Study: ‘Conservative resurgence’ failed in evangelism
Church growth expert projects ‘much worse’ results without change
By James A. Smith Sr.
Executive Editor, Florida Baptist Witness
April 19, 2005
Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series on the conservative resurgence failed evangelistic efforts.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (FBW) – Southern Baptist evangelism statistics are grim, but they could be far worse.
That’s the finding of a major new study by a leading church growth expert who argues empirical evidence demonstrates the Southern Baptist Convention is in “evangelistic crisis” despite the “conservative resurgence,” whose leaders cited greater soul-winning results as a key priority in their desired reform of the nation’s largest non-Catholic denomination.
While other studies previously demonstrated the SBC has suffered with sluggish evangelism results for the last half century, the analysis by Thom S. Rainer of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary for the first time sought to answer the question: What would have happened if conservatives had failed to win their battle for control of the SBC?
Rainer’s study, to be published in the forthcoming issue of The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology, found the SBC would have fared “much worse” had the reformation failed. If the partner churches’ baptism statistics of the alternative, denomination-like Cooperative Baptist Fellowship were representative of all SBC churches, total baptisms would have plummeted and ratios would have soared, he theorizes.
“An honest evaluation of the data leads us to but one conclusion. The conservative resurgence has not resulted in a more evangelistic denomination. Indeed, the Southern Baptist Convention is less evangelistic today than it was in the years preceding the conservative resurgence,” Rainer writes in “A Resurgence Not Yet Realized: Evangelistic Effectiveness in the Southern Baptist Convention since 1979,” which will be published in the Spring 2005 issue of Southern Seminary’s publication.
“[W]ithout the resurgence, the evangelistic effectiveness of the denomination would be much worse. To use a medical metaphor, the resurgence slowed the bleeding of lost effectiveness, but the patient is still not well,” declares Rainer, dean of the seminary’s Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism and Church Growth in Louisville, Ky.
An advance copy of the article from the forthcoming journal was made available to Florida Baptist Witness. Journal subscribers will receive the edition, which focuses on the SBC’s conservative resurgence, the second week of May.
Rainer’s study may be of particular interest to Southern Baptists in light of current SBC President Bobby Welch’s campaign to re-energize evangelism in the denomination. Welch, pastor of Daytona Beach’s First Baptist Church, will lead the SBC in its June annual meeting in Nashville to launch an “Everyone Can Kingdom Challenge” that seeks to encourage Southern Baptists to evangelize and baptize one million persons in one year.
Following Welch’s lead, Florida Baptist State Convention president Hayes Wicker has urged Baptists in the Sunshine State to seek to baptize 100,000 this year, which would nearly triple the 34,534 baptized in 2004.
While Welch was traveling and unable to comment on the study, Wicker offered his reactions in an April 28 interview with Florida Baptist Witness.
Wicker, pastor of First Baptist Church of Naples, praised Rainer for “raising some good questions,” but suggested the problem of evangelistic effectiveness is more complex and disagreed that the current state of affairs can be considered a failure of the conservative resurgence.
“The conservative resurgence is not over. … It hasn’t permeated many of our state institutions and state conventions,” Wicker told the Witness, adding, “I believe the conservative resurgence has been aimed primarily at dealing with the institutions, not the local churches, but that filters down and affects the local churches.”
Noting that evangelistic effectiveness varies from region-to-region, Wicker said, “We’re living in what I would call a third soil century, as in the parable of the soils, where we’re consumed with the love of things and the cares of the world.”
Wicker cited a “de-emphasis” on offering public invitations and confrontational soul-winning as key problems today in the SBC.
“We’ve gone through a sea-change in terms of perception of direct evangelism,” Wicker said. “Many of the people in our churches listen to or read teachers who disparage traditional evangelism.”
Wicker strongly affirmed Rainer’s call for repentance among SBC leaders and pastors in order to see a return to evangelistic effectiveness.
“Surveys may remind us of the need, and biblical doctrine gives us the foundation, but there still has to be the personal choice to turn from our idols to the true and living God,” Wicker told the Witness.
SBC baptisms plateau
Better evangelistic results is the only major objective of the conservative resurgence that has not been attained, according to Rainer, who also cited the other priorities of the movement as “doctrinal reformation” at the SBC’s six seminaries, “engagement with the culture” on ethical and public policy matters, and a “conservative and conversionary direction” in the denomination’s international missions efforts.
Rainer writes that conservative leaders rallied grassroots Southern Baptists about the need for change in the denomination by pointing to liberal, mainline denominations that were dying. “And one of the primary benefits of the resurgence, we were told, would be an unprecedented evangelistic harvest in the denomination,” he notes.
According to Rainer – who has published numerous books on church growth and is widely recognized as one of evangelicalism’s chief experts on the subject – there has been no improvement in SBC evangelism statistics since 1979 when conservatives began to take control of the denomination.
While acknowledging statistics can tell only part of the story and “matters of the heart between a person and God are not always best expressed by numerical measurement,” Rainer argues nevertheless that annual total baptisms and baptismal ratios – the number of church members per baptism – are reasonable benchmarks in evaluating denominational evangelistic effectiveness.
“With the limitations of the data noted, we must conclude that the evangelistic growth of the denomination is stagnant, and that the onset of the conservative resurgence has done nothing to improve this trend,” he writes.
In the years 1950-2003 annual total baptisms remained basically