What Do We Have to Do to Fix Things?

May 1, 2012

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

This is the fourth 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 part two, he examined our current state of evangelism. In the third part, he explained where we’ve gone wrong. And in this final installment, Dr. Kelley presents a way to fix the problem.

Part 4: What Do We Have to Do to Fix Things?

What I have come to realize is that also included in our evangelistic process was a very aggressive discipleship process. Here is a snapshot of some of the elements of the discipleship process that were found in the typical Southern Baptist church of any size and location.

  • A Sunday night program that included small group discipleship training for all ages of the church and an evening service.
  • Each January there was a four to six day Bible conference teaching one book of the Bible to all ages.
  • At least once and often more frequently there were special events called study courses to train every age group in some aspect of Baptist and church life.
  • In addition there was a weekly missions training program for young boys and girls, along with youth camp and children’s camp in the summer. Plus more.

Though often criticized for overemphasizing conversion, in reality the opposite is true.

In the era of our greatest evangelistic growth, typical SBC churches had more discipleship activities than evangelistic activities. Aggressive evangelism was matched by aggressive discipleship. We were disciplistic. That is another one of my words. By it I mean an evangelistic discipleship that continually seeks to incorporate both evangelism and discipleship at the same time.

When did this emphasis on aggressive discipleship began to fade? During the late sixties.

When did our evangelistic fruitfulness began to fade? During the seventies.

When our baptismal numbers started to weaken, we intensified our focus on evangelistic strategies and methods. Hear this from one who is an evangelist by calling. We should have paid more attention to our discipleship process. Apparently the biblical worldview that unconsciously inspired doing church like a farm in SBC life is like the baton for the USA Men’s relay team in the Beijing Olympics.

You are looking at a picture of some the fastest sprinters we have ever had, but all their speed and talent meant nothing, because the baton fell between them.

Earlier Southern Baptists did not devise an intentional plan as a Convention on how to do church evangelistically in order to reach people.

Our churches worked out an evangelistic discipleship that wove the process of sowing and reaping, reaching and teaching into ordinary process of church life. As time went by and the world changed, that biblical worldview inspiring evangelistic discipleship dropped between SBC generations.  When we did make an SBC plan for evangelism, we planned to improve the harvest component of our Baptist farm, not the integrated process. As time has gone by, we neither maintained nor reinvented the process that made us so fruitful in earlier days. Time had its impact. Now others may be running the race, but we are still trying to get a fresh grip on the baton of a discipl-istic worldview.

To put it another way, we put so much emphasis on how our way of doing church affected the lost, we failed to notice how it was affecting the saved. Changes and innovations have been added to make the church more welcoming to the lost and unchurched in many of our churches, but little has been done to improve the way we inspire evangelistic discipleship and make it more desirable to believers in most of our churches.

Upon reflection, the most significant and influential death in the modern history of the Southern Baptist Convention was the death of our discipleship process. I am talking about the death of a discipleship process, not a particular discipleship training program. The defining characteristic of Southern Baptists at our best was being discipl-istic, having a passionate evangelistic discipleship. But we refused to let go of one in order to pursue the other. When we loosened our grip on one to strengthen the other, we ultimately weakened both dramatically.

Today, we do not know who we are. The world does not know who we are. Our lost friends and neighbors do not know who we are. In the New Testament world believers lived differently than their neighbors. That is how they came to be called Christians, which was a term of derision, not respect. Our problem is not that more of us don’t witness to our neighbors. Our problem is that more of us do not look like and live like Jesus.

If we do not produce children, youth, and adults who live out a biblical worldview, no strategy for doing church will make us salt and light in the world. Southern Baptists are not losing our voice. We are losing the distinctiveness of our voice in today’s culture. We are blending in more than we are standing out.

Here is the most important lesson. Aggressive evangelism without aggressive discipleship will eventually undo itself. The most crucial issue in SBC evangelism today is reinventing a process to bring our children, youth, and adults to spiritual maturity in an evangelistic way.

We need discipl-istic churches! Baptist believers must be taught how to be the distinctive presence of Christ in the culture. We must be the salt our neighbors cannot fail to taste; the light the world around us cannot fail to see. As Jesus Himself noted in Matthew 5:13-14, salt that is not salty is not good for anything but throwing out. Light that is under a bushel is useless.

Is there more to SBC problems than this? Yes! But there is at least this. We are becoming the New Methodists. In 2 Chronicles 7:14-15 we read, “If my people who are called by my name humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” But don’t stop there.

Keep reading!

The Lord goes on to say, “But if you turn aside … Then I will pluck you up from my land … and this house that I have consecrated for my name, I will cast out of my sight ….”

The picture you are seeing is the Western Wall of the temple mount in Jerusalem, also called the wailing wall. The large stones at the base of the wall are all that is left of God’s temple during the time of Jesus. The crowds you see are there every day. Jews and pilgrims from all over the world come to see and weep over what was lost and pray that one day all will be restored.

Here is what we know stated as simply as I know how to state it.

In times past God has worked through our Southern Baptist churches in a mighty way. In times present God is not working in a mighty way through our churches. How are you going to respond to this? How am I going to respond to this? If we as a people do not repent now, only one question remains: To what wall will our children return to weep and remember the glory that was the SBC?

I leave you at this wall, for it is to this wall that God has brought me in my spirit as I prepared this presentation. Perhaps he intends to bring you to the wailing wall as well. May God have mercy on us all.