The first blog of The New Methodists, a six part series exploring the challenges that face the SBC today.
By Dr. Chuck Kelley
For several years following the ravages of Hurricane Katrina, I was immersed heart and soul in the recovery and restoration of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. An invitation to address the SBC evangelism directors at a meeting in New Orleans came as a breath of fresh air, allowing me to lay the burden of recovery down and return to the passion of my adult life: the study of Southern Baptist evangelism. The prolonged absence from previous habits of research and study gave me “fresh eyes” as I renewed my research and reflections on SBC evangelism, and I noticed things unnoticed before.
I have drawn some conclusions I feel I must share with you today. Along the way, the preparation of this presentation became the preparation of my soul for seeking a stirring of God’s Spirit in my heart and across the Southern Baptist Convention. May it be so for you as well. The road we will walk begins with the amazing story of how Southern Baptists became the largest non-Catholic religious body in America.
The best snap shot is this: In 1945 Southern Baptists baptized approximately 257,000 people into their churches. In 1955, only 10 years later, they baptized approximately 417,000 people, almost doubling in just a decade. To quote an ancient Hebrew expression: Wow! That is amazing, phenomenal growth.
How did we do it? The easiest way to explain it is this picture: Old McBaptist had a farm! Southern Baptists developed a way of doing church very similar to the way a farmer raises crops.
Southern Baptists developed a way of doing church very similar to the way a farmer raises crops.
For instance, farmers need land in order to produce a harvest. Southern Baptists realized they needed a permanent presence in a community in order to reach that community, and so from their earliest beginnings they emphasized church planting. They knew starting churches would give them a continuing presence in the place where prospects lived.
Farmers know the crop they want to grow must match the climate they have. You can grow cotton in Mississippi, but it doesn’t do well in northern Canada. To have evangelistic results, churches need a climate continually affirming for the congregation the importance of sharing Christ with the lost. Southern Baptists used decisional preaching, that preaching which calls for an immediate and public response, to help create and maintain a climate emphasizing evangelism in the worship services of our churches.
In many ways the format of evangelistic crusades and revival meetings was absorbed into the normal style of worship for Southern Baptist churches. The invitation following every sermon was a weekly reminder that no one was right with God until they made a personal response to Christ. This was a constant reminder of why evangelism must be a priority in the programs and ministries of the church.
Farmers know they cannot get a harvest without planting seeds in the soil. Southern Baptists realized that most of the unconverted did not come to church. They knew they had to get the gospel outside the walls of the church, and they did so with personal evangelism throughout the community. For example, the typical Baptist church would devote at least one night a week to evangelistic visitation, going out to the families in the community for the specific purpose of sharing the gospel with them. Evangelism was not limited to pastors in the pulpit. It also involved the people of the church in face to face conversations with people they knew and did not know in the community. But farmers also know that planting seeds will not in and of itself produce a crop.
Once planted in the soil, seeds must be cultivated. It needs enough water, but not too much. Bugs and disease must be kept at bay. Southern Baptists knew that sharing the gospel one time with a lost person would usually not result in conversion. A process of cultivation was necessary for those who heard the gospel but did not respond immediately. Sunday school became the cultivation strategy for SBC churches. It was the only thing you could join in an SBC church without being a member. Churches expected most Sunday school classes to have lost and unchurched people present on a regular basis. But why Sunday school?