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SBC in ‘evangelistic crisis,’ but would be worse off without resurgence, study says

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–Southern Baptist evangelism statistics are grim, but they could be far worse.

That’s the finding of a major new study by a leading church growth expert who argues empirical evidence demonstrates the Southern Baptist Convention is in an “evangelistic crisis” despite the conservative resurgence, whose leaders cited greater soul-winning results as a key priority in their desired reform of the nation’s largest non-Catholic denomination.

While other studies previously demonstrated the SBC has suffered with sluggish evangelism results for the last half century, the analysis by Thom S. Rainer of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary for the first time sought to answer the question: What would have happened if conservatives had failed to win their battle for control of the SBC?

Rainer’s study, to be published in the forthcoming issue of The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology, found the SBC would have fared “much worse” had the reformation failed. If the partner churches’ baptism statistics of the alternative, denomination-like Cooperative Baptist Fellowship were representative of all SBC churches, total baptisms would have plummeted and baptism ratios would have soared, he theorizes.

“An honest evaluation of the data leads us to but one conclusion. The conservative resurgence has not resulted in a more evangelistic denomination. Indeed, the Southern Baptist Convention is less evangelistic today than it was in the years preceding the conservative resurgence,” Rainer writes in “A Resurgence Not Yet Realized: Evangelistic Effectiveness in the Southern Baptist Convention since 1979,” which will be published in the Spring 2005 issue of Southern Seminary’s publication.

“[W]ithout the resurgence, the evangelistic effectiveness of the denomination would be much worse. To use a medical metaphor, the resurgence slowed the bleeding of lost effectiveness, but the patient is still not well,” declares Rainer, dean of the seminary’s Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism and Church Growth in Louisville, Ky.

An advance copy of the article from the forthcoming journal was made available to the Florida Baptist Witness. Journal subscribers will receive the edition, which focuses on the SBC’s conservative resurgence, in May.

Rainer’s study may be of particular interest to Southern Baptists in light of current SBC President Bobby Welch’s campaign to re-energize evangelism in the denomination. Welch, pastor of Daytona Beach’s First Baptist Church, will lead the SBC in its June annual meeting in Nashville to launch an “Everyone Can Kingdom Challenge” that seeks to encourage Southern Baptists to evangelize and baptize one million persons in one year.

Following Welch’s lead, Florida Baptist State Convention president Hayes Wicker has urged Baptists in the Sunshine State to seek to baptize 100,000 this year, which would nearly triple the 34,534 baptized in 2004.

While Welch was traveling and unable to comment on the study, Wicker offered his reactions in an interview with the Florida Baptist Witness.

Wicker, pastor of First Baptist Church of Naples, praised Rainer for “raising some good questions,” but suggested the problem of evangelistic effectiveness is more complex and disagreed that the current state of affairs can be considered a failure of the conservative resurgence.

“The conservative resurgence is not over…. It hasn’t permeated many of our state institutions and state conventions,” Wicker told the Witness, adding, “I believe the conservative resurgence has been aimed primarily at dealing with the institutions, not the local churches, but that filters down and affects the local churches.”

Noting that evangelistic effectiveness varies from region-to-region, Wicker said, “We’re living in what I would call a third soil century, as in the parable of the soils, where we’re consumed with the love of things and the cares of the world.”

Wicker cited a “de-emphasis” on offering public invitations and confrontational soul-winning as key problems today in the SBC.

“We’ve gone through a sea-change in terms of perception of direct evangelism,” Wicker said. “Many of the people in our churches listen to or read teachers who disparage traditional evangelism.”

Wicker strongly affirmed Rainer’s call for repentance among SBC conservatives in order to see a return to evangelistic effectiveness.

“Surveys may remind us of the need, and biblical doctrine gives us the foundation, but there still has to be the personal choice to turn from our idols to the true and living God,” Wicker told the Witness.


Better evangelistic results is the only major objective of the conservative resurgence that has not been attained, according to Rainer, who also cited the other priorities of the movement as “doctrinal reformation” at the SBC’s six seminaries, “engagement with the culture” on ethical and public policy matters, and a “conservative and conversionary direction” in the denomination’s international missions efforts.

Rainer writes that conservative leaders rallied grassroots Southern Baptists about the need for change in the denomination by pointing to liberal, mainline denominations that were dying.

“And one of the primary benefits of the resurgence, we were told, would be an unprecedented evangelistic harvest in the denomination,” he notes.

According to Rainer — who has published numerous books on church growth and is widely recognized as one of evangelicalism’s chief experts on the subject — there has been no improvement in SBC evangelism statistics since 1979 when conservatives began to take control of the denomination.

While acknowledging statistics can tell only part of the story and “matters of the heart between a person and God are not always best expressed by numerical measurement,” Rainer argues nevertheless that annual total baptisms and baptism ratios — the number of church members per baptism -– are reasonable benchmarks in evaluating denominational evangelistic effectiveness.

