The History of Evangelism in the SBC

April 20, 2012

Dr. Chuck Kelley is President and Professor of Evangelism at the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary

This is the first of a four part series of articles taken from Dr. Kelley’s presentation on how Southern Baptists could become the “New Methodists.” In this first part, he walks us through the history of evangelism in the SBC. In part two, he will examine the current state of evangelism in the SBC. In the third part, he will explain where we’ve gone wrong. And in the final installment, Dr. Kelley will present a way to fix the problem.

Part 1: The History of Evangelism in the SBC

For the last several years, following the ravages of Hurricane Katrina, I have been 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 recent meeting in New Orleans came as a breath of fresh air, giving me a reason to return to the passion of my adult life: the study of Southern Baptist evangelism. I used the opportunity to take a deep look around and for some time have been digesting what I saw. I have drawn some conclusions I feel I must share. 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 ten years later, they baptized approximately 417,000 people, almost doubling in just ten years. 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: Old McBaptist had a farm! 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 needed 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 seed 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.

Farmers know that planting seed will not in and of itself produce a crop. Once planted, seed 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.

Why Sunday School? It 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, promoting 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, often used by the Holy Spirit to draw closer those from all age groups who had heard the gospel but had 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.

In part 2, we will look at the current state of evangelism in the Southern Baptist Convention.

This presentation was originally made in the Chapel of NOBTS in March of 2009. For a video version of the original presentation by Dr. Kelley, click this link. If you want to skip by the singing part of the service and go directly to the “New Methodists” presentation by Dr. Kelley, skip to the 7:35 point in the video.

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