Admittedly, “abysmal failure” is a strong phrase, but the numbers support the conclusion.
The Southern Baptist Convention reported 310,368 baptisms in 2013. SBC membership for that year was reported as 15,735,640. Both of these are a decline since 2012 despite an increase in church plants.
For the sake of discussion let’s assume that 100% of those baptisms were new believers (an extreme unlikelihood). That means only 2% of the SBC membership came from conversion growth (realistically, it’s probably closer to 1-1.5%). However, total membership dropped by 136,764 since 2012, meaning the SBC lost more members than they baptized.
15.7 million members
This is unacceptable. This is also very telling. This is an abysmal failure of personal evangelism among Southern Baptists.
Reasons for the Failure of Personal Evangelism
Thom Rainer, President of LifeWay Christian Resources, associated the decline with a lack of “evangelistic effectiveness.” Kate Tracy of Christianity Today discussed an SBC Pastor’s Task Force report indicating that Southern Baptists are failing to reach non-believing Millennials. According to the report, there are multiple reasons for this failure:
The report identifies five problems behind the baptism drought:
Spiritual: “Many of our SBC pastors and churches are not effectively engaged in sharing the gospel and yet continue business as usual. We need a sense of brokenness and repentance over the spiritual climate of our churches and our nation.”
Leadership: “Many pastors have confessed to being overwhelmed in the operation and ministries of the church to the neglect of being involved in regular personal evangelism. This lack of leading by example is negatively impacting our church members’ engagement in personal evangelism.”
Discipleship: “Many pastors have confessed to focusing on attendance while giving little attention to reproducing fruit-bearing disciples who are involved in intentional evangelism.”
The Next Generation: “Although our churches have increasingly provided programs for children, students and young adults, we are not being effective in winning and discipling the next generation to follow Christ.”
Celebration: “Many of our churches have chosen to celebrate other things as a measure of their success rather than new believers following Christ in baptism. We have drifted into a loss of expectation.”
Rev. Frank Luter, former SBC President, however, laid the responsibility directly on Southern Baptists: “We have just not been very active in doing what we can to reach the lost and the unchurched in our nation.”
[pullquote]Christians don’t need a new gospel presentation, they need to begin actually presenting the gospel.[/pullquote]
Southern Baptist churches are disengaged from evangelism, but extremely engaged in church maintenance and their own numerical growth. As James Emory White indicated in his book, The Rise of the Nones, churches are often more focused on transfer growth than on conversion growth (ch. 6-7). To put it simply: Southern Baptists are not evangelizing, they are “sheep swapping” (p. 74).
SBC churches preach and promote evangelism, but they do not actually do evangelism. The reasons for this failure are really three-fold:
- Pastors are overwhelmed. The job of a pastor involves counseling, sermon preparation, visiting in homes, hospital visits, weddings, funerals, and other shepherding or administrative duties. Never mind having to find time for their own families and children, their own personal spiritual growth and Bible study, and other responsibilities. Pastors are overwhelmed and need help.
- Churches and pastors are more focused on numerical growth than conversion growth. As noted by the Pastor’s Task Force, a higher priority is given to increasing membership rolls and attendance numbers than to reaching non-believers through churchwide personal evangelism.
- Churches have no overall churchwide personal evangelism strategy. As Frank Luter noted, the “old-time methods to spread the gospel” just will not work in today’s culture. This is even more true for the rising group of religiously unassociated called the “nones.” Churches overall do not have a clear strategy to reach the lost. Rather, they continue the traditional evangelistic methods that they have always used and that clearly are not working.
The solution to the problem is not simplistic, but it is not difficult.
Proposed Ideas to the Lack of Personal Evangelism
The solution varies somewhat depending on the person asked. Thom Rainer implied that the answer is to wait on God to act in the hearts of Southern Baptists: “I continue to pray for revival and a renewed passion for the Great Commission in our churches. May God renew all of us, including me, with a greater heart for the lost.” However, the problem lies not with God’s inaction, but in our inaction. We must act. We’ve been told what to do. We have been given the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, we remain inactive. The solution isn’t passively waiting on God, it’s actively moving for God.
The Pastor’s Task Force offered five solutions, beginning with Rainer’s passive, wait-on-God approach:
- Pray for spiritual awakening. . . .
- [Pastors must] model personal evangelism and provide pathways. . . .
- [Pastors must] create a disciple-making culture. . . .
- [Pastors must] serve the next generation. . . .
- [Pastors must] celebrate evangelism and baptism.
Along with its emphasis on a passive response, the report calls on pastors to do something different or, more likely, to do more. While pastors are the leaders, they are overwhelmed and many face burnout. It seems, however, that in order to help pastors and churches, the Task Force places a greater burden on them. While leadership is the responsibility of the pastor, more work is not a solution to being overworked.
What is notable in the report is the third solution: “create a disciple-making culture.” The report briefly defines this as “focusing on multiplying disciples who know how to grow in Christ and lead others to Christ.” It does not, however, describe what a “disciple-making culture” looks like nor outline any steps on how to create it. The closest it comes is directing pastors to a video that outlines another method of sharing the gospel. Christians don’t need a new gospel presentation, they need to begin actually presenting the gospel.
