all, he challenged preachers to practice apologetics.
“The Word of God’s got power, but when you prove why that Word is true logically, it makes a huge difference,” he said.
He also instructed preachers to shorten their sermons.
“Forty-five-minute preaching may be okay for New Orleans Seminary chapel, but it ain’t okay on Sunday morning,” he said. “The world has been impacted by the 30-minute time slot by television. … Trim from 45 or 50 to 25, 28 or 30 minutes.
“They used to edit my 48-minute sermons for TV and I couldn’t tell what they’d taken out. They were better, not worse,” Bisagno added.
Other pointers from Bisagno for improving the evangelistic quality of preaching included preaching more simply and clearly; bathing sermons with prayer; not being manipulative in sermons; using personal illustrations; preaching original sermons; and delivering messages in love.
Regardless of the setting, the audience or the topic, Christians must keep in mind how serious the message of the Gospel is, Bisagno said.
“The Great Commission has not been revoked. The charge is serious. The time is short,” he said.
The Gurney Evangelism Lectures at NOBTS are named in honor of Mr. and Mrs. J. Thomas Gurney, longtime members of First Baptist Church in Orlando, Fla., with a passion for evangelism.
Audio recordings of the 2012 Gurney Evangelism Lectures with John Bisagno are available for purchase through the Leavell Center at New Orleans Seminary. For more information, contact the Leavell Center at 504-816-8820 or [email protected].
Frank Michael McCormack is a writer for New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress ) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).