We have an evangelism crisis in today’s church. We’ve been hearing about it for years. We have seen the numbers. Baptisms are declining, a pattern that has been consistent in my denomination of Southern Baptists for more than a decade. Last year, Dr. Chuck Kelley, president of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, sounded the alarm with this article about The State of the SBC. At this year’s SBC annual meeting in Dallas, messengers heard reports from two separate task forces. One on evangelism and the other on discipleship. It seems that everyone recognizes the crisis. Most of us are talking about it. The question is what will we do about it!
Getting Behind the Numbers
As Dr. Kelley’s article indicated, the precipitous decline in baptisms started in 2000 and shows no signs of letting up any time soon. While baptisms have decreased, our convention has reported a net increase in total churches.
The key to understanding the seemingly contradictory trend of rising numbers of churches and declining baptisms is to realize that we are talking about a net increase in total churches. We are adding new churches every year. We also have approximately 900 churches every year that close their doors and many, many more who are dying. Most of our dying churches are not evangelistically effective churches.
There is an old Sunday School growth principle that states new units produce more evangelistic growth than old units. It seems the principle may be transferable to new churches as well. The church plants I know about are intentionally evangelistic, and their members tend to have many meaningful relationships with people who are unchurched. Simply put, they are practicing evangelism.
Leading up to the SBC annual meeting, North American Mission Board President, Kevin Ezell posted a couple of tweets that highlighted the relationship between new church plants and baptisms:
“Thank you PASTORS for investing in church planting in Canada. In 2017, 71% of the baptisms in Canada were from churches planted since 2010. Grateful for all God is doing” (June 5, 2018).
“57% of the baptisms in Minnesota-Wisconsin are from churches planted since 2010” (June 5, 2018).
The problem lies in those churches that are not practicing evangelism. I am sure the list would include some of our church plants as well as many of our established churches. I am most concerned with those churches who have replaced evangelism with institutional survival. This includes the churches that will close their doors in the coming year, and those who are dying. Dying churches are usually not practicing evangelism.
There is Good News
There is good news. Jesus brings life to dead people, and he brings life to dying churches. But we have got to be willing to change. Here are some areas where we can start:
- We must commit to making disciples who make disciples who make disciples. You can’t really have evangelism without discipleship. Neither can you have discipleship without evangelism. The Great Commission requires both reaching and teaching. Jesus said, “Follow me and I will make you become fishers of men” (Mark 1:17). Any understanding of discipleship that does not result in evangelism is inadequate.
- We must become more relevant in our evangelistic efforts. My own call to ministry came through the evangelism training program of my local church. We used a confrontational approach that assumed lost people had some basic understanding of Christian principles. For instance, we asked this question, “If you were to die tonight, do you know that you would go to heaven?” That question assumed the person believed in heaven or had even heard of heaven. In an increasingly post-Christian culture, we can not make that assumption. In his book Turning Everyday Conversations Into Gospel Conversations, Jimmy Scroggins suggests that everyone has experienced some level of brokenness and that brokenness should be our point of connection in sharing the gospel. Being relevant means that we answer the questions people are actually asking.
- We must become more intentional in our evangelistic efforts. I am not suggesting that we go back to a Tuesday night visitation, although that may work in some contexts. But I am suggesting that we equip and encourage our people to practice evangelism. That we provide opportunities for our members to practice evangelism. And that we celebrate evangelistic faithfulness. The goal is to create an evangelistic culture so that evangelism is not just something that we do. It is who we are.
There is hope for dying churches, and there is an answer to the evangelistic crisis facing our churches. Let’s keep starting new churches that are passionate about Jesus, and let’s bring about a massive wave of revitalization in established churches that are dying. Jesus brings life to dying churches that join him in the work of redemption.