HUMBOLDT, Tenn. (BP)–Southern Baptists once again are undertaking a much-needed effort to offer a remedy as to what can be done to reverse the stagnation within the SBC. From the heart of Danny Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, and his sermon “Axioms of a Great Commission Resurgence,” came the Great Commission Resurgence, commonly known by the acronym GCR. Since that event, a task force has been appointed by our SBC president, Johnny Hunt. These are capable men and women who have been charged with an enormous responsibility.
Yet, as an itinerant Southern Baptist evangelist for the past 35 years, I noticed one thing that is quite conspicuous — not a single evangelist of the approximately 200 in the SBC was asked to serve on the task force.
When we read that perhaps 70 percent of our churches are plateaued or declining and that we need to reorder our priorities, refocus our vision, reclaim our mission and set our hearts on seeing the nations exult in the name of Jesus, it seems to me that the voice of one who has been called to full-time evangelism would have been appropriate to include. The name of Junior Hill is the first one to come to my mind.
Most SBC evangelists are as theologically trained, doctrinally discerning and mission-minded as the pastors we serve. However, the current trend of dismissive attitudes toward evangelists in the SBC seems to show that our voices are little more than echoes.
For your consideration, I would like to share the following reflections of an evangelist regarding the current state of affairs in the SBC. Let me say first that indeed much of our zeal and passion for the Great Commission has been lost, and also urge that if we are going to return to our first love, then we must experience a Great Commission Resurgence by biblical standards.
I. It has been stated that while we are disappointed that our number of baptisms has declined, we rejoice that the total number of our churches has increased. This is, to use an athletic analogy, equivalent to saying, “Our teams are losing most of their games, but we are building new stadiums for spectators to come and watch us play.” We have been told that an increasing number of new churches should yield an increase in evangelism over the next several years. This is only true if you have pastors with hearts for lost souls and discipleship. Why start new churches if the heart of the new pastor is not renewed? Fifty percent of all new churches close their doors after the first year. Is anyone asking, “Why”?
II. It has been stated that Southern Baptists are giving greater attention to discipleship. Discipleship is only one side of the Great Commission triangle. The first side is introduction — to Jesus. The second side is induction — into the church, The third side is instruction — discipleship. We do not need more training. We are the best-trained denomination in the world. We need more practitioners. All the seeker-friendly, contemporary driven worship services will not of themselves build a solid New Testament church. Without a firm foundation, the church building will collapse on the members while they are sitting in their pews enjoying worship rather than experiencing God.
III. It has been stated that the flagship of the specific ministries of our churches for many years has been Sunday School. Now we find that enrollment in this area of church life has declined. Sunday School enrollment dropped 123,817, or 1.6 percent, to 7,752,794 this past year. We are told that we need to study the “new trends” in our newer churches to see if our older churches need to adopt these new trends. But in following the trends, this could be why we are in the situation we are in. We have followed the pied pipers of feel-good religion and forsaken the expository proclamation of the Good News. The need for solid, biblical expository preaching is greater now than ever. Christianity was never meant to be trendy. As the late revivalist Vance Havner once said, “The Early Church did something because it believed something. We are trying to do what they did without believing what they believed. The living faith of the dead saints has been replaced by the dead faith of the living saints.” When we lower our expectations and qualifications for church membership, we get what we currently have: a generation of church members who cannot defend their faith and a growing company of pastors who want their members to leave church feeling approved, affirmed and applauded.
IV. It has been stated that total giving from our churches to support our ministries at home and abroad remains strong. However, year-to-date contributions through the Southern Baptist Convention’s Cooperative Program are 1.64 percent below the same time frame last year. We as Baptists gave more to missions last year despite the economic downturn, but we lost members and baptized the fewest number of people since 1987. We continue to support missions through our financial giving, but not through our physical sharing of the Good News. We find it easier to pay then pray. We will give to missions and even go on volunteer mission trips while refusing to go across the street to witness to our neighbor.
V. It has been reported that the number of people baptized in Southern Baptist churches continues to fall. This is partly due to the fact that fewer and fewer pastors are having fewer and fewer revivals and therefore are using fewer and fewer evangelists. I have been told by numerous pastors that evangelistic methods like revivals do not work anymore. My answer is always the same, “Revivals work if you are willing to work them.” Recently three men who are employed within our convention were sitting with a friend of mine and all three stated that the traditional revival is a thing of the past. When my friend asked them where they made their professions of faith all three responded, “In a revival.” Good thing for them they were born in the past. The bottom line is that we had rather read about a revival in some other church than experience one in our own. It is true that certain methods must change if we are going to reach this culture with the claims of Christ. However, the proven method of corporate gathering around the act of proclamation commonly called a revival is still vital in the 21st century.
VI. It has been reported by Thom S. Rainer, president of LifeWay Christian Resources, that baptisms are at their lowest level since 1987. He stated, “Indeed, the total baptisms are among the lowest reported since 1970. We are a denomination that, for the most part, has lost its evangelistic passion.” What strong, yet accurate, words to come from one of our SBC leaders. This is the fourth consecutive year of decline in baptisms for the SBC. Our passion for the lost has been replaced by our desire to help the saved find their purpose in life and our willingness to be seeker-friendly rather than lovingly confrontational with the claims of Christ. It still takes 47 Southern Baptists to baptize one person for Christ.
VII. It has been reported that membership in SBC churches has fallen to 16,228,438. We are stirred by statistics, even if they are greatly exaggerated. It is amazing even with the victory in the “Battle for the Bible” that began at the 1979 Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting that we continue to witness a decline in the very thing which once made us strong: namely a passion for lost souls. The statistics would truly be dismal if we had continued on the same course. Talk about trends, if there is not a return to the basics of New Testament growth, we will find our mega-church buildings turned into malls and condominiums and our rural churches turned into bed and breakfast inns before we can say, “Rapture”. If you wish to see what happens when evangelism, (salvation and discipleship) is not given priority, visit Great Britain. What happens there eventually washes up on our shores. Revamping and revising without reviving the SBC will only lead to another “acronymic program” a decade from now. May the GCR become the CPR (Christ’s Power Resurgence) in the SBC.
Jerry Drace is president of the Jerry Drace Evangelistic Association, one the Web at www.jdea.tn.org and www.HopefortheHome.org. He served two terms as the president of the Conference of Southern Baptist Evangelists, 1998-2000.