DAVIS, Okla. (BP) — About 100 evangelists, pastors, directors of evangelism and some wives traveled from across the United States to gather in Oklahoma at the Falls Creek Conference Center to identify issues that have led to declines in evangelism as well as the use of evangelists in the Southern Baptist Convention. They also met to develop recommendations about how to restore the denomination to its Great Commission roots.
The group included a diverse representation in age and geography, with a large number among the crowd identifying themselves as 45 years old or younger. The guest list showed many attendees were from Oklahoma, Texas and Louisiana, but included members from the other mainline state conventions from as far away as North and South Carolina.
The two days of focused conversations, Feb. 11-12, were aimed at developing a national plan of action on evangelism to recommend to the North American Mission Board, which sponsored the summit, noted organizers and key contributors.
The “by invitation” Ephesians 4 Evangelists Summit was organized and hosted by the Conference of Southern Baptist Evangelists and led by international evangelist Sammy Tippit, who was elected president of the Conference of Southern Baptist Evangelists at the 2018 SBC Annual Meeting in Dallas.
Tippit told the audience to be honest with each other in addressing the issues, and to be respectful, in order to draw everyone into the numerous planned conversations that were built into the schedule.
“What are not on the table are the theological controversies that are obvious in the convention,” Tippit cautioned, “nor the evident politics that are a matter of discussion among Southern Baptists.”
“There will be no preaching or special music,” he added. “Instead, we will grapple largely with topics that lead us to good conclusions about what we can do as evangelists and evangelistic pastors to restore our churches and our convention to the Great Commission again.”
Framing the context
The series of table conversations and broader open forums were supplemented by: a videotaped interview by Tippit with John Vaughn, founder of Church Growth Today and a leading researcher on church health; a presentation by Steve Pearson, evangelism specialist for the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board; and, a live streamed message from Chuck Kelley, chancellor of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.
Vaughan cited a megachurch mentality that has “overwhelmed and actually neutralized the vision of local churches, and our associations and state and national conventions, as it relates to evangelism and especially evangelists.”
These churches, which compose fewer than 2 percent of all churches, “consider themselves pretty much to be in perpetual revival of their own,” he noted. “So they really don’t see themselves as ‘needing an evangelist.'”
This view of evangelists has filtered down to the overwhelming majority of Southern Baptist churches — half run 100 or fewer and 80 percent run 200 or fewer — who are trying to find a way to “fit into” the megachurch domain, he explained, resulting in a negative impact on evangelism.
Pearson said the term “Gospel-centered” is “thrown around” a lot of ways in some Southern Baptist circles, but among the top evangelistic churches in Tennessee, it means “a Gospel message is preached, a Gospel invitation is given,” and, members are trained to engage in “daily Gospel conversations.”
Citing data from a study of the top 10 evangelistic Tennessee congregations in four size categories, he said these churches, which are intentionally evangelistic, averaged 15.4 baptisms per 100 weekly worshipers, compared to a 5.1 average across the SBC.
Pearson said these leading soul-winning churches typically held “six evangelistic events per year,” with the top four listed in the study as Vacation Bible school, Harvest Sundays, evangelistic revivals and concerts, and door-to-door neighborhood visitation. Moreover, he emphasized these congregations’ use of vocational evangelists, noting that “God gave evangelists to the Church as a gift.”
Kelley spoke to-the-point with his comments, underscoring some of the essential elements of his book on evangelism, “Fuel the Fire.”
He said that in recent years some Southern Baptists have emphasized discipleship over evangelism. But he made the case that it is not a question of one or the other, but instead a matter of the one and the other, urging that the two should be one while framing the term “disciple-ism.”
Moreover, he said it was essential that Southern Baptists “resurrect their past” with regard to emphasizing the evangelizing of children.
But Kelley said the key to reviving evangelism among Southern Baptists in all areas was simple.
“We must beat the drum for evangelism!” he said.
Conversations & conclusions
Framed by time in prayer with each other, the evangelists and evangelistic pastors gathered in small groups and came together as a larger body to engage the questions, “What has led to the decline of evangelism in the SBC?” and “What can we do?”
The process was thorough, with time for each person to speak at each table and each group to share with everyone else in the conference room. All inputs were summarized for both questions, and in the end four primary obstacles were identified and recommendations were crafted to represent the group’s findings.
Problems stated by individuals ran the gamut from laments about a perceived lack of evangelism resources from and lack of emphasis by national entities to comments about sensing an attitude among some millennial pastors that reveres seminary professors and presidents and lacks respect for pastors and evangelists.
