THE “NEW METHODISTS,” Part 3:
What Has Gone Wrong?
Dr. Chuck Kelley is President and Professor of Evangelism at the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary
This is the third 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 this third part, he explains where we’ve gone wrong. And in the final installment, Dr. Kelley will present a way to fix the problem.
Part 3: What Has Gone Wrong?
Discipleship is the crucial issue. The spiritual state of the farmer (our churches and leadership), not the abundance of the harvest is the root of problems in SBC evangelism. At the end of the day, this is the hard truth staring at me. The best question then, is: What is wrong with us?
First, We are not anointed. The conversion of a soul to Christ is the work of the Holy Spirit. The stirring of a church and community in revival and awakening is a work of the Holy Spirit. Neither of these works of the Spirit are typical in SBC churches today. We are not anointed – that “we” would be you, me and all of us at work in places with little evidence of the activity of the Holy Spirit. We are so not anointed we have come to accept not being anointed as normal.
Second, we have been “atom”ized. Scientists tell us that what looks like a solid wood pulpit is actually a composition of small particles called atoms. Those atoms are actually composed of even smaller particles, which are composed of even smaller particles. Thinking about atomic particles can make one forget that whatever its composition, this pulpit does function as a single large and rather solid-feeling piece of wood. At the end of the day it is a pulpit, after all.
Many have become so focused on discovering a method that works; they fail to realize an integrated process is far more important than any one method that is a part of that process. You cannot separate sowing and reaping. One is never more important than the other. To focus on particular methods rather than an integrated process is a dead end.
More importantly, Southern Baptists are becoming the new Methodists.
I love Methodists! They played a key role in the First and Second Great Awakenings. Their concept of a circuit riding preacher was a brilliant strategy for the circumstances of the day. With it they were able to multiply church starts faster than they multiplied church pastors, enabling them to evangelize the American Frontier in the 19th and early 20th centuries. They made holy living a core value and were called Methodists because they went about it so systematically and methodically.
Much of what Southern Baptists know about evangelistic harvesting we learned from Methodists. Many have observed Methodists and Baptists and noticed their kinship. I love what a Presbyterian minister in the movie “A River Runs Through It” would tell his sons about Methodists: “Methodists are just Baptists who can read.”
The Methodists of today, however, have changed much through the years. Their efforts in evangelism and missions have greatly diminished. The passion for holy living has been replaced by behavior blending with the culture. One of their greatest theological fights is over the normalcy of homosexuality. Most surprising, they have set new records for the fastest loss of membership in the history of the church in America. Having observed these changes in Methodism, I find myself admitting today that we are following in their footsteps. Southern Baptists are the New Methodists.
In what ways are we similar?
Universalism is settling into our pews as more and more Southern Baptists believe and behave as though they believe a personal relationship with Christ is not necessary for one to be right with God.
Tolerance is beginning to overtake conviction as growing numbers, particularly of younger Southern Baptists, are less comfortable with taking a firm stance on moral or doctrinal issues.
More importantly, our behavior, the way we live our lives, is blending more and more with our culture. We are growing ever less distinct and recognizable in the crowd of our nation’s population.
It is becoming as easy to get drunk at a Baptist wedding as any other kind of wedding. We go to the same movies, watch the same TV shows, and get comfortable using the same coarse language our neighbors use. It is as likely for a Baptist kid to choose a school or community soccer tournament over church as any other kid in the neighborhood.
It is not a coincidence that we are also moving from growth to plateau to decline in the membership of our churches. Since 1983 I have been saying seventy percent of our churches are plateaued or declining. If we apply the traditional measurement of growth to the 2007 SBC church statistics, the number of growing churches is about the same as it has been for a long time, the number of plateaued churches is smaller, and the number of declining churches is larger.
If we add minimal evangelistic standards to the way we measure church growth, the shift is even more dramatic. The most recent study of SBC churches . . . recording a ten percent or more increase of membership over a five year period indicates 30.3 percent of our churches are growing. If we add the requirement of at least one baptism in the first and fifth year of the study to those 30.3 percent of growing churches, only 23.5 percent would still qualify as growing. If we add an additional requirement for growing churches to have a ratio of at least one baptism per 35 members, the percentage of growing churches drops to only 11.9 percent. By comparison, from 1945 to 1955 the ratio of baptisms per member for the whole SBC was in the twenties.
To summarize, using minimal evangelistic standards instead of membership growth alone reveals only 11.9 percent of SBC churches are growing today. To quote a different ancient Hebrew expression: Uh Oh!
What can we do to address this reproach? We will look at this in the last installment, part 4.
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.