As Southern Baptists, we find ourselves in the midst of tumultuous times. As has been repeated tirelessly over the past several years, the number of baptisms recorded in our churches is in decline. This strongly indicates that the number of individuals committing their lives to Christ in our churches is likewise declining. It is true that reaching out to the 21st century western world is an unusual task when one considers the, at least superficial, acceptance of the truth of Christianity for Americans in the early and mid 1900’s. Famously, our president made the statement sometime back “Whatever it once was America is no longer a Christian nation.” Clearly, the cultural odds are against us. Nevertheless, the supernatural odds are in the favor of believers, as they always have been. Still, the question hangs in the air, “Why are we experiencing such a drought when the fields have never been more white?” As I consider what possible factors may be contributing to this, there are at least three issues which leap to the forefront of my mind, about which something must be said. It is my hope that you will prayerfully consider these matters. I know that the evangelization of the world in which we live is on your heart as well.
The cultural impact on evangelism
Unfortunately, the culture of today has not only disallowed evangelism in the public eye, but has also created the perception in the minds of many ministers and lay members that even within the church there is something wrong with being straightforward, direct and open with newcomers about their salvation. This is a problem. It was not until I entered evangelism several years ago that I realized how many SBC churches of every size do not even extend invitations anymore. It would appear that either we don’t expect that there will be lost individuals in our services, or in our zeal to modernize the aesthetics of our ministry (I.e. remodeling, better graphic design, full band etc.) we have also removed the “antiquated” offer of salvation for a clear and open response. I’m enthusiastic about updating our image, but if it is at the expense of evangelism then we have reached the epitome of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. If intentional, eyeball to eyeball evangelism is not being done in church, how can we expect it will ever be done in the work place, schoolhouse or around the thanksgiving dinner table. However, there is one elephant in the sanctuary here.
Theological impacts on evangelism
Some theological constructs accepted by many young ministers in our convention have made the job of evangelism, as a function of the church, more difficult than ever. On the one hand there is a well known movement within our convention which minimizes the importance of an individual’s decision to commit their life to Christ. The other extreme is a service which seems to be as much about coffee and good music as it is about the gospel. Sadly, this has placed some of you, who do not fall into either category, truly on a narrow road. Complicating matters, everyone, in every group, claims to be as evangelistic as anyone else. Worse still, there seems to be no place for the office of the evangelist in the SBC.
The impact of fewer evangelists on evangelism
This year, at the convention’s annual meeting, as our denominational leaders articulated the problem in graphic detail, Dr. Ronnie Floyd displayed a very helpful chart which demonstrated the decline in baptisms since the 1950s to today. His point was well made. I couldn’t help but notice that during that same amount of time the SBC has also seen a dramatic decline in vocational evangelists which would seem to parallel the dropping number in baptisms. I know it will appear as though I am feathering my own nest, yet I am constantly amazed that at such a moment in the history of the SBC the evangelist is not being called upon by the convention to lead the charge in reaching the 21st century man. This is the plea I make to all who read this article. We desperately need to lock arms with pastors and other ministry leaders within our denomination to make up for lost time in reaching the world. In great degree, the evangelist is dependant upon the pastor for the opportunity to fulfill his calling.
At 29 years old, I have committed my life to the calling which I believe God has placed upon it. I, like other young and old evangelists within the Conference of Southern Baptist Evangelists, will pursue the exercise of that mission regardless of the financial or political landscape upon which I stand. We have no intention of ignoring the validation that Ephesians 4:11 grants our call. Nor, will we become the Conference of Southern Baptist Motivational Speakers in an attempt to be more palpable to the modern pallet. Nevertheless, I wonder what this ministry will look like in the future as fewer churches enlist the help of vocational evangelists. It is also a fearful thought to consider how many will never hear the message with which God has blessed those in this full-time ministry. If you would like to conduct a simple sociological experiment in your community, just ask believers how many of them came to Christ during an event at which an evangelist was preaching. God has always used gifted evangelists in the local church. I’m sure you recognize the urgency of our present state of affairs.
If you are reading this it is highly likely that you understand my concerns. As a member of the Southern Baptist Convention you share with evangelists the foundational principles upon which our entire Southern Baptist enterprise is built. Thus, you not only believe in the evangelization of this unusual new world, but you surely see the great value that exists in the use of evangelists and evangelistic events. Let us pray that neither culture, fads or laziness will stand in the way of what God wants to do in our time. We often hear preachers claim, “God is the only one who can bring true revival” Indeed, but God has made it clear that he is in favor of revival if only we will be the willing vessels through which it may be brought.