The recent report of the Pastors’ Task Force on Evangelistic Impact and Declining Baptisms will likely be a frequent discussion topic in the hall as the Southern Baptist Convention meets next week in Baltimore. The group was formed last year after 2012 data from SBC churches indicated a worse-than-average drop in the number of people our churches baptize. This is not a new discussion but one we’ve had with increasing gravity each year for decades. The problem is systemic and a reversal of this decline will touch everything we do in significant ways.
Liberal Christians and other outsiders have responded with a measure of satisfaction, as though the SBC’s bluff talk through the past 30 years has turned around to embarrass us. During the Conservative Resurgence of 1979-1995 our leaders pointed out that denominations that abandoned biblical authority were in free fall, maybe not losing members to us but losing members still. This is undeniable, but the intent of that warning was to draw our own people to embrace the truth of God’s Word, not to dance on the graves of other denominations. It is observable that groups with convictions are more appealing than groups without them. Our numbers now are said to be declining in the same way the numbers of liberal, mainline churches did for a generation. It’s not really an apples-to-apples comparison; our decline means to us that fewer disciples are being made among our churches, not just that our auditoriums are empty. And yes, that is a big deal.
But saying that our continued decline is a negative judgment of the Conservative Resurgence is to misunderstand the situation. A recent article by Molly Worthen, a history professor at the University of North Carolina, suggests that our rejection of “big tent” denominationalism ran off vast numbers of our people and actually accelerated the decline already underway. What was the primary goal of the resurgence? Our goal was not so much reversing downward trends as it was an emergency response to a critical situation. For decades, some of our employed SBC leaders, particularly those teaching our pastors and missionaries, were working at cross purposes with pastors and leaders who were trying to encourage world evangelism. Some of these professors did not agree even with the proposition that men and women are lost and hopeless outside of Christ. Rather than a strategy to increase evangelistic effectiveness, I’d say the resurgence was a desperate response to ensure that we would even exist as a fellowship of churches in the decades to come. After the last of six conservative SBC seminary presidents was inaugurated in 1995, we had a chance to once again focus on our cooperative work of world evangelism. Did our period of reformation distract us? Absolutely, it distracted and weakened us for a time in the same way war weakens a nation. But would doing nothing have been worse, more destructive? Absolutely, our denomination would be weaker, smaller and less concerned about the lostness of our nation and world. Neither would we be unified by years of phony peace. Look at the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship if you need a tiny snapshot. I’m saying the very fact that we are grieved about a lack of evangelistic fervor among our people rather than just about attendance or giving means that the resurgence gave the SBC more time than it would have otherwise had.
With due respect to the statisticians among us, today’s problems are today’s and they are sufficient. Whether we were facing a 30-year decline or a one-year decline, the spiritual torpor of our churches is observable. We are not, in my own community, reaching our neighbors for Christ. No one has come up with better priorities than the five proposed by the Pastors’ Task Force: Fervent and effective prayer for spiritual awakening, pastors who prioritize personal evangelism, churches focused on multiplying disciples, reaching the next generation, and a celebration of new life in Christ. No demographic or cultural trend will excuse us from the hard work and radical reformation suggested by these priorities. Are we desperate enough to undertake the work?
The Conservative Resurgence was the culmination of efforts throughout most of the 20th century to resist the skepticism toward the Scripture being modeled by our nation’s intellectual leaders. The effort was undertaken in the Southern Baptist Convention, but politely, in 1925 and in 1963. No one minded because few noticed; nothing changed. The resurgence was a grassroots effort in the 1980s that was impolite and irresistible because the situation had become unbearable to tens of thousands of Baptists willing to invest time and personal wealth in an effective response. People noticed and a lot of things changed for the better. Whether we are talking about fervent prayer for spiritual awakening or a priority on making disciples, it’s hard to imagine a true Great Commission resurgence rolling across our convention until pastors and lay leaders in thousands of our churches understand that the situation of our day is also unbearable.