Researcher offers 'modest proposal' for increasing baptisms
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)--A leading church growth scholar will soon publish the results of a major new study which asserts the Southern Baptist Convention is evangelistically “on the path of slow but discernable deterioration,” but he argues the state of affairs would be far worse without the denomination’s conservative resurgence and recommends a “modest proposal” for the SBC to “recapture an evangelistic zeal that has been waning for over fifty years.”
Thom S. Rainer, dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism and Church Growth at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, explains the new study in the spring issue of the seminary’s academic journal, The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology.
“A Resurgence Not Yet Realized: Evangelistic Effectiveness in the Southern Baptist Convention since 1979,” will be published in the publication’s Spring 2005 edition. In the article, Rainer outlines dire evangelism statistics -– as measured by total annual baptisms and baptism ratios -– and theorizes that if SBC conservatives had failed to reform the denomination beginning in 1979 the situation would be even bleaker.
An advance copy of Rainer’s article was made available to the Florida Baptist Witness. The journal edition containing the article will be mailed to subscribers in May.
Rainer offers six possible hypotheses for the current condition of evangelism in the SBC and five suggestions that may result in positive change for the nation’s largest non-Catholic denomination.
REASONS FOR EVANGELISTIC STRUGGLES
Rainer's six possible hypotheses to explain the state of SBC soul-winning are:
-- “The evangelistic fields in the United States are much less receptive than they were in past years.”
Although “on the surface this hypothesis seems plausible,” Rainer argues in spite of cultural trends contrary to the Christian worldview, most non-Christian Americans remain receptive to the Gospel. He cites research which finds that only eight million of America's 160 million unchurched are truly antagonistic.
“It appears that receptivity to the Gospel is strong. And it appears that relatively few Southern Baptists are either inviting people to church or sharing the Gospel with them,” Rainer writes.
-- “Socioeconomic gains tend to reduce evangelistic health in Christian groups.”
Rainer notes that there may be some merit to this, but there is not enough data to prove or disprove the suggestion.
-- “Southern Baptist pastors are not personally evangelistic.”
“The evangelistic health of a denomination is ultimately a local church issue," Rainer writes. "Denominations are neither evangelistic nor non-evangelistic; the churches and their members are the true indicators of evangelistic health.”
Rainer cited a recent study his team of researchers conducted which found that senior pastors of growing churches personally shared their faith more than did those of declining churches.
“Southern Baptist pastors today may not be as personally evangelistic as their predecessors. And the members of their churches may very well be following their poor example,” says Rainer.
-- “The Southern Baptist Convention fails to recognize adequately churches with significant conversion growth.”
Rainer concludes that Southern Baptists do as well or better than other denominations on this front, although, “There is still a sense among many church leaders we interview that the denomination gives undue focus to larger churches at the expense of the midsize and smaller churches.”
-- “The churches of the SBC are not evangelistic because they have many unregenerate members.”
“Is it possible that we have significant numbers of non-Christians who have membership in our 43,000 churches?” Rainer asks.
He answers, “If our research approximates eternal realities, nearly one-half of all church members may not be Christians. This issue may very well be a major factor in the evangelistic apathy in many churches.”
-- “Only a small number of churches in the SBC have any significant evangelistic efforts.”
Rainer finds that 82 percent of all SBC churches baptized 12 or less persons during 2003. (The study was concluded before the recently released 2004 statistics were available.) He concludes, “Frankly, most Southern Baptist churches today are evangelistically anemic. The bulk of baptisms in the denomination is taking place in a relatively few churches.”
'MODEST PROPOSAL' FOR CHANGE
Although he doesn't harbor a “grand illusion that this article will be nailed to Southern Baptist church doors across America,” Rainer offers five “modest” proposals –- in no particular order of priority –- to improve the SBC’s evangelistic effectiveness:
-- “Seminaries should strive to become thoroughly evangelistic.”
Although the majority of SBC pastors are not trained at seminary, “the influence of seminaries is vast,” Rainer notes. Professors must be “passionate about their respective fields of study and the Great Commission. Right theology should lead to evangelistic passion.”
-- “Recognize effective evangelistic churches in the Southern Baptist Convention.”
Rainer writes that although the SBC does a “credible job of recognizing high-baptismal churches” the denomination should give more attention to churches with the best -– that is, the lowest -– baptism ratios (the number of church members per baptism).
-- “Conduct more research on less evangelistic churches.”
“To my knowledge, little research is being done to determine why more than 80 percent of our churches are clearly non-evangelistic,” Rainer writes.
-- “Focus evangelistic training resources on pastors.”
Rainer pointed to a recent class of doctor of ministry students at Southern Seminary in which pastors took personal responsibility for evangelism in their churches, resulting in a doubling of total baptisms in the student-pastor’s churches.
“Once these pastors accepted responsibility for leading their churches in evangelism, and once they began to model personal evangelism, the churches began to prosper evangelistically,” Rainer writes, adding that if the denomination put more resources on leading pastors to be evangelistically accountable, the “results in our convention could prove significant.”
-- “Encourage pastors and other local church leaders to lead their churches to a time of corporate confession and repentance for their lack of evangelistic zeal.”
Noting his own experience of such repentance as a young pastor, Rainer asserts, “Ultimately, evangelistic apathy is not a methodological failure; it is spiritual disobedience. The Bible is replete with commands and admonitions to communicate passionately the Gospel with others. Our failure to do so is nothing less than sinful disobedience to the God who gave us unmerited favor through His Son, Jesus Christ.”
Rainer concludes: “Evangelism and church growth does benefit from innovative programs. Research is helpful to grasp possible future paths of evangelistic strategy. But ultimately evangelism is a matter of the heart between the believer and a sovereign God. It is truly a spiritual matter. And if we are not personally and corporately evangelistic, the first response must be confession and repentance toward the God whose grace is sufficient to give us yet another opportunity.”
James A. Smith Sr. is editor of Florida Baptist Witness, online at www.FloridaBaptistWitness.com.