Intentional evangelism has always been a defining characteristic of Southern Baptist mission—and rightly so, because evangelism is the primary tool by which we fulfill the Great Commission.
Everything else Southern Baptists do is ultimately in support of evangelistic disciple-making. The criteria upon which our churches should measure their success is by how many Christians are actively winning souls and training them to win the multitudes. Apart from that, all the money we raise, buildings we build, ministries we organize, sermons we preach, and songs we write don’t move the mission forward. Without this one thing, we fail.
Many today, most notably our current President Steve Gaines, have raised the question of whether we are losing our laser-like focus on evangelism, as indicated by several recent developments:
First, we’ve seen a precipitous decline in baptisms and membership. This decline is particularly troubling, as Alan Cross points out, considering that most Southern Baptist churches are located in the Southeast, where the overall population is growing the quickest. Our surrounding communities are growing by leaps and bounds, while our churches are—for the most part—shrinking.
Second, many churches in our Convention seem to lack a clear evangelism strategy. In the church where I grew up, Wednesday-afternoon soul-winning was your first act of sanctification! Not kidding. I got saved on a Friday and went on my first soul-winning cold-call that next Wednesday. For various reasons, most churches have gone away from that. But what has replaced it? Door-to-door evangelism was where I learned to share the gospel. Are “ordinary” Southern Baptists equipped to share the gospel? Do they believe it is their responsibility? Are they actually doing it?
Third, our focus on evangelism seems often to have been supplanted, or at least downplayed, in light of other good missional initiatives. For instance, church planting is good—and should, in fact, enhance our evangelistic efforts. But what kind of churches are we planting? Are we sending out church planters who know how to set up events to attract bored Christians from other churches, or are we sending out proven soul-winners who are starting churches from people they win to Christ?
Fourth, many of today’s preaching heroes, who often talk eloquently and brilliantly about the gospel, put little emphasis on harvesting. Questions, both valid and invalid, have been raised concerning certain evangelism practices, such as “come-forward” invitations, and it is rare to see newer churches employing these practices any longer. But again, what has replaced it? Have questions about the helpfulness of certain strategies resulted in a wholesale neglect of the need to call for a response of repentance and faith when preaching the gospel? Can we say we have preached the gospel if we don’t invite sinners to repent and receive Christ?
Just about everybody in the SBC agrees that we need to get good at making disciples again. The question of the hour is, “How?”
How Can Southern Baptists Make Disciples Again?
1. We need a spiritual awakening that leads to action.
Historically, revivals have not begun with lost people getting saved but with the church getting “re-converted” to the gospel, which then leads to massive evangelism. Revival is an intensification of the normal operations of the Holy Spirit. Until the Spirit comes, all else is lost.
Our reforms are not limited to spiritual ones (i.e., pray more, care about the lost more), but they certainly must begin there. Quite simply, many of us no longer feel the urgency of the gospel message. We do not long, like Paul did, for our countrymen to be saved, to the point that we’d be willing to go to hell ourselves if it meant they would come to Christ (Romans 9:1-3). We have grown complacent in our size, our budgets, and our secure retirement plans and no longer burn with the same evangelistic zeal that we once did when we had none of those things. A recent study revealed that nearly 90 percent of active, church-going evangelicals have never even shared their faith with someone outside of their family. Only 20 percent of churches in the U.S. are growing, and only 1 percent are growing by reaching lost people.
Our goal should be that we make it as hard as possible to go to hell from our communities. Has everyone in your community heard a compelling presentation of the gospel and been given a chance to respond? I think often of the words of Charles Spurgeon, who said,
“If sinners will be damned, at least let them leap to Hell over our bodies. And if they will perish, let them perish with our arms about their knees, imploring them to stay. If Hell must be filled, at least let it be filled in the teeth of our exertions, and let not one go there unwarned and unprayed for.”
2. This has to start with us pastors.
As a pastor, I have found it is all too easy to live as a “professional Christian” who urges others to bring people to faith in Christ while not doing it myself. An old pastor of mine used to point out that the first thing to get cold on your body is your feet. The same is true in the Christian life. It takes focus and prayer to keep them engaged in the mission.
But if we’re going to move the evangelism needle in our churches, we’ve got to be modeling what we’re preaching. As the old saying goes, evangelism is caught as much as it is taught, and people can only catch what we’re doing if they see us doing it. That’s how I learned to share the gospel—not by reading about it but by going out with other leaders in the church and doing it with them.
To move the evangelism needle in our churches, we’ve got to model what we preach. Evangelism is caught as much as it is taught.
I have been inspired watching our college ministry at the Summit, because they model this extremely well. In fact, when I asked one of our college pastors for his “system,” I was surprised at the simplicity of his response. He emailed me a scanned list of Bible verse references he had typed out by hand on a word processor from the 1980s. (If you want it, here it is!) He explained that he simply gives this list to the person he’s trying to bring to faith. He asks them to read the verses and write out what they think each verse means and what God might be saying to them through it. He then meets with them the next week to discuss their answers. After that, he said, he asks them if they want to read a book of the Bible together and do the same thing.