“With the limitations of the data noted, we must conclude that the evangelistic growth of the denomination is stagnant, and that the onset of the conservative resurgence has done nothing to improve this trend,” he writes.

Between 1950 and 2003 annual total baptisms remained basically the same, a “classic plateau.” In 1950 Southern Baptists baptized 376,085, while 377,357 were baptized in 2003. Throughout the period, the highest level of baptisms was 445,725 in 1972 and the lowest was 336,050 in 1978, the year before the beginning of the conservative resurgence.

The study was completed before statistics for 2004 were available, showing a small increase in baptisms with a total of 387,947.

More troubling, Rainer asserts, is the spike in congregational baptism ratios -– “How many members does it take to reach one person for Christ in a year? -– which he regards as the preferred “measurement of evangelistic health since it takes into consideration church size.”

In 1950, one person was baptized for every 19 members of SBC churches. In 1978, the baptismal ratio increased to 36 to 1, and by 2003 the number had climbed to 43 to 1. A lower ratio is desired.

“The trend in total baptisms in the Southern Baptist Convention thus depicted a clear pattern of plateau. But the more revealing measurement of baptism ratios reveals consistent evangelistic deterioration,” Rainer argues.

“The baptismal ratio since the onset of the conservative resurgence has worsened. The trend is negative and disturbing. Though numbers are not ultimate measures of spiritual realities, the data we do have indicate a denomination in evangelistic crisis,” he adds.


But, Rainer asks, is it possible to determine “where the Southern Baptist Convention would be today if the change toward more conservative leadership had not taken place? We believe such an exercise is possible and revealing.”

To estimate the likely evangelism statistics for the SBC in the absence of the conservative resurgence, Rainer compiled baptism data from congregations that are publicly affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, noting “it is generally recognized that the conservative resurgence represented change, while the direction of the CBF was a continuation of pre-1979 values.” The CBF was formed in 1991 by former SBC leaders who opposed the conservative resurgence.

Rainer’s researchers identified 638 churches allied with the CBF, representing about one-third of the group’s approximately 1,800 partner congregations, finding that the churches had 4,994 baptisms in 2003 with a baptismal ratio of 92 to 1 –- compared to the SBC’s baptismal ratio of 43 to 1.

Extrapolating the CBF partner churches’ 2003 statistics to all SBC congregations, Rainer found that instead of baptizing 377,357, the denomination’s churches would have baptized only 176,953. Rather than stagnant baptism figures, baptisms would have plunged by more than half; instead of a more than doubling of the baptismal ratio since 1950 (43-1 versus 19-1), the ratio would have more than quadrupled (92-1 versus 19-1).

Rainer asserts, “If the CBF churches are representative of where the Southern Baptist Convention would be today, the conservative resurgence has been critical to the evangelistic health of the denomination…. On the one hand, the conservative resurgence has not resulted in improvements in the evangelistic health of the Southern Baptist Convention since 1979. On the other hand, the evangelistic health of the denomination would be much worse without the resurgence if the CBF is a barometer of ‘what might have been.’”

According to background data provided to the Florida Baptist Witness, of the 638 CBF partner churches, the top three states were Virginia (311), North Carolina (164), and Georgia (49).

In response to a Witness request for comments from CBF coordinator Daniel Vestal, spokesman Ben McDade offered the following statement:

“Because many churches that choose to affiliate with Cooperative Baptist Fellowship are dually-aligned with the Fellowship and the Southern Baptist Convention or American Baptist Churches USA, or even multi-aligned with several organizations, it is not statistically possible to determine which portion of a church’s baptisms can be credited to a particular Baptist body.

“The Fellowship affirms those who commit to a relationship with Jesus Christ without regard to affiliation or church membership. Evangelism as described by the Fellowship’s vision of being the presence of Christ in the world is at the heart of who Fellowship Baptists are and what they seek to achieve for the Kingdom.

“The Fellowship has no interest in commenting on comparative statistical analyses or other academic exercises related to evangelism efforts of other, autonomous religious groups. The Fellowship remains committed to its mission of serving Christians and churches as they discover and fulfill their God-given mission.”

But citing his experience of serving as pastor of “moderate or liberal” churches that were not evangelistic, Florida Baptist leader Wicker told the Witness he agreed “totally” with Rainer’s analysis of the CBF.

“I feel like we do have serious issues as churches, but without the platform of correct doctrine, it’s impossible to turn that around,” he said.

Rainer concludes, “If we as a denomination had not pursued a path of biblical fidelity, we would have no hope for an evangelistic reformation. In the history of the Church, God has not blessed those groups who have strayed from biblical truth.”

Although the conservative resurgence has so far failed on its soul-winning objective, it may yet achieve the desired results, Rainer argues.

“When we are passionately obedient about Christ’s commission to share the Gospel in all that we do, then the resurgence will have taken its full course.”
James A. Smith Sr. is editor of Florida Baptist Witness, online at www.FloridaBaptistWitness.com.

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  • James A. Smith Sr./Florida Baptist Witness