For seven years in a row, the Biblical Recorder has published news in the month of June with the same basic headline. Each story reported the Southern Baptist Convention’s (SBC) Annual Church Profile statistics from the previous year, and they read something like this, “Number of Baptist churches up, baptisms decline.”
The number of SBC churches has increased for 18 consecutive years, yet baptisms have declined for at least eight of the last 12 years. Last year’s reported baptisms are the lowest since 1947 – that’s 70 years ago!
As we reported last month, Southern Baptist churches baptized 280,773 people in 2016, a 4.89 percent decline from the 295,212 reported in 2015. The ratio of baptisms to total members is one baptism for every 54 members. (Visit here.)
The number of churches cooperating with the SBC grew by 479 to 47,272, a 1 percent increase over 2015.
Thom S. Rainer, president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources, said, “It’s clear that evangelism and discipleship are waning. I don’t believe it is due to the lack of opportunities, though. Instead, there is a lack of engagement.”
Rainer said while most churchgoers believe it’s their personal responsibility to share their faith, most never do.
I want to address that subject, but first, let’s put a few additional pieces of information on the table.
In June 2009, the North American Mission Board (NAMB) named a Great Commission Task Force. Then NAMB president Geoff Hammond said, “NAMB is called and is in the unique position to mobilize this convention in a Great Commission Resurgence.” (Visit here.)
In September 2013, we reported that NAMB convened a national Pastors’ Task Force on Evangelistic Impact & Declining Baptisms “to address the continued decrease in baptisms among Southern Baptist churches.” (Visit here.)
At this year’s SBC meeting in Phoenix, NAMB President Kevin Ezell presented a motion from the floor of the convention that asked SBC President Steve Gaines to name a “soul-winning task force.” In his closing remarks to the messengers, Gaines said the task force would “study how Southern Baptists can be more effective in personal soul-winning and also evangelistic preaching.”
Each of these three groups has been loaded with strong leaders who are passionate about fulfilling the Great Commission. The reports of the 2009 and 2013 groups were commendable. But, we need to ask if studies like these are working for us.
I don’t oppose these steps, and I have no intention to be critical of efforts to examine our decline in baptisms. Neither do I want to be perceived as one who is critical of the men who lead us. I’m on the team! We need to do something, and I appreciate these gestures in the right direction.
I will pray for the each of the excellent leaders named to the 2017 task force. I sincerely hope they will reach some conclusions that make a difference in Baptist church members, our churches, associations, state conventions, the SBC and the ends of the earth.
Ezell told the Phoenix convention that the SBC needs a “Gospel Conversation Resurgence” if declining baptism numbers are to turn around. He proceeded to explain the strategy of the Three Circles Life Conversation Guide that is being effectively used to share the gospel with many unreached people. (Visit here.)
I agree with Ezell. We need more gospel conversations. God has used different tools in each generation to share the same gospel message for almost 2,000 years. Recent generations have appreciated the effectiveness of the Four Spiritual Laws, Steps to Peace with God, Evangelism Explosion, CWT, FAITH and hundreds of other successful methods to introduce our friends to Christ. I’m overwhelmingly grateful for the passion and vision of those who developed each of these evangelism tools. Personally, I used many of these strategies to equip others in the churches I served. I used them to share the gospel and lead many to Christ.
In the past decade we heard a lot of conversation about “being missional.” The focus of the missional movement was to correct the unbiblical idea that evangelism is the pastor’s job.
Every believer is a missionary. Every Christian is a witness. Every Christ follower is called to evangelize. Many Baptists have been in the rut of believing that the church building is the center of evangelism, and that the pastor and ministerial staff should carry the load of gospel responsibility.
Conversations about being missional lifted many out of that rut. That vision has transformed a large number of churches and retooled their vision for sharing the gospel. But we’re still not getting the job done.
Although I do not have a “silver bullet” that will resolve our baptism decline, there is a phrase in the Bible that has convicted me recently, and I would like to ask you to consider its impact on your personal evangelism strategy.
Two parallel verses in the gospels tell us that as Jesus described the condition of that generation of people, He exposed their criticisms against His methods. In Luke 7:34, Jesus said, “The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look, a glutton and a winebibber, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’”
Apparently, some criticized Jesus because he was, “a friend of tax collectors and sinners.” He welcomed tax collectors and sinners into the inner circle of His 12 disciples. One of them, Matthew, was a tax collector. Peter was certainly no saint.
Jesus approached Zacchaeus, a chief tax collector, and the woman at the well who lived an immoral life. He was friendly to bad people! His strongest opponents were not sinners, but religious people.
That convicts me. Are sinners in my world open to friendship with me? Do they believe I am their friend?
The reputation of Christians is not very good in our world. Non-Christians don’t normally consider us their friend. Among some, we are known for being against everything the sinner favors. They may consider us their enemy. So, unless we are intentional to demonstrate Christ-like love to them, they will not be open to friendships. And friendships are an excellent foundation for gospel conversations.
I understand some may object to being a friend of sinners. We’ve rigidly held to 2 Corinthians 6:17, “Come out from among them and be separate, says the Lord.”
We don’t want to embrace the world’s values. It would be wrong to live a worldly lifestyle. But can we be a friend of sinners? Are we willing to go to Zacchaeus’ house for dinner? Do unchurched people in my circles consider me their friend or their enemy?
Maybe our fast-food culture has given us a desire for evangelism strategies that produce quick results. However, it takes time to build genuine friendships with those who do not know Jesus. It will require even more time to disciple them so they can become a reproducing disciple. That’s the biblical model.
Ezell’s call for gospel conversations is on target. Baptists need to be comfortable with relationships that open the door for sharing the Good News of eternal life through Jesus Christ. The prerequisite to those conversations is friendships.
When religious people begin to criticize our relationships with the lost, we will know that we have become a friend of sinners.