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.

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Bob Hadley

Dr. Kelley,

Your statement, “We were disciplistic” could not have been better put. I believe you are right on target with what has happened in the SBC in the last 30 years. We have taken our eyes off the thrust of the Great Commission and it has effected every ounce of our being. Your statement simply proves God’s Word is still alive and well; it is as true today as the day it was written and Jesus final admonition to us is as valid today as the day He gave us the great Commission. Discipleship is the heartbeat of the church and evangelism.

Wow; so simple yet so profound. Thank you.


Wes Taylor

The basic truth of this article seems so obvious that it shouldn’t even need to be stated – but there is a great need. While I am MUCH too young to have been a part of the great depression era, there is a phrase I have heard from many of those who were from that era that I think can be applied here. The phrase goes, “If you watch the pennies, the dollars take care of themselves.” If we put more emphasis on being what Jesus has called us to be, we will inherently do the things necessary to fulfill the Great Commission. We cannot possibly do what we do not know. Discipleship is paramount!!

Mike Davis

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.

I think that statement makes an excellent point. Many churches simply tried to retool the gospel message to appeal to the world and stopped talking about repentance and the need to follow Christ. Many turned their services into theatrical performances and ended up with a watered-down message that did not impress the lost and did not disciple the believers. A return to discipleship will develop mature saints who are evangelistically fruitful.


Dr. Kelley,

Your series has clearly shown how far we have drifted in SBC ranks. I was heart-broken as I reflected on your Part 4 “snapshot of some of the elements of the discipleship process that were found in the typical Southern Baptist church of any size and location.” I remember well when our churches were fueled by this discipleship process – we were healthy in those days. We have certainly surrendered ground in belief and practice that propelled our denomination forward for the cause of Christ.

I came to faith in Christ in the 1950s through personal evangelism and decisional preaching by a Southern Baptist church in my hometown. Sowing and reaping, reaching and teaching flowed naturally through SBC in those days. While some of the younger folks in SBC may refer to this as nostalgia – a time we can never return to …. I consider “disciplistic” to be the ancient path we must return to!

I would add one additional element to the snapshot you offered re: how we used to “do church”. Congregational prayer meetings have largely been abandoned. You are right to quote 2 Chronicles 7:14-15. An ancient promise to His church in every generation, this passage is God’s trumpet blast to SBC today. These are desperate times and we don’t pray as we ought. I would add verse 13 to the recommended reading – God has a way of getting our attention to humble ourselves, pray, repent and seek His face. “IF” my people … “THEN” will I.

David Clegg

“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.”

The more that we changed to make church attractive for the lost (seeker friendly), the fewer lost we attracted. Hmmm…. Good food for thought!

Tim Posey

Dr. Kelly,
I agree with everything that you have said, but as an Evangelist I would have hoped you would have touched on the current march to starve the Evangelist from the SBC. I know that you know how many of our Brothers and friends in full time Evangelism that have been starved out by pastors and churches who will no longer consider using them. Some of our Evangelist friends have taken other jobs, some are working as pastors, some in denominational offices,and some like myself have moved to other countries but very few still left in the fulltime position to which they were called by God. This all may be a result of the move to being the new Methodists but it needs to be said, churches and pastors and Southern Baptists everywhere need to be awakened to the current state of affairs that seeks to destroy this great work that God had started but that satan continues to destroy. Something must change!


    Tim – I, too, grieve over the diminished role of the itinerant evangelist in SBC life. Annual/semi-annual revivals led by these gifted individuals were historical key elements in the overall “disciplistic” process of the local church. NAMB’s recent decision to de-fund SBC’s Conference of Southern Baptist Evangelists and church de-emphasis on engaging vocational evangelists in American communities are additional indications of how far afield we are.

Larry Richmond

Dr. Kelley, you have nailed the chief issue of the churches in the Southern Baptist Convention. All other issues in our convention are symptons of the lack of a discipleship process that has led us to be a spiritually deficient people.
1. We, even church leadership, are spiritually shallow. Many sitting in the pews are more in love with the way we do church than being in love with Jesus.
2. I have come to the conclusion that we need to hold each other accountable to living out the new life that that Jesus gave us. Just teaching about it in Sunday School and preaching about it in worship has shown that embracing the disciple’s life is not an automatic process. It really does involve death to self, total submission to the Lord.
3. A final thought is related to how we make decisions in the local church. My observation is that churches do not make decisions based on the Lordship of Christ. Decisions are made based on man’s wisdom which translates to the best idea that can surface in a commitee or business meeting. We just don’t ask God’s opinion on much of anything.
4. Thank you, Dr. Kelley, for identifying the issue and helping us understand the need for a new direction for spiritual health within our churches.

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