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SBC is losing focus on evangelism, Merritt says

GRAYSVILLE, Ga. (BP)–The Southern Baptist Convention is losing its focus on evangelism, and it should greatly concern members of the nation’s largest non-Catholic denomination, said James Merritt, president of the SBC and pastor of the Atlanta-area First Baptist Church, Snellville.

Merritt revealed his concerns during a two-hour interview with Baptist Press at his home in the northeast Atlanta suburbs. Merritt spoke at length about the spiritual and fiscal health of the Southern Baptist Convention and his past two years at the helm.

“The Cooperative Program is extremely healthy and doing well,” Merritt said. “Doctrinally, we’ve never been stronger or more united. Our confession of faith, the Baptist Faith and Message has been strengthened and I’m very pleased with the changes that were made.

“I think in so many ways our denomination is strong,” he added. “Having said that, I do believe we are at a crossroads to go to new levels of achievements that we have not reached.”

Of specific concern to Merritt is the convention’s lack of passion for evangelism. “To be extremely candid, I am greatly afraid this denomination is getting away from evangelism,” Merritt said. “I am very concerned, quite frankly. I don’t believe this convention, as a whole, has a heart for personal evangelism like we ought to have and like we need to have.”

Merritt said he recently shared his concerns with a former SBC president. “I told him my concerns about the convention getting away from evangelism and he told me, ‘James, we are not getting away from it, we have gotten away from it.'”

Using statistics from the North American Mission Board, Merritt said the Southern Baptist Convention has lost “market share” of the United States from 1990-2000.

“It takes 40 Southern Baptists to win one convert,” he said, while noting that 96 percent of all Southern Baptists have never shared their faith.

“I think there needs to be a revival of soul-winning, personal evangelism,” Merritt said. “I believe that evangelism is one of the, if not the, single major distinctive of the denomination. I was on a Christian broadcasting network a couple of years ago and one of the hosts told me that they were grateful for the emphasis Southern Baptists placed on evangelism.

“Relatively speaking,” Merritt said, “sure, we are doing more than most denominations. But quite frankly, we are not showing the passion or the aggressiveness that the Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses are showing.”

One reason that Southern Baptists may be losing their evangelistic edge is the culture’s view of born-again believers, he said.

“We are living in a day and an age where we are incessantly bombarded by the culture to compromise our convictions,” Merritt said. “The buzz word is tolerance. No one wants to be known as a fundamentalist. Who wants to be known as an intolerant bigot? If I say, ‘With all due respect, sir, Christ is the only way to heaven and without Christ you have no chance of going there,’ that’s exactly what I’m labeled. And I think it has taken its toll on the church.

“I do believe that the culture is having an impact on our thinking,” he said, noting that “71 percent of Christians say we ought to respect other people’s rights to believe what they want to believe and leave them alone.”

“I don’t think those two statements need to go together,” Merritt argued. “I will not give up neither my right nor my responsibility to do all I can to convert a man to what I believe is the only way to salvation, which is through Jesus Christ.”

The SBC president used the strides that homosexuals have made as an example of the problem.

“The Bible calls homosexuality a sin, a perversion and an abomination to God and I’m called a homophobe,” he said. “I am called intolerant and that I perpetrate violence against homosexuals. None of those things is true. But if you repeat a lie enough, people start to believe it.”

Merritt also noted the average lifestyle that Southern Baptists lead and warned of the dangers of secular music, television and the Internet.

“I’m amazed at some of the movies our folks go see,” he said. “I’m not a prude, but I’ve seen people coming out of a movie where they used language that would make a sailor blush and it doesn’t seem to affect them. They have lewd scenes that no Christian should see.”

The solution, Merritt said, is to maintain a strong walk with the Lord and to stay in the Word.

“Are we as a church going to influence the culture or are we going to let the culture influence the church?” he asked.

“God’s called me to do one thing — keep the faith,” Merritt said. “Right is right, even if everyone is against it. Wrong is wrong even if everyone is for it. What is right is what God says is right. What is wrong is what God says is wrong. If we can let the Bible be our Global Positioning System, then we can sail through any waters and we will be just fine.”


Despite troubled economic times, the SBC’s Cooperative Program giving has remained strong over the past two years. Merritt attributed the success of CP Missions to the leadership of Morris H. Chapman, president and chief executive officer of the SBC Executive Committee.

“It is a tribute to Southern Baptists, to the fact our people believe in where we are headed and what we are doing,” Merritt said, referring to the generosity and faithfulness of Southern Baptists. “They really want to do everything they can to see us carry out the Great Commission to carry the gospel around the world.”

Merritt said Chapman and the leaders of all SBC entities have shown “such wonderful, solid leadership.”

“Their leadership has given Southern Baptists confidence,” he said. “People give in what they are confident in. It’s a result of leadership.”


The SBC’s new vision, Empowering Kingdom Growth, was endorsed by the SBC Executive Committee in February. Merritt will serve on the EKG task force following the end of his SBC presidency.

EKG is a vision for what Jesus taught and called for — an all-out concentration on the kingdom of God.

“We must become more of a kingdom-minded convention, for the pastor, the person in the pew, and leaders working together for a common cause,” Merritt said. “It’s not about you or me. It’s about the kingdom of God.

“Southern Baptists should understand that this is not a program,” he said. “How can we as a convention, from the pew of the local church all the way to the entities, become more and more kingdom-minded and what will that mean pragmatically for the way we do business as a convention? That’s the thrust of EKG.”


Merritt said the past two years have seen significant development and growth in the racial diversity of the SBC.

Last year, Fred Luter, pastor of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans, preached the convention sermon — a first for an African American pastor.

“I believe the ethnic diversity of our denomination is a strength and in the future we need to look at electing a minority to the presidency,” Merritt said. “I think it will happen very soon.

“A growing racial diversity in the Southern Baptist Convention is a good thing,” he said. “It’s a wonderful thing.”

Merritt said the racial diversity of the SBC will be an increasing part of the convention’s national identity.

“The Southern Baptist Convention has been given a wonderful opportunity by the Lord to model for our culture at large how different ethnic groups can work together for a common cause,” he said.


Despite media reports to the contrary, Merritt said he believes most Southern Baptists in Texas are pleased with the direction of the SBC.

“The vast majority of Southern Baptists in Texas are very happy with the Southern Baptist Convention,” he said. “They don’t think it’s broke. They are excited about the direction we are headed.”

Merritt said he was especially encouraged to hear about the success of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, a state convention fully supportive of SBC causes.

“The SBTC is experiencing unbelievable, explosive growth,” he said. “[Executive Director] Jim Richards is giving wonderful leadership in Texas and I am very pleased overall with the response from Southern Baptists in Texas.”

At the same time, however, Merritt said he made a commitment to be president to all Baptists, including those affiliated with the Baptist General Convention of Texas — whose leaders have distanced themselves from the SBC.

“Let me say this about any of the groups that may not be sympathetic to where we are going. My attitude has been that I want Christ to be preached. If Christ is preached, it doesn’t matter what the label is.

“My word of caution to the leadership of this convention is that we need to put blinders on,” Merritt said. “Any group that decides to go in a different direction, that’s their business. God bless them as they go. We don’t need to be distracted. Let’s just keep our focus on the Great Commission, on making ourselves a kingdom convention and doing all we can to reach the world for Jesus Christ.”

SEPT. 11

Merritt said there haven’t been many spiritual changes since the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.

“There was a blip for about two weeks and people went back to their business,” he said. “Churches in America are in desperate need of revival. By and large, there is a lukewarmness in the church that is very concerning to me. The positive side is that’s why you need revival. We are praying for revival in our own church. I’m asking them to pray and fast one day a week that God would bring revival.”

Merritt said he doesn’t know all that God was trying to tell the nation on Sept. 11.

“I want to very careful,” he said. “I don’t want to be like some who made some misstatements and mistakes in what they said. I do believe God was trying to tell us some things in 9/11. I don’t know what they were but I don’t think we’ve heard yet all that God was trying to tell us.”

Merritt said he doesn’t know if anyone can say that the attacks on the country were signs from God.

“On the other hand, you don’t need a 9/11 to say that spiritually and morally this country is in deep trouble,” he said. “And we are. I’m going to address this at the convention.

“If our country morally takes the same direction in the next 30 years, there’s no telling where we are going,” he said.

“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out we are greatly in need of a spiritual awakening where this nation en masse returns to God,” he said.

But if the attacks didn’t awaken the country, how does Merritt expect revival to break out?

“I may be too optimistic here, but I don’t believe there is a greater force for that to happen than just strong, biblical preaching from the pulpit,” he said. “Adrian Rogers said if we had more hell in the pulpit we’d have less hell in the street. There is a lot of truth in that.”

Merritt also emphasized a call to prayer.

“Nobody can fight prayer,” he said. “You can’t fight the power of prayer. You can’t keep me from praying and you can’t keep God from answering my prayer. Prayer is the most powerful force in the universe. What we may not allow God to do through an event like 9/11 can be done through the sheer power of prayer.”

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  • Todd Starnes