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Faced with declining numbers, Southern Baptists focus on evangelism

During worship at Harvest America on June 11, 2017, at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., thousands of attendees heard the gospel message by California Pastor Greg Laurie of Harvest Christian Fellowship in Riverside, Calif. Photo courtesy of Baptist Press/Adam Covington

Steve Gaines, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, speaks at the Pastors’ Conference at the Phoenix Convention Center on June 12, 2017, in Phoenix. Photo courtesy of Baptist Press/Matt Miller

PHOENIX (RNS) Faced with continuing declines in membership and baptisms, Southern Baptist Convention President Steve Gaines implored delegates to the denomination’s yearly meeting to turn to God and put their emphasis on evangelism.

“I want to encourage you to be a soul-winner. I want to encourage you to be evangelistic,” said Gaines, who plans to appoint a task force for more effective personal evangelism.

Gaines, a Memphis, Tenn., pastor who easily won re-election Tuesday (June 13) as president of the Southern Baptist Convention, said he would emphasize spreading the gospel in his second one-year term.

The SBC, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, with 15.2 million members, has lost members for 10 years in a row and has baptized fewer people nine out of the last 10 years.

Roughly 38,000 people filled the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., on June 11, 2017, for Harvest America, an evangelistic crusade led by Greg Laurie, pastor of Harvest Christian Fellowship in Riverside, Calif. Photo courtesy of Baptist Press/Adam Covington

About 4,892 delegates, called messengers, are attending the meeting at the Phoenix Convention Center. All but one of the last 10 annual gatherings have had fewer than 10,000 messengers. That’s compared with attendance that peaked at 45,000 in the 1980s, when the denomination was immersed in deep theological battles that ended in what many call a “conservative resurgence.”

The regular meeting is usually preceded by an evangelistic “Crossover” event and this year it included a Harvest America Crusade at a University of Phoenix stadium featuring Greg Laurie, an evangelist who announced Monday that his church has joined the Southern Baptist Convention but will continue its association with the Calvary Chapel church network.

Southern Baptist leaders said they were praying more than 5,000 people would convert during the campaign. Officials announced Tuesday that 3,549 people had made professions of faith during the Crossover events. Crusade officials said a similar number of additional people made commitments during events that hosted simulcasts of the event.

Greg Laurie, pastor of Harvest Christian Fellowship in Riverside, Calif., shares the gospel with an audience of 38,000 at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., on June 11, 2017, for Harvest America. Photo courtesy of Baptist Press/Adam Covington

Some experts say mass evangelism – stadium events such as those once led by evangelist Billy Graham – are not as popular as they once were.

“People still are converted and they still have this strong spiritual emphasis but the culture has changed so that that message attracts the attention of fewer and fewer people,” said Bill Leonard, professor of church history and Baptist studies at Wake Forest University School of Divinity.

At a pastors’ conference held during the two days before the annual meeting, speakers talked about “encouraging intentional gospel conversations,” one-on-one with people who might not go to church.

Some are convinced long-standing methods can still work, perhaps with a new twist of technology.

J.T. Roberts, student pastor at Laveen Baptist Church in Laveen, Ariz., attended the 2017 meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention in Phoenix with his son, Samuel, on June 13, 2017. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

J.T. Roberts, 27, a student pastor at Laveen Baptist Church in Laveen, Ariz., worked with his church on 1,000 door-to-door visits in its neighborhood, and “15 people come to know Jesus as savior.” His church carried a simulcast of the Harvest America Crusade and three people who attended committed or recommitted their lives to Jesus.

“God still works — whatever method, whatever means of getting the gospel out there,” he said. “But I see the old ways are still working. God is still building his church.”

About the author

Adelle M. Banks

Adelle M. Banks, production editor and a national reporter, joined RNS in 1995. An award-winning journalist, she previously was the religion reporter at the Orlando Sentinel and a reporter at The Providence Journal and newspapers in the upstate New York communities of Syracuse and Binghamton.

32 Comments

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  • If the product isn’t selling, then sell harder.

    Declining numbers. Does that mean that Jesus doesn’t approve? Wouldn’t god want to make sure the On True church does really well?

    If the product isn’t selling, then sell harder.

    1000 door-to-door visits produced a whopping 15 people. That’s an Astounding success rate of 1.5%, assuming one person lives in one house. And no one has second thoughts or dies.

    If the product isn’t selling, then sell harder.

    God still works.

