What Every Baptist Must Do to Reverse the Evangelism Crisis

The stats can be downright depressing. In my own denomination (the Southern Baptist Convention), churches are reporting the lowest baptism totals since 1946, the lowest membership since 1990, and the lowest worship attendance since 1996. Of all those numbers, baptisms have probably been the most scrutinized. They are—and likely forever will be—the gold standard in Baptist church metrics.

Southern Baptists aren’t alone in this. Most Protestant denominations have been declining for decades. Ed Stetzer wrote in the Washington Post in April that mainline Protestantism has only 23 Easters left to turn around a historic decline. Other Baptist denominations have also seen declines (though interestingly, African-American Baptist denominations have largely remained stable).   

But the decline of Southern Baptists hits closer to home for me. I’ve been a Southern Baptist, technically, since I was baptized into an Indiana SBC church in the late 1980s (at 12 years old). Both of my parents have Southern Baptist roots, as did my grandparents. But I realize that if the SBC died tomorrow, the global church could still thrive. God would still be on his throne. My faith would still be real. But the unique role that God has laid out for Southern Baptists would come to an end.

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That would be disappointing. I want to see Baptist churches grow.

The Red Herrings of the Baptist Evangelism Crisis

You’ll see a variety of guesses as to why Southern Baptists are declining. Most are simply red herrings. Sure, there is some truth to them, but they ignore vast cultural changes in the country over the last half-century. Some of those red herrings include…

1. We talk less about the afterlife

Southern Baptists have long been known for their “fire-and-brimstone” preaching. No doubt about it, we spend less time than ever teaching about the afterlife (heaven or hell). Yes, when people are reminded of eternal consequences, they’re probably more likely to respond to evangelistic appeals, but I’m less convinced that in 2017 that would mean more baptisms or conversions.

2. People do not share their faith as often as they used to

The idea here is that in days gone by, church members were more likely to present the gospel to their neighbors. This sounds great. I just don’t buy it. Evangelism has always been hard and awkward. I wasn’t alive in the 1950s, but I have a really hard time believing that the people I know who were alive then were regularly sharing the gospel with friends and family. In fact, I tend to believe that Southern Baptists are more prepared than ever to personally present the gospel.

3. Preachers have lost their evangelistic fervor

Pastors are another easy target for those who want to point fingers within Baptist life. This criticism usually focuses on the decline of altar calls and a (supposed) decline in the frequency (and fervency) of pastors calling for an evangelistic response. This doesn’t seem to fit with reality, though. It’s hard to attend an SBC church and not hear the gospel presented in a forceful way. Maybe it’s done differently. Maybe no one is urged to walk down an aisle. but in most Baptist churches, the gospel is explained and people are given an opportunity to respond. It’s done passionately. It’s done comprehensively.

The Real Reasons the SBC Is Declining

I tend to take more stock in sociological reasons for the decline rather than in theological ones. For example…

1. The Baby Boom is long over

The glory days of the SBC came when the denomination’s membership grew by 30 percent between 1950 and 1980. The steepest climb came in the 1950s, right at the heart of the Baby Boom. No doubt about it: Southern Baptists did many things well during that period, but the denomination grew particularly because they made babies well (as did nearly every other segment of society back in those days).

2. Cultural Christianity is in decline

Ed Stetzer often makes this point. Two generations ago, even if you weren’t regularly attending worship services, you likely still identified with a Christian denomination (like the SBC). Today, there’s much less stigma attached to those who don’t identify with Christianity. Southern Baptist declines may have lagged behind mainline denominations in their rate of decline largely because this process happened a bit later in the South than in other regions of the United States. For denominations like Southern Baptists that espouse regenerate church membership (the belief that only born-again believers can be members of a Southern Baptist church), the loss of cultural Christians from within our midst shouldn’t be a matter of concern.

3. Denominational loyalty is declining

Back in the SBC’s heyday, people were born, came to faith, were baptized, got married, and were buried in Southern Baptist churches. People didn’t switch denominations. That’s no longer true. It’s not all bad news. According to one study, 80 percent of the people who leave Baptist churches simply move to other Christian traditions. Still, some of the declines in SBC membership and baptisms can surely be traced to loosening denominational ties.

4. People are harder to reach these days

It takes much more today to lead people to faith in Jesus than it did a few decades ago. Secularism is growing. Moral relativism is on the rise. Convincing people of their spiritual need isn’t easy in a world where “all have sinned” is a point of debate rather than accepted truth. Plus, let’s face it, people have more choices with their leisure time than ever before. America may be the most entertained society in world history. In that context, church attendance isn’t nearly as attractive as it used to be.

Moving Forward

So what’s next? I don’t think we can turn the decline in the convention around overnight. It’ll take some time. And it’ll take all of us! Here are five things every Baptist must do to turn around the evangelism crisis:

1. Spend time with new people

The gospel has historically moved on relationship lines. One of the reasons Southern Baptists aren’t sharing their faith more often is they simply don’t have relationships with people who don’t know Christ. Studies show we have fewer close friends than ever before. The friends we have tend to already agree with our spiritual convictions.  

Make a new friend. Purposely try to befriend someone who has different spiritual beliefs. Don’t do it so you can convert the other person. Do it because Jesus loved people, and so should you.

2. Pursue personal renewal

We tend to be more likely to share our faith when we’re growing in our own personal relationship with Christ. You won’t grow into a more effective witness for Christ by focusing just on evangelism. Evangelistic zeal and effectiveness come from an overflow of what the Lord is doing in our lives. So let’s pursue Jesus passionately—and let people see what a gospel-transformed life looks like.

3. Love our neighbors in practical ways

The old adage that people don’t care what you know until they know how much you care has never been truer. The world understands what Southern Baptists are against all too well. Let’s show them what we’re for: Them! We need to respond to the vast practical needs of our community, such as for food, shelter, childcare, etc.

Southern Baptists have always done this. But I’m excited that in recent years we’ve made a denomination-wide push to do it better through initiatives like Send Relief.

4. Learn to talk about faith in an authentic manner

Every believer needs to learn to talk about his or her faith in a way that seems natural. Too often, Southern Baptists have relied upon rigid gospel presentations that seemed canned. Let’s help people talk about what God has done in their lives in fresh ways, using language everyone gets.

5. Stop discussing the decline

Let’s stop talking about the stats. Every single year, as Southern Baptists head to the annual convention, we can expect a release of the Annual Church Profile (the SBC’s yearly survey that updates the key metrics). As we head to what should be one of the most uplifting weeks of the year, we’re reminded of the decline. It doesn’t help.

Comparing the convention of 2017 to the convention of 1980 or 1952 is like comparing apples to oranges. It’s like looking at baseball’s all-time career wins leader, Cy Young, and comparing him to today’s best pitchers. It’s a different game today. Young’s 511 wins will never be topped. But that doesn’t diminish Clayton Kershaw’s brilliant performance today. Young and Kershaw played in different eras. God is doing much in our convention today. Let’s celebrate what He is doing and stop comparing ourselves to the past.

For more information about how to grow a Baptist church today through healthy evangelism, check out my free ebook: Healthy Evangelism: How to Grow Your Church without Compromising Your Baptist Principles.

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