I love Baptists. I was saved in a Baptist church and went to a Baptist college (for a year anyway.) I currently attend a Baptist church and have preached in tons of Baptist churches across the nation. And if there's one group that predominately attends our Dare 2 Share events it's Baptists, and many of them are Southern Baptists.
Baptists tend to have an appreciation for evangelism, sound theology and food (all of which I love too.) Potluck is from the Greek word which means…(just kidding!)
So I was very interested in the recent Christianity Today article entitled, "As Church Plants Grow, Southern Baptists Disappear." The articles begins with some sobering statistics, "There are now more Southern Baptist churches than ever before: 46,449 as of last year. And more than 200,000 extra spaces in the pews. As the nation’s largest Protestant group prepares to meet in Columbus next week, it reported its largest annual decline in more than 130 years—a loss of 236,467 members."
Leaders of the Southern Baptist denomination are planning a simulcast prayer gathering this Tuesday to reverse the trends. This is a great step and these type of prayer meetings need to continue. But I believe it is going to take an entire systemic change on a local church level for the Southern Baptists to begin to thrive again.
Unlike the Christianity Today article and Ed Stetzer's excellent research and eye-opening statistics my perspective comes purely as a dude who loves Southern Baptists and have been associated with them since my Freshman year at Liberty Baptist College, now Liberty University. (Sorry Virginia but I'm a Colorado kid at heart and made the switch to Colorado Christian University after my Freshman year.)
From my perspective here are the action steps that must be taken if the Southern Baptists are going to stop shrinking and start thriving again:
1. Intercessory prayer must fuel them.
Sadly most churches (not just Southern Baptists) I've attended spend more time in announcements on Sunday morning than intercessory prayer. Houston we have a problem. If intercessory prayer (praying for the salvation of the lost and spiritual growth and re-energization of the believers) can become the engine and not the caboose on the Southern Baptist train, especially on a local church level, this once powerful steam engine will gain momentum again and become unstoppable in the power of Christ!
2. Relational evangelism must drive them.
Everyday Baptists reaching neighbors, family, friends, co-workers, classmates and teammates with the Good News is necessary. I'm not talking about stapling the latest gospel tracts to people's foreheads. But I'm talking about making sure our people are equipped to share the good news of Jesus (aka "Gospel fluency") in a clear, complete and compelling way. When the proclamation of the Gospel moves primarily from "the professionals" (pastors, evangelists, youth leaders, etc) to "the people" (construction workers, nurses, soccer moms, etc) growth trends tend to move in the right direction.
On the other side of the equation those younger, hipper Southern Baptists who have downplayed evangelism altogether and exchanged it purely for social justice, community action and getting to know their neighbors (with no plan to reach out to them with the message of Jesus) have forfeited a huge opportunity for spiritual and numeric growth. Building those bridges to the community is powerful IF they are willing to cross them with the message of the Gospel.
3. Ministry leaders must model it for them.
Dear Southern Baptist pastor, if you want your people to pray then you must be the biggest prayer warrior. If you want your people to share their faith then you must share yours consistently! Because what beats in you will bleed from them. The same is true of your ministry leaders, youth leaders and small group/Sunday school leaders.
4. A disciple multiplication strategy must guide them.
It's not just about making converts but making disciples who make disciples. This is the way the church of Ephesus grew when Paul stopped using the Synagogue as his primary outreach to equipping the believers in Ephesus to make disciples who made disciples at The School of Tyrannus (Acts 19:8-10.) If you can make the same switch then Sunday morning becomes a training ground for weekday Gospel conversations.
5. A bold vision must focus them.
Like the early believers in Acts 1:8, Southern Baptists need a vision across the street ("Jerusalem and Judea"), across the tracks ("Samaria") and across the world ("ends of the earth"). Many Southern Baptist churches have pictures in the foyer of missionaries they support across the world but they must also have a bold vision for the lost people in their own cities and communities. We are all missionaries. Until this mentality changes and a city map is right next to their world map then the Southern Baptists will continue to decline (in my opinion.) This must also be accompanied by a huge focus on building multi-cultural churches that truly reflect the various races reflected in their communities. My buddy, Pastor Derwin Gray, has tons of solid, Biblical material on this subject that must be studied and applied in this crucial area.
6. Biblical outcomes must measure their progress.
It's not just attendance that Baptists should be measuring. It's NCG (New Conversion Growth.) In other words what percentage of those attending were reached for Christ by the efforts of that particular congregation? Another great measure is the number of baptisms (after all they're baptists!) a church has year over year. Two telling statistics from the Annual Church Profile (ACP) report from LifeWay Christian Resources is that Southern Baptists are at their lowest number of Baptisms since 1947 and more than half of them baptized NO millennials last year! In other words, not are they only failing to reach the lost, but they're stumbling when it comes to reaching young people for Christ. This is where the outcomes point to a denominations failure in both reach and relevance.
7. On-going programs must reflect their new priorities.
I would ask my Southern Baptist pastor friends a few questions, "Do you give the Gospel every week?" "Have you created space for relational evangelism stories on Sunday morning?" (This could be a three minute time slot where people share stories of those they're engaging on any level of a Gospel conversation!) "Have you actually trained your people how to share the good news?"
Our real priorities are programmed into our Sunday morning rundowns, weekly schedules and annual calendars. Have we created space in our regular programs for evangelism training, intercessory prayer and disciple multiplication? Or have we just exchanged all of this for just another Bible study?
I would encourage my Southern Baptists friends to go to Gospeladvancing.com, take the diagnostic and see how you measure up in these seven areas. These seven values came out of a massive research study Dare 2 Share commissioned a few years ago and reflect the values in the highest performing youth ministries we surveyed. Truly gospel advancing youth ministries embodied these seven values in powerful and practical ways. Although this website is youth ministry focused it will give any pastor a sense of how they are doing in these seven areas church-wide and offer some ideas of how you can begin to improve in these seven areas.
Pray with my for my Southern Baptist brothers and sisters in Christ. This decline can be reversed if they drop to their knees in prayer and then roll up their sleeves to get to work. I believe they can once again become the powerhouse force in the United States in advancing the Gospel forward across the street, across the tracks and across the world!