by Rod D. Martin
June 23, 2016
At last week’s otherwise outstanding Southern Baptist Convention in St. Louis, messengers were confronted with news of a net loss of 200,000 more members – we had 16,000,000 five years ago, now just 15,300,000 – and the lowest number of baptisms since 1947.
Baptists grew virtually every year of their history until 2011. This news isn’t entirely unexpected, but it is a shock to the system.
Many explain this as the product of the demise of cultural Christianity (fewer have been willing to admit the degree to which that demise has been the result of just two lost elections). In the Obama era, it’s no longer especially valuable to one’s business, nor will you feel any peer pressure, to be seen on Sunday morning: if anything it’s quite the opposite.
Whatever benefits may come of that, fewer people are hearing the Word preached, fewer consciences are being pricked, fewer cultural roadblocks restrain evil. So those rejoicing in the demise of cultural Christianity are focusing on the health benefits of a famine: “Hurrah! We won’t be fatties anymore.”
At the height of the Conservative Resurgence, W.A. Criswell preached one of the greatest sermons of our lifetime, “Whether We Live or Die”. Delivered in 1985 to an incredible 45,000 messengers in Dallas, Criswell’s sermon helped turn the tide in a denomination then headed rapidly down the path of America’s dying, apostate mainline churches.
Many Baptists believed back then that recovering doctrinal integrity would by itself produce a renaissance of growth. But that was like saying that, because you must have water, you don’t need air or food.
Barry Goldwater made this same mistake in 1964. Many claimed at the time that Americans had overwhelmingly rejected Goldwater’s beliefs; but in fact, Goldwater had failed to organize the ground game required to win. When Nixon, Reagan and two Bushes did so, they won seven of the next ten elections (and two 49-state sweeps).
Goldwater was no Baptist. But Baptists are looking a lot like Goldwater.
What we believe is vital, but beliefs without works are dead. Our lack of a ground game is killing us. It’s true that only God can bring the harvest, but before that Paul planted and Apollos watered. They did so systematically, not just once in a while when they felt like it.
For Southern Baptists, “systematic” needs to look something like this:
1. We need to adopt sound organizing principles built around local churches. We could easily deploy 50,000 new North American missionaries – ten times the current number – just by adding to each church’s staff a full-time evangelism director. This approach makes maximal use of existing infrastructure; it also greatly improves the discipleship and engagement of existing congregations.
This new staff position is not about delegation, but rather 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.
I would add that if we can afford paid nursery workers, song leaders and youth ministers – which many churches considered luxuries 40 years ago – surely we can afford a systematic approach to preventing our neighbors from going to Hell.
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 and 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.
Some say 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 learn a lot from its more political members. Dividing a city into precincts, carefully organizing them with a growing cadre of volunteers, allows parties to use neighbors to persuade neighbors, to turn out crowds for events, to 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. If they aren’t, ask.
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, the new evangelism minister – must be the chief trainer and organizer. But it’s church members who will do the vast majority of ministry, and in the process greatly exercise the now-sedentary Body of Christ.
Some question whether such an approach can succeed in today’s climate. But 83% of unchurched Americans report that they would accept an invitation to church from someone they trust. Sadly, just 2% of church members currently invite them.
A systematic approach would change that abysmal church culture. In the process, it would change America’s.
4. The Cooperative Program matters. First, if existing Southern Baptist churches would faithfully give 10% through the Cooperative Program, we could immediately multiply our missionaries tenfold, instead of bringing missionaries home.
But second, the trend toward nondenominational churches is a disunity we cannot afford. We should actively recruit likeminded churches into the SBC, for the very good reason that CP-funded ministries multiply God’s resources far more effectively than any 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. We should decide to double over the next 20 years, and again in the 20 years after that. Nothing less will do.
Today we have a bit over 50,000 churches. If we want 100,000 churches, and 32 million Southern Baptists, the math is clear: we need a net gain of 2,500 churches every year.
That probably sounds daunting. It shouldn’t. Southern Baptists planted nearly 1,000 churches last year, 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 propose.
32 million Southern Baptists would have a vastly greater effect on our culture than do we. 64 million by mid-century – or 20% of America’s population – would utterly reshape both our country and the world.
The question truly is whether Baptists will live or die. In 1985 we decided to do what it took to live: an enormous institutional effort aimed at buttressing and extending the faith. We can and must do so again, and in so doing, bring life to a dying world.
This article was originally published as part of my “Beyond the Church Door” series in the Florida Baptist Witness.