  • Stetzer, as executive director of the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism at Wheaton College noted that while evangelicals know how to appeal to nominal Christians — those who still identify as Christians but don’t practice — they do not have the same success relating to the ‘nones’,.

  • These are the marching orders to the Church that Jesus gives us:
    Matthew 28:18 Then Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all things I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Amen.

    Mark 16:15 He said to them, “Go into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. 16 He who believes and is baptized will be saved. But he who does not believe will be condemned.

    Luke 24:46 He said to them, “Thus it is written, and accordingly it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day, 47 and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things.

    John 20:21 So Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As My Father has sent Me, even so I send you.”

    I Cor. 15:3 For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: how Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 was buried, rose again the third day according to the Scriptures,

  • Ministering to the “nones” is difficult to be sure. But the way forward in my opinion is to befriend them and make the Gospel the issue. What I mean by that is be honest and let the “none” know what you’re about. Don’t be shy about it, but don’t browbeat anyone either. And Christians have to walk their talk. As well, Christians are to “Always be ready to give an answer to every man who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you, with gentleness and fear.” (I Pet. 3:15) And if you can get people into the word of God, the Holy Spirit will do His work.

  • If they’re really serious they can follow Jesus’s call to go, in pairs, house to house and preach the gospel. It has worked for Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons. The question is do they love their god and neighbor enough? It’s hard work. Are you willing to do it?

  • That is not a bad success rate. In my brief career knocking on countless doors I never converted anyone. I did irritate a lot of people on Saturday morning and got guns pulled on me many times.

  • If a doctor claimed that his success rate was an astounding 1.5%, what would we call 98.5% of his patients?

    Dead.

    The last time the JW’s came by my house, they had an 8 year old boy with them, just full of the spirit. He asked me “do you know who is the king of the Universe?” I asked him, “do you?” He replied, “it’s Jesus!” I asked, “how do you know that?” He held up his bible and said, “It says so here.”

    “Did you read all of that book, all by yourself?” “No.”

    “Then you are simply repeating what someone told you. Come back when you can discuss this with me like a grown up.” The three adults just shepherded him off, and I haven’t seen another one in 15 years, though I occasionally see them in the greater neighborhood.

    Someone must have splashed a little sheeps blood on the lintel and the two sideposts of my door, because they have spared me and passed on.

  • They do go door to door sometimes. But d to d (what we called cold turkey evangelism in college) is not a very effective method any more. I’m better at what is called friendship evangelism – presenting the claims of Christ within the context of a relationship. But the goal is not just friendship. Nor is the goal evangelism. Nor is the goal church membership. The goal is to win the individual to Christ and nurture him/her to be a disciple. That is labor intensive – like raising children. (Read all of Pauls epistles through this lens. They make more sense.) So I’d say the SB’s focus should be on discipleship rather than on evangelism. One thing SB’s do better than anyone – bar none – pot lucks. Incredible! In fact as a group they are more obese than any other church. Methodists come in second. There is an old joke about this: how can you tell who the SB’s are in heaven – they are the folks with the covered dish.

  • Normally SB’s are unarmed when they do d-d evangelism. So a simple “get lost” will be sufficient.

  • So they refuse to disavow neo nazis because they are afraid they will leave the church as well.

  • And the worst thing about SB’s is they strap bombs on their children and blow up mosques, synagogues, and Methodist churches. And then celebrate with a pot luck. They are so evil.

  • I don’t know — even the JW’s and LDS aren’t knocking on doors much any more…I don’t live far from a Mormon missionary base house — they are becoming more subtle…Hanging out at places where families are — parks, playgrounds, etc. and trying spark a conversation to become friendly, or same at work where Mormons will try to buy you lunch and talk…Women LDS too, which is something new…guess you don’t want creepy guys around playgrounds…

    Haven’t seen any Baptists or JW’s evangelizing where we live in ages…I think the knocking on doors days are over…that’s is simply a tough sell, especially for Baptists, JW’s and Mormons, selling a “root-canal” religion…who is going to sign up for that at the front door?

  • No way..take that with a grain of salt…does that include people who don’t answer or nobody home? I suspect 1.5% success is way too high if they are random homes…maybe they are knocking on doors of people they already know go to some other church.

  • I have noticed that too. When I knocked in doors in the 70s it was a time when we still had door-to-door salespeople (Avon, Amway, etc.) I guess that is no longer socially acceptable.

