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The New Methodists, Part Two

The second blog of The New Methodists, a six part series exploring the challenges that face the SBC today.

By Dr. Chuck Kelley

Sunday school was an efficient way to harness the power of “Biblelationships.”

That is my word to describe the combination of Bible teaching and relationship building at the heart of the Southern Baptist approach to Sunday school. All ages were involved in Sunday school. Those who came would hear the Bible, which would promote a better understanding of the Gospel, and they would form meaningful relationships with Christians in the class. Sunday school classes taught the Bible and had ice cream fellowships. There were devotionals and hymns, but they also sent members to visit classmates in the hospital and prepare massive amounts of food for those who lost loved ones. The Biblelationship combination of teaching Scripture and nurturing relationships was a powerful tool for cultivation which the Holy Spirit often used to draw closer those from all age groups who had heard the Gospel but not yet responded.

With the right climate, proper planting and cultivation, the farmer knows his crop will ripen and be ready for harvest in due time. Southern Baptists used revival meetings as their primary harvest tool. For at least one or two weeks each year, the whole attention of the church was focused on the simple question, “What is the status of your relationship with God?”

Many a revival message included simple explanations of how to become a Christian and powerful appeals to repent and believe. It became a very normal time for those who had heard the Gospel clearly explained over time and formed meaningful relationships with Christians in the church to come to the point of faith themselves.

It is important that we understand the true nature of the genius of Southern Baptist evangelism. It was not the individual methods used that produced such an incredible harvest. Rather, the interaction of those methods with each other created an integrated process described in the New Testament as sowing and reaping. Wheels alone can generate power. But if you add cogs to those wheels so that they form a gear, you multiply the power those wheels produce.

Old McBaptist — integrating church planting, decisional preaching, personal evangelism, Sunday school and revival meetings with each other — had a great process that produced much fruit.

It embodied the biblical process of sowing and reaping (see for example I Cor. 3:6, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase). You would find it interesting to know that these particular interactive methods were not the result of a search for a way to embody that process in churches. The lack of comment on the way these individual methods became an integrated process characteristic of SBC churches is one of the more astounding discoveries of my research. We will come back to this later.

Let’s go back to those baptism statistics. In 1945, the SBC baptized about 257,000 people. In 1955, the SBC baptized about 417,000 people. But since 1955, the SBC never yet reached the mark of 450,000 baptisms. We doubled in baptisms in 10 years, but then could not increase 35,000 in more than 50 years. What happened to the harvest?

We have more churches, more Baptists, more ministries and missionaries, and more resources, but less fruit. What happened to the farm?

We have more churches, more Baptists, more ministries and missionaries, and more resources, but less fruit. What happened to the farm?

For many years I said: “Southern Baptists are a harvest-oriented denomination living in the midst of an unseeded generation.” We reduced planting, neglected cultivation, and not surprisingly have found the harvest coming up short. While this is still true, I now realize something more is going on.

Today I say: We are more like gardeners working the window boxes than farmers working the fields. The focus of our attention has become more internal (inside the church) than external (in the field).

Another way to say it is this: “We are the grandchildren of farmers keeping harvest stories alive over coffee and dessert at family reunions.” The most important question facing the SBC today is: Why?


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