Workable, Meaningful Steps to Improve Personal Evangelism
Before revealing the solution, let me recap the problem: SBC baptisms are declining because Southern Baptists overall are not doing personal evangelism. Thus, any solution must address the core problem.
The solution to a lack of personal evangelism is three-fold:
- Churches must become gospel-centered. Everything from the sermons and music to small groups and fellowships should be about making the gospel known. It should never be about the church, the denomination, or a cause. Christ is the evangel. We should make him known.
- Churches need a churchwide personal evangelism strategy. Church leaders need to develop a unique churchwide strategy to get members to share the gospel on a regular basis. Sermons, programs, and membership drives are inadequate. They are often unfocused, place an undue burden on the pastor, and often promote the church rather than Christ.
- Pastors need outreach ministers. Pastors are busy and many are overwhelmed. Churches often recruit individuals for specialized ministries such as youth, music, administration, and education. Few churches, though, recruit an outreach specialist, thinking that the pastor is trained in this field. However, many (if not most) pastors specialize in counseling, preaching, and theology, not evangelism.
Southern Baptists will continue to experience a decline in baptisms (seven of the last nine years) so long as personal evangelism is not a priority. Personal evangelism will not be a priority until Southern Baptists spend more time worrying about kingdom growth and less about church growth. Kingdom growth will not increase until Southern Baptists develop strategies to increase personal evangelism by the members.
This Post Has 3 Comments
“Churches must become gospel-centered.” — Church leaders preach what the flocks want to hear. If a pastor isn’t pushing personal evangelism, it’s because he’s afraid he’ll be fired by his church if he does. They can only “lead” if flocks want to “follow.” Telling people to drill down harder on doctrine might feel very good, but it’s the opposite of useful when it comes to growing groups. A church’s gospel-centeredness has ZERO to do with its group growth or decline. And you of all people ought to know that.
“Churches need a churchwide personal evangelism strategy.” — No. What churches actually need is a group ideology that makes them pleasant, worthwhile groups to hang out with. Christianity makes a number of untrue claims. All religions are like that. Untrue claims embedded in a group’s ideology leads to them opening the doors to believing all sorts of other untrue claims. That’s why Christian groups need to go for broke on being such great groups that their untrue claims stop mattering. And the SBC simply can’t do that. They are committed to a culture-war model of Christianity. That makes them, by their very nature, unpleasant groups that function as a net drag, a detriment, to humanity. Y’all need to be such a great group that your demands on members are gladly paid. Instead, you’re putting more and more demands on members without increasing the benefits you grant for those demands. SBC groups offer absolutely nothing to members that they can’t get elsewhere for a far lower outlay of resources. Guilting, shaming, and scolding your members for not pushing recruitment at people won’t work if your members are well aware of how unwanted those spiels are and how unlikely their groups are to attract those sales prospects into joining up.
“Pastors need outreach ministers.” – LOLWUT? Seriously? Yes, pastors are overwhelmed and overworked, but the main problem churches are having is outlined in my second point, above. Pastors can have a flotilla of “outreach ministers,” they can dress in feathers and do an outreach conga line dance right down Main Street if they want, but without making their groups into something people really want to join, they won’t be growing their groups.
At this point, Americans are well familiar with the thrust of Christianity. As you said, it’s down to swapping sheep. You’ll poach members–or see them poached away. But Nones are less and less likely to join the SBC, and the people who disengage from church culture are unlikely to return – especially once they realize how irrelevant Christianity really is to their lives. Go for broke on making your groups good places to join, and I think you’ll do better than Thom Rainer’s idiotic suggestions or these not-much-better ones.
I think John Hayward’s comment is interesting because I think we’ll be seeing fewer of those children remaining in the SBC as time moves on. Gen Z is already very barely evangelical at all (I think Barna found like 8% of one surveyed group last year?). I think early baptism is an absolute, unmitigated disaster as a policy – perhaps it leads to children growing up in the religion as fully-engaged members without context, and thus seeing very early that it’s nonsense. The SBC pulled their baptism numbers forward by moving toward that policy, but it’s backfired spectacularly. I’d love to see Hayward’s updated numbers, if he has any. The kids who remain tend to have wildly different opinions about the culture wars than their elders do. The next generation of leadership will be interesting to watch.
Thank you for reading and commenting. You do raise some concerns many have had about the church. According to Scripture, the church’s mission is to make disciples through evangelism (proclaiming/sharing the gospel with others) and discipleship (teaching believers). The next question, and one that many people continue to debate and discuss, is how to best go about this in a way that (1) shows our love for God and love for others, (2) accords with scriptural commands, and (3) does not compromise biblical truth.
Hi John – I have done some modelling of the SBC data and would agree with your conclusions on the lack of conversion growth. This is a common problem with churches that had past growth. The conversions stop but because they are good at retaining their own children no-one really notices. The church remains large. Once it has trouble keeping its own children it declines and unmasks that conversions had dried up long ago. The story of most denominations in the UK from 1870s onwards