by Rod D. Martin
June 29, 2017
At last week’s otherwise outstanding Southern Baptist Convention in Phoenix, messengers were confronted with news of a net loss of 78,000 more members – we had 16,000,000 six years ago, now just 15,200,000 – and the lowest number of baptisms since 1946.
There’s lots of good news, of course, not least of which is that the number of churches continues to grow and giving is nearly $12 billion. The SBC is still the world’s foremost missionary-sending church, and twice the size of America’s second-largest Protestant denomination.
But clearly some things need to change.
This is not just some numbers game. Every lost soul is an eternal tragedy. And likewise, every saved saint is added salt and light in her community, a force for goodness and kindness meeting real people’s needs and moving the culture, locally as well as nationally, in a far, far healthier direction. Many Christians wring their hands at the thousand evils around them. Few seem to grasp that those evils recede with every new repentant heart.
There’s an entirely practical aspect to evangelism. Our lack of a ground game is killing us. Only God can bring the harvest, but before He did it Paul planted and Apollos watered. They did so systematically, not just once in a while when they felt like it.
Therefore, here’s an entrepreneur’s view of what “systematic” needs to look like for Southern Baptists:
1. We need to adopt sound organizing principles built around local churches. Let’s start with the most basic: we could deploy up to 50,000 new North American missionaries – ten times the current number – just by adding a full-time evangelism director (call that position whatever you will) to each church’s staff.
This approach maximizes existing infrastructure, existing budgets and local control; it also greatly improves the discipleship and engagement of existing congregations, by properly prioritizing the lost and dying over the many other things we think of as “needs.”
Adding an evangelism director is not about delegation: it’s about division of labor. Pastors can’t do everything, and frequently aren’t gifted evangelists. Someone who is – and who can devote 100% of his time to it – should train, motivate and organize each church to reach its city for Christ.
If we can afford paid nursery workers, paid song leaders, paid youth ministers and a growing constellation of paid ministers of fill-in-the-blank – positions many churches considered luxuries 40 years ago if they’d heard of them at all – surely we can afford a trained specialist whose sole job is preventing our neighbors from going to Hell. It is, after all, a question of priorities.
2. We should learn from the Mormons. For most of the past 60 years, Mormons have grown at a 4% to 5% annual rate, fast enough to double every 15 years.
We don’t have to agree with them to learn from them.
When I was a child, most Americans saw Mormons as a cult. Now Mormons are widely viewed as a mainstream Christian denomination, and an especially sincere and family-friendly one at that.
This shift is in no small part due to Mormons’ long-running TV and radio ads: you’ve been programmed year after year to like them. And not only did this centralized marketing effort radically improve their public standing; it also led millions of people to order a Book of Mormon or even join a Mormon congregation.
But that was just their “air war.” On the ground, at any given time, 75,000 Mormon young people are engaged in a two-year commitment to full-time door-to-door evangelism. No Mormon NAMB picks up that tab: families begin saving to send their children as soon as they are born.
Many claim Baptists could never manage such an effort. Yet others are doing it right before our eyes.
3. Door-to-door works. If the Mormon example is not enough, the church can surely learn a lot from its more political members. Dividing a city into precincts, carefully organizing them with a growing cadre of volunteers, allows parties and candidates to use neighbors to persuade neighbors, turn out crowds for events (when did your church last hold a revival?), get out the vote and so forth.
Parties and candidates that fail to do this…fail.
The evangelistic and broader ministry applications of this should be obvious. But this approach pays powerful internal discipleship dividends too, as it gives the church’s “doers” a concrete set of tasks to achieve for a clear and worthy goal, and requires church members to take responsibility for specific areas and the souls within them. In taking this on, they further learn to recruit and train others to help in the task.
The pastor – or better, that new evangelism director – must of course be the chief trainer and organizer. But it’s church members who will do the vast majority of ministry. In the process, they will greatly exercise the currently-sedentary Body of Christ.
Can this approach succeed today? Well, everyone from the Mormons to Barack Obama prove it can. And 83% of unchurched Americans report that they would accept an invitation to church from someone they trust.
Sadly, barely 2% of church members actually invite them.
This systematic (as opposed to hit-or-miss) evangelism would change that abysmal church culture. It would also change America’s.
4. The Cooperative Program matters. First, if existing Southern Baptist churches would just give 10% through the Cooperative Program, we could immediately multiply our missionaries tenfold, rather than bringing missionaries home as we have been of late. Call it the 10-10 Window.
But second, the trend toward nondenominational churches is a disunity we just can’t afford. We should actively and constantly recruit likeminded churches into the SBC, for the very good reason that CP-funded ministries multiply God’s resources far more effectively than any individual church’s piecemeal approach. More cooperating churches equal more lost people reached, period.
5. Our church planting must become even more ambitious. I’m a big fan of NAMB’s Send Cities initiative. But we still aren’t thinking big enough. Not even close.
We claim to be serious about the Great Commission. Fine then. We should decide to double our numbers in the next 20 years. That’s 30,000,000 Southern Baptists; it’s also 10% of the United States population. Indeed, we should do this again in the 20 years after that: 60,000,000 members, one in every five Americans.
Are we serious about reaching our nation for Christ? If we can’t set a concrete goal and put our efforts and resources toward it, then no, we are not.
Today we have a bit over 50,000 churches. Why shouldn’t we do whatever it takes to hit 100,000? Why shouldn’t we make reaching our lost neighbors our above-all-else priority, and not just an annual slogan?
We won’t achieve this without God’s favor. But neither will He do it for us while we talk and bury our talents.
Doubling would require a net gain of 2,500 churches every single year. That probably sounds daunting. It shouldn’t. Southern Baptists are planting around 1,000 new churches per year right now, even without such a specific, aggressive goal. The Baptist General Conference, and of course the Mormons, have both recently achieved the sort of doubling I suggest.
What about our existing churches, you might ask? Well, when did your church last hold a revival? What does your citywide evangelism program look like? I’ve just outlined plenty to keep our current churches more engaged and growing faster than most have ever imagined. Add to that whirlwind a net 2,500 new churches per year and only two words will describe it: Great Awakening.
30 million Southern Baptists would have vastly more impact on our culture than do we. 60 million by mid-century – or 20% of America’s population – would utterly reshape both our country and the world.
This starts with institutional change. The flock will not shepherd itself. God will bless what He chooses to bless, but there are means that have proven more and less effective. Our means are proving…less.
So it’s time to reassess. Do we really believe we’re called to be salt and light? Or do we just like to talk about it?