Leading up to the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention in Baltimore earlier this month was a flurry of discussion among pastors, bloggers, academicians, church planters, and other Southern Baptists concerning the continued decline in numbers for the denomination as a whole. This conversation has continued since then and many have come out of the online woodwork to chime in with their opinions as what factors are contributing to this unfortunate trend.
One concern that has consistently received a significant amount of attention is the apparent lack of evangelistic outreach and impact in many local churches. Many think that churches are failing to make disciples for a host of different reasons with the result being the continued dwindling of membership numbers. And to be honest, often today in many SB churches, the majority of growth derives from either children who are coming to faith (which is always a good thing) or mobile believers simply moving their memberships from church to church (which only sometimes is a good thing).
Much could be said about this subject and indeed many have made helpful observations over the last few weeks. I simply want to add some thoughts of my own on why I think many SB churches are struggling with evangelistic zeal and a disciple-making attitude. To do so, in this post I want to mention three things that some SB’s think are hindering evangelistic endeavors and kindly object that they are in fact not problematic. Then in my upcoming one, I will talk about three things that I think are cause for concern.
First with regard to what some perceive to be pitfalls to evangelistic output, there are those who express concern that various (by no means the majority) SB churches are not as committed to reporting their membership, conversion, and financial gift records to their associations as in days past. While there are different reasons for this, I don’t think SB’s who disagree with this practice should see it as a major problem because the issue is not whether “numbers” are being reported but whether people are coming to Christ. If the latter is happening, the impact will be felt regardless of whether it is recorded on paper. This is not to say that records do not have their place. But if a given church is flourishing and doing the work of the ministry, the “numbers” will be felt whether they are on paper or not.
Second, the hurdles for more effective evangelism should not be placed at the feet of the Calvinist/Traditionalist divide. What I mean here is that whether an SB is more Reformed or not with regard to their views of soteriology does not necessarily enhance or impede one’s love for souls and the gospel. Rather it is one’s spiritual maturity, fervency for Christ, love for the church, and compassion for the unbelieving world that form the barometer for evangelistic zeal. My point here is that someone can intellectually embrace 5-point Calvinism, the conservative SB Traditionalist stance or some other modified position and still be downright lackadaisical in their evangelistic efforts. In other words, one’s confession to be a Calvinist or a Traditionalist does not automatically define one’s Christ-likeness and concern for the Great Commission. One can be lazy or zealous in either of these camps. So while SB’s can cordially and even aggressively dialogue about theological variances, we should not start spewing off empty rhetoric about how one camp or the other is the culprit for an overall decline in conversions.
Third, this last point will probably hurt the most because SB’s usually don’t like to hear things like this. But I believe it needs to be said; namely that dips in numbers are not always a bad thing. Now by this I do not mean that we should celebrate the fact that less people may seem to be embracing Christ via SB endeavors. That is cause for more prayer, strategizing, and faithful witness. At the same time though, sometimes when the truth is proclaimed rightly, it results in undesired yet still divinely-governed results. We see numerous times in Scripture where a prophet, an apostle, or even Jesus himself preached the truth and the masses didn’t walk an aisle during the first verse of Just as I am. Instead they turned a deaf hear, rejected what they were told, and left with their hearts harder than they were before they heard the truth.
Now while I don’t think this dynamic tells the entire story as to why the SBC is in decline, I do believe it’s a factor that deserves consideration. Why? Because in the years to come, there will be more and more pressure to capitulate to the cultural demands of secularity and when faced with the uncompromising demands of Christ’s kingdom, many will consider the price too high and simply choose to live by their vain appetites rather than die to them. If this happens, then perhaps a decline in numbers will actually lead to an increase in real Christian devotion. But again, this is no excuse for us not to proclaim the truth to our families, neighbors, and the nations.
In my next post, I will talk about what I do believe are some real hurdles to evangelistic outreach among SB’s. Stay tuned…