More than 10,000 Southern Baptist churches reported no baptisms in 1996 according to Jimmy Draper, president of the Baptist Sunday School Board. That represents about one fourth of all Southern Baptist churches. More than 13,000 additional churches reported five or fewer baptisms in the same year. That means less than half of all Southern Baptist churches baptized six or more in 1996. The same reports suggest that it takes forty-two Southern Baptists to reach one person for Christ.
This glaring inconsistency has alarmed the leaders of the North American Mission Board and the Baptist Sunday School Board and energized their search for solutions. They may have found part of the answer in "FAITH," the evangelism and discipleship strategy of Daytona Beach First Baptist Church. After meeting with Bobby Welch, the pastor of Daytona Beach First, and after examining the FAITH approach, the joint leadership of the BSSB and NAMB has initiated a concentrated, cooperative effort to employ the model in equipping pastors and churches to reach their communities for Christ.
"I believe if we don't let God help us, we are destined to die of mediocrity in our churches," Welch told 650 pastors, church staff, and lay leaders from twenty-eight churches in fifteen states who gathered for the "FAITH Originator Clinic" in January at First Baptist Church, Daytona Beach.
"I've always heard that Sunday school is the evangelistic arm of the church. I grew up with that phrase," said Welch, who has personally trained 10,000 soul-winners during a quarter-century of ministry. "The problem was our arm was in a sling because we hadn't provided the training (church members) need. We got people saved and then they had nowhere to go."
Welch initiated Evangelism Explosion at Daytona Beach First Baptist in 1982. But after three years, he recognized the weakness of evangelism when separated from the Bible training and ministry emphasis of Sunday school, so in 1985, they merged the evangelistic strategy of E.E. with Sunday school.
As part of the integrated approach, church members agree to attend sixteen training sessions and practice what they learn in home visits. The initiative also includes weekly meetings for Sunday school teachers and group leaders, intentional discipleship, and plans for assimilating new Christians into the life of the church.
Welch, who has pastored the church since 1974, said First Baptist's strategy of "marrying Sunday school and evangelism" has resulted in more than 1,100 persons trained in witnessing and at least 200 baptisms each year since 1982. In the same time frame, Sunday school enrollment at the church has increased from 2,555 to 4,000, and attendance at weekly Sunday school leadership meetings has tripled.
In the fall of 1997, they simplified the gospel presentation, utilizing the FAITH acronym: Forgiveness, Available, Impossible, Turn, and Heaven. In January, the church hosted leadership training for those who wanted to implement the same strategy.
Bill Taylor, director of the Sunday School Board's Bible teaching-reaching division observed, "The primary difference between FAITH and other evangelistic programs is not its gospel presentation, but the very real, immediate, and long-term investment the FAITH Sunday School team makes in the lives of the people they are visiting.
"That's the Sunday School connection," Taylor said. "That investment changes the purpose and tone of leadership meetings, breathes life into Bible study sessions, and builds Sunday School classes and departments into groups on an evangelistic mission with Christ."
Taylor said the Sunday School Board could have easily drawn 4,000 people to the first FAITH clinic because of interest expressed in the event by church leaders across America.
"But we really feel this has to be local church-led," Taylor explained, adding materials supporting the strategy will only be made available at training events, not through the Sunday School Board or Christian bookstores. Leaders from the twenty-eight "originator churches" trained at the January clinic agreed, in turn, to train FAITH teams in their respective churches beginning in February and then host FAITH training clinics for churches in their areas this fall. The Sunday School Board's goal is for leaders from 1,500 churches to receive FAITH training this year.
In addition to attending day-long training sessions and several revival-like worship services, the clinicians also hit the streets to share their faith in homes, hotels, fast-food restaurants, and on the beach. Placed in three-member teams with members of FBC Daytona Beach, they led ninety-two people to faith in Christ in one night using the FAITH witnessing approach. And during the five-day meeting, more than 120 conversions were reported.
Among the new converts: an eighty-four-year-old woman who had been going to church all her life but had never made a profession of faith, a thirty-nine-year-old single mother and her daughter, a Muslim couple, and two people eating dinner at a Burger King restaurant.
Mike Fetters, youth pastor at Village Baptist Church, Oklahoma City, had to face several distractions while sharing with one young woman, including her two children – a three-year-old and a new baby.
Even so, the woman prayed to receive Christ and was excited about becoming involved in Sunday school at FBC Daytona Beach.
Fetters described the FAITH strategy as "an incredible tool for witnessing. It is so brief and concise and clear. It can even be used to reach adults who think they don't have the time to listen."
Jane Sigmon, a layperson at Hickory Grove Baptist Church, Charlotte, N.C., led a woman she met on the beach to faith in Christ. After learning the woman was living in a nearby hotel with her unemployed husband and two children, she made a follow-up visit later that day. As a result, the two children made professions of faith.
"For so long we've kept evangelism out of the Sunday school where it needs to be," Sigmon said. "People don't realize the seriousness of sharing their faith. Because of FAITH, I think we're going to see a great move of souls being saved like never before because this helps equip people who would be the most unlikely to share their faith."
Jimmy Draper is confident the cooperative FAITH effort between the BSSB and NAMB can have the same kind of impact nationwide. It is designed to stimulate incremental increases in baptisms in SBC churches during the next five years, from 400,000 in 1997-98 to one million by 2001-2002.
"Could it be possible for Southern Baptists to reach one million people for Christ in one year? I believe it is possible, but more than that, I believe it is going to happen," Draper said.
While the North American Mission Board has the SBC's official assignment for evangelism, President Robert E. (Bob) Reccord said his agency is "a full and supportive partner" with the Sunday School Board in developing and promoting FAITH.
"Some may have expected us to say that (the Sunday School Board) shouldn't be doing this because evangelism is our responsibility. But that's a parochial perspective," Reccord said. "I want us to leave our egos and logos at the door and have a kingdom perspective. That's the way we'll have the greatest impact. I can't think of anything I'd rather do than see people accept Jesus Christ."
Southern Baptist seminary leaders attending the clinic began exploring ways to implement the FAITH strategies in their curriculum. Daryl Eldridge, dean of the school of educational ministries at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Fort Worth, Texas, said his institution is examining a number of options, including offering FAITH instruction in its evangelism classes and granting course credit to trained participants through their local churches.
"We've felt for a long time that for Sunday school to become what it needs to be, evangelism has to be at the heart of it," Eldridge said. "We've been teaching this for years, but we didn't have the excellent tools that the FAITH strategy provides."
Roy Fish, distinguished professor of evangelism at Southwestern and a prolific author on the subject of soul-winning, said he believes FAITH "is going to bring back the original intention of Sunday school, which is to win people to Jesus.
"I don't know that we did it intentionally and it probably has happened slowly, but somewhere along the line Sunday school and evangelism were perceptibly divorced.
This is going to reunite the two. Bringing the caring ministry of the Sunday school back into this is going to make a real difference. I'm very impressed."