The Current State of Evangelism in the SBC

April 26, 2012

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

This is the second of a four part series of articles taken from Dr. Kelley’s presentation on the New Methodists. In part one, he walked us through the history of evangelism in the SBC. In this second part, he examines our current state of evangelism. 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 2: The Current State of Evangelism in the SBC

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.

The SBC way of doing church embodied the biblical process of sowing and reaping (see for example 1 Cor. 3:6 “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase”), but 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 that I mentioned in part 1. 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 ten years, but then could not increase 35,000 in more than 50 years. What happened to the harvest? 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. But 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. “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? The methods we use are not the crucial issue. The Bible speaks little of methods. An open fire, an oven, or a microwave will all accomplish the same purpose. Tasks will always outlive methods. By the way, this applies to whatever better way of doing things some of you might develop as well!

The amount of money available to spend on evangelism is not the crucial issue. In 1906 W. W. Hamilton created the first department of evangelism for the SBC. With no budget allocation at all, he found a way for the department to make a great impact and grow to include more than 20 evangelists. After a tragic embezzlement by the treasurer of the Home Mission Board, the Board was nearly bankrupted and had to shut down the evangelism department for a decade. In 1936 Roland Q. Leavell was asked to re-launch the department with only one staff member – himself! With little money and no assistance he laid the groundwork for the greatest period of fruitfulness in the history of the SBC. During that legendary period of 1945 to 1955, when we doubled in baptisms, the staff of the evangelism department never grew larger than 3 people, including a secretary. Money is important, even very important, but it is not the crucial issue reducing our fruitfulness. Having more money will not turn things around.

The gospel’s power is not the crucial issue. Our message has the same power to transform any human life today that it had in the first century of the church. The penitentiary in Angola, LA is the only maximum security prison in the state. With more than 5,000 prisoners, it houses the largest collection of violent people in the United States and has long been known as the bloodiest prison in America. More than 90 percent of the men have prison sentences, so long they will die and be buried in prison. Most would agree these men must be terrible prospects for salvation, much less for a call to the ministry.

Fifteen years ago we began a program of training for ministry in the Angola prison, teaching a small group of prisoners whom God had touched the same curriculum we teach in the Seminary’s Leavell College. The results have been stunning. We have about 150 graduates to date, and upon completion of their studies each man becomes a pastor in some part of the prison. Call it a cell church movement! Violence has dropped dramatically. The prison has become a different place, amazing people in the justice system all over the United States. The impact of these prison preachers has been so great they are now being sent out two by two into other prisons to teach there what they learned in Angola.

There is that ancient Hebrew expression again. Wow! The gospel of Jesus Christ is a message of incredible power still today!

What then is wrong? To this question, we turn in part 3 in the next article.

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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Dr. Kelley,

Thank you for writing this, Bro. It blessed me. I will be passing this on to people on my email list.

God bless you,

David Worley

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