That was it. No secret sauce, no electrifying jolt of disciple-making genius. Yet it seemed like just about every time we did a baptism, that pastor had somebody represented in the lineup—either directly from him or through someone he’s led to Christ who is now bringing someone else to Christ. I’m pretty sure he is at least a spiritual great-great-great-grandfather.
3. We’ve got to celebrate the right things.
The proverbial wisdom is true: You replicate what you celebrate. That means if what we mainly celebrate are buildings and budgets, then that’s everyone will aspire to as the marks of success. That’s why, at the Summit, we’re always celebrating stories of our people bringing others to Christ. Whenever we baptize someone, we try to include in the baptismal pool the person who brought that new believer to faith.
Of course, we should celebrate growing attendance, new church plants, mission gifts. and mission trips, because those are important, too. But if these things are not producing new disciples, what good are they? Shuffling bored Christians around isn’t what Jesus had in mind when he issued the Great Commission.
4. We’ve got to create a yearning for evangelism in the hearts of our people.
The French poet Antoine de Saint-Exupéry once said, “If you want to convince men to build ships, don’t pass out shipbuilding manuals. Don’t organize them into labor groups and hand out wood. Teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.” And I’m pretty sure that exhausts my knowledge of French poetry.
When a man yearns for the sea, his lack of know-how will not hold him back for long. He’ll figure out the skills. Our problem is not that we haven’t found the right program that enables us to reach the world. Our problem is that we don’t yearn to see lost people saved and God’s glory spread over the earth bad enough to build whatever ships are required to reach people for Christ.
Our church has undergone tremendous changes over the last decade, changes that have enabled us to baptize several thousand people in the last few years. Our congregation’s willingness to change, painful as it was, was birthed in their love of seeing lost people come to Christ. I saw this happen when we baptized a young man named Antwain. Antwain was the first black man we had ever baptized at the Summit, and his story was incredible. He had endured a difficult past, to put it mildly. After several months of Bible study and friendship with him, the light of grace finally broke through, and I had the privilege of getting down on my knees with him as he received Christ.
He stood in our baptistry one day and gave the clearest testimony to Christ I’d ever heard. After the service, an older gentleman in our church came up to me and said, “Son, you know I don’t like a lot of these changes that you are making in our church.” Then he got choked up and said, “But if that right there is what we’re getting, you can count me in for every single one.” Even with all the changes we’ve made at the Summit, we’ve never had a congregational vote of affirmation below 90 percent approval. That’s because the power to change is birthed in a love for the lost.
5. We’ve got to do whatever it takes to reach the lost.
What grows the church in any age does not change: belief in the gospel, commitment to the authority of Scripture, deep commitment to prayer, and a willingness to do whatever it takes to win the lost. Jesus summarized his ministry as “seeking and saving the lost” (Luke 19:10). We should summarize ours the same.
One of my favorite memories from seminary was when my theology professor, Dr. Paige Patterson, came to that verse (Luke 19:10) and looked out at all of us and said,
“Do you know why we pursued the conservative resurgence? Do you know why we fought for the inerrancy of Scripture and against the mission creep of our seminaries? It was about seeking and saving the lost. Nothing else is worth your energies. Everything you do in ministry should be evaluated through the lens of, ‘Does this help us better seek and save the lost?’”
There are still more than 6,000 unreached people groups in the world, and history cannot end until they have been given a gospel witness. God has been incredibly gracious to our Convention. Why would the Holy Spirit have done that if it were not to give us an unprecedented effectiveness among our neighbors, in our nation, and around the world? God does what he does not to preserve institutions but for the sake of the Great Commission. We must still ask, in all that we do, “Does this help us better seek and save the lost?”
Jesus summarized his ministry as “seeking and saving the lost.” We should summarize ours the same.
Who’s Your One?
In 1954, the SBC set a goal of getting 1 million people in Sunday School. They called it the “Million More in ’54” campaign. It was a crazy big goal, and even though they didn’t reach 1 million, they were able to get 600,000 people involved—way more than were previously going. Many of those people trusted Christ for the first time. That’s what happens when you paint a vision of the possible: People take ownership for it, and the Spirit starts to move in fresh ways.
Recently, at The Summit Church, we tried something similar. We asked each member of our congregation to identify one person they could pray for and seek to bring to Christ over the year. The phrase we kept repeating was, “Who’s your one?” It’s not an elaborate or complicated idea, but this simple idea led to our most evangelistically effective year to date. Because of this intentional push toward evangelism, we ended up baptizing 700 people last year. What an incredible joy it was to have people come up to me at church and say, “Pastor, this is my one.” Or to see them stand in the baptistry with someone and tell me later, “That was her! She was my one!”
On any given weekend, there are more than 5 million Southern Baptists gathering to worship around the country. Can you imagine the impact we would make if every one of them asked God to let him or her lead one person to Christ next year?