  • so, we evangelize to save the denomination? ummm… even though we won’t say that, that does seem to be the primary underlying motive in far too many cases with the decline of denominations… the primary reason we evangelize isn’t even because we don’t want these poor souls to suffer hell… when we truly understand that the primary reason is because Jesus is worthy of His due reward… honor, glory, wisdom, wealth, strength and power and praise AND the souls of people… this is the due reward of the Lamb’s suffering and sacrifice… because His inheritance is the nations… we will see breakthrough.. it’s not about having more or better SB or reformed or Presbyterians or whatever denomination… it’s about more and better followers of Jesus Christ… of course we will all say, yes, that’s the primary reason, but practically speaking it seems we share the gospel more to save our little camp of the Kingdom…

    maybe, just maybe, God is phasing out denominations for a healthier, more beautiful, more unified, more mature expression of His Bride becomes reality… after all, He does not address the church of Calvin or the church of Menno, or the Church of Smith or the Church of John the Baptist, etc… He addresses the Kingdom Church of a community… ie the Church of Corinth, the Church of Thessalonica, the Church of Ephesus, the Church of Galatia, etc. hmmm.. maybe we need to re-think how we express the Kingdom Church instead of trying to perpetuate something like denominations that I think scripture is pretty clear about saying that is not how the Church is meant to operate (I Cor 3:3-9)… I believe He has allowed it for a season, but it’s time to grow and mature beyond denoms…

    I believe denoms will be phased out in the next 50 years if He doesn’t return before that…

  • Well is God going to come and tell us all right now to phase out denominations? So nobody wastes all that time and $$ on denoms before he returns. And tell all the non-Christians too?

    I know that the SBC, Catholics, LDS, Muslims and others really think their respective theology is the correct teachings…God is going to come any minute now…to tell everyone which is correct or none are right…the time and money could be used for better things. Right?

  • maybe He has already told us and even now is telling us in various ways, but we are not listening or we are resisting for various reasons… He did create us with a free will to choose how we respond to His leading – with obedience or resistance… it seems the Church has become more about the institution/structure than Jesus and His followers… and leaders will be held accountable for that erroneous emphasis…

    I don’t expect it to be an overnight transition… but I could be wrong…

  • You don’t proclaim the gospel to boost your numbers. You proclaim the gospel because we are commanded to. Any result you get is up to God.

    Have you bothered to see if people are going to other churches because yours has lost it’s way?

  • Im so glad I met Jesus in 1974 at an early Jesus movement Church where Lonnie Frisbee taught. I learned the difference between knowing Him and following Him and not following man or religion. His sheep hear His voice and a strangers voice they will not follow. Folks this should come as no surprise to you that all around religious men and their institutions are crumbling. We have received a Kingdom that cannot be shaken. People are not hungry for religion….they want the living water and the bread of life. The day of the one man show and mega churches is ending. ” For the time is come that judgment must begin at the house of God: and if it first begin at us, what shall the end be of them that obey not the gospel of God?” 1 Peter 4:17

  • I wouldn’t say that. Many great theological minds have come from the SBC not to mention tireless preachers, missionaries, and workers for Christ.

  • I think Einstein said something about this; Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

    But well, keep on trucking!

  • “If a doctor claimed that his success rate was an astounding 1.5%, what would we call 98.5% of his patients?”
    Perhaps the dumbest comparison I’ve ever read. put into perspective, professional cold callers average a 1%-3% success for setting up a appointments. Selling actual products. He’s selling Jesus, unannounced: pretty god damn impressive to me. Cause cold calling isn’t the same as being a doctor.

  • “They are selling Jesus.” You said it, not me. But it seems that the sales pitch for something that claims to be the Absolute Truth, that will cure all your ills needs improving.

    On the other hand, since they are selling a nonexistent cure for a nonexistent disease, maybe the doctor is simply selling some snake oil.

  • You’re missing the point: if they are selling something that’s non-existent, and they Currently have 1.8 billion sold… how are they doing it? How do you harness that level of success? Literally the only group larger than chriatian is probably ” people who like sports”. How did they do it?

    1.5% rate of return x 1.8 billion followers.

  • Why people are not worshiping with southern baptist, Southern Baptist cant say they love or even know Jesus most of them hate everyone not southern. The southern baptist i know and i no tons they hate blacks, yankees, gays and jews which is so moronic, I guess their sins a
    are just little WHITE SINS,. God’s people i think not. Hillbilly country club.OH YEAH. I would bet that any southern baptist that reads this is thinking of killing me yet all the while knowing i am telling the TRUTH!!! MAYBE just remove the word southern????

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