But the primary issues that gained consensus agreement were:
— mistrust of messages and methods of some evangelists, grounded in part by the lack of relationship by some pastors with any evangelist;
— costs of Harvest events and general financial pressures facing congregations;
— basic busyness of Southern Baptists’ lives; and,
— general apathy among Southern Baptists regarding evangelism, and some caution toward evangelists because of examples of moral failure by a few.
The broad recommendations that were reached emerged from considerable in-depth conversations, but the resulting summary of significant themes came down to three pithily stated needs to frame the hoped for national strategy moving forward:
— pastors need to lead church members to pray daily by name for lost people;
— Southern Baptists need training and accountability in personal evangelism; and,
— churches need to plan regular Harvest events and engage Harvest evangelists.
Many of the thoughts expressed during both sessions were captured by a combination of comments shared during the proceedings, and later with the Baptist Message, by Clay Hallmark, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Lexington, Tenn.
Hallmark, whose congregation averaged about 700 in worship attendance and welcomed 62 new believers through baptism last year, according to SBC records, underscored that “churches prioritize what the pastor prioritizes,” especially with regard to soul winning.
“We, as pastors, have got to make evangelism a priority,” he said, adding that it must be central to a church’s strategy. Moreover, he was emphatic about intentional teaching about evangelism. “Pastors are called to equip the saints for the work of ministry,” he said.
Likewise, he said pastors need to be eager learners about evangelism.
“We, as pastors, have to be trained in evangelism,” including “how to lead” a Harvest event, he explained. “Most pastors do what they’ve been trained to do,” he continued, adding that most pastors have not been taught how to do an evangelistic introduction or an evangelistic invitation.
Moreover, Hallmark said, the pastor cannot hand off this responsibility to any other person in the church.
“If the pastor will champion, be the leader in evangelism, and model it and equip people to do it, then in that church people will do it,” he said. “You’ve got to hold them accountable to do it. You’ve got to promote it. You’ve got to make sure that it becomes the focus of your strategy. It’s got to be done.”
Tippit took time to facilitate a compressed discussion about what evangelists are doing to stay on the cutting edge in expanding evangelism and discipleship, with two of the innovations attracting special attention from the group.
Jon Reed, president of the Georgia Baptist Conference of Evangelists, shared about an app for mobile devices he developed that connects the evangelist, pastor, Sunday school teacher and church member in preparation for a four-day revival, about 6-8 weeks out.
“If we want to see exponential numbers of people saved, we need to work together,” he noted.
It is a strategy he developed for 15 years that he has been able to convert into a digital tool for use on smartphones. “Even in rural churches, about 90 percent of the people have one,” he said. “And everything is done in real time.”
Reed said the mobile phone app organizes the church into five levels of administration, ultimately letting the evangelist coach members about how to “tap into” 10 people every day in soul winning and to engage church members to pray systematically, while providing accountability by tracking data for the individual and the whole body.
“It helps churches to start thinking like an evangelist, and in so many cases the revival is in full flight before I get there,” he said, adding that he has witnessed a number of “soul-winning frenzies.”
But perhaps the most innovative use of technology was attributed to two 70 year olds: Tippit and Wade Akins, another international evangelist.
As a means of encouraging others who had not made the foray into social media, Akins described himself as an internet illiterate until Tippit stepped in to help him. But Tippit noted that Akins had reached 8 million people with Christ in the last two years in a combination of soul winning and discipleship.
Tippit’s impact was described as equally dramatic.
His entry into e-ministry started with a request to train 40 or so new leaders of a budding congregation in India. Success with that discipleship effort over four nights a week for three weeks led Tippit to conduct an evangelistic crusade via Skype. The crowds at these meetings in India grew from hundreds to 25,000 watching Tippit on a big screen preach from his home in San Antonio.
He added a Facebook component focused on daily discipleship, and now he logs 6.5 million views per month comprising individuals who are watching his 365 videos, which have been translated into 11 languages now.
“The internet is the Gutenberg press of our day,” Tippit said, adding that every evangelist needs to take advantage of the technology to help spread the Gospel.
In a follow-up interview with the Baptist Message, Tippit said his hopes going into the summit were to start a discussion about evangelism “that would flow into our denomination” and he added that he felt “we are off to a great start.”
“We have launched a weekly podcast, Ignite Your Faith, which can be found at www.sammytippit.org/podcasts and will begin on www.sbcevangelists.org in a couple of weeks,” Tippit said, regarding the need to keep the conversation going. “We’ll have interviews with national leaders of evangelism each week.”
More importantly, he said he is anxious to see “some implementation” at the national level.
“I want to go back to NAMB and report what happened and open a discussion with Kevin [Ezell, president of NAMB] and Johnny [Hunt, the new NAMB vice president for evangelism],” about working together to restore Southern Baptists’ commitment to the Great Commission, he said.
“We must recapture evangelism!”