Dr. Thom Rainer is President of LifeWay Christian Resources. One of the most influential scholars of the field of evangelism and church growth, Dr. Rainer has authored more than a dozen best-selling books. He earned the Ph.D from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he previously served as the founding Dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism, and Church Growth.
Alarms are sounding loudly. Most loudly is the measure of baptisms in the convention in recent years. A look at our baptisms should indeed sound an alarm. In 1950 SBC churches reported 376,000 baptisms. In 2005, it was 371,000 baptisms. Our membership had more than doubled during this time. We are baptizing less than we did in 1950, although we have a membership that is 130% larger than half a century ago. Don’t be bored by these numbers, because they represent a direction in the Convention of where we are going, or better yet where we are not going. Despite the Conservative Resurgence, we have seen no evangelistic impact in our Convention since 1979. We thought that a right theology would lead to a right practice of evangelism, but such has not been the case. Why is this so?
My eschatology is this: Christ’s Church will prevail. We are on the winning side. I am an obnoxious optimist. But why are we taking a trend that is decidedly downward. I will try to answer that question tonight. For simplicity, my analysis is broken down in five parts:
1. Eschatology: If there is an eschatological belief in the decline in baptisms, it is the belief in a denial of a literal hell. If we allow for universalism, pluralism, or any doctrine that comports with a literal denial of hell, baptisms will be in decline. Each year, church members could no longer embrace a theology that does not allow for a literal existence of hell.
2. Ecclesiology: One a given Sunday, only seven million members attend our churches. That which is dead cannot tell another dead person how to have life. There are two camps: one calling for intentional evangelism and the other for integrity in church membership. Are these two mutually exclusive?
3. Sociology: It does appear that we are more materially comfortable. Haggai 2 “This house lies in ruins . . .” The prophet Haggai was talking about the Jews who were more concerned about their comfort to use the materials intended for the house of God for their own homes. Have we become so comfortable where we are more at ease in our lifestyles and do not care for the building of God’s kingdom?
4. Responsibility:Over 3/4 SB laity said that they made no intentional evangelistic attempts in the last year. Evangelism has been relegated to a program where only a relatively few people participate. When evangelism is not my responsibility, it does not happen. When I expect other ministers or pastors to preach the gospel, it does not happen. If we had one person and only one person in every SBC church reached one person every two weeks, we would have over 1.2 million people saved every year. Yet it is assumed that evangelism is not my responsibility.
5. Humility: I do believe that perhaps a great source of our evangelistic apathy lies in me. Ultimately, evangelism is the overflow of our relationship with Christ, when we are filled with the Spirit. I am too often filled with my own pride and my own will rather than being filled with the Holy Spirit. When Peter was filled with the Holy Spirit, Peter only declares, “We are unable to stop speaking of what we have seen and heard.” That is evangelism, that we are so filled with the Spirit that we cannot help but speak about Jesus. We need a humility that lets go of self, and our most effective evangelistic efforts come when we realize and confess that we are incapable in and of ourselves. We must acknowledge our total dependence upon God. Hear this plea: This does not mean that we become soft in our theology, but that we realize that one of the greatest theological truths is that “love is the greatest of these.” It does mean that we don’t disagree, but that we disagree with patience and longsuffering. I know of a true evangelistic revival is to come, it must begin with God, and it must in me. I must become a man that spends more time in His word, in prayer, who seeks to serve rather than seeking to be served, to a man that points to my own sinfulness than the sins of others, that I might become a man who realizes that I do not always have the answer, but that there are many more wise voices than mine, that I might not only talk about the gospel but who faithfully shares it. May I and you lives out the rest of our lives in a humble awareness that we are but clay in the Potter’s hands, and may we repent of sins of arrogance, self-centeredness, and may we have a more humble ministry.
I thought Dr. Rainer’s message was concise and very helpful, especially pressing the deep need for humility in our Convention. I have long trumpeted the need to renounce our denominational triumphalism and pride, and I am reminded of something I wrote this past summer when the whole resolution buzz was going on. I said,
I long for the day when Baptist Press’ First Person articles are confessions about our triumphalistic attitudes and denominational arrogance wherein we publicly repent of our pride. I long for the day when we point the fingers at ourselves and face the music by making resolutions on our need for reformation and revival. I long for the day when we forge new partnerships for the sake of the gospel and cooperate together for the glory of Christ. I long for the day when we can actually address that issues that exist rather than trying to develop one that doesn’t (found here).
I will post a little more soon. Time for a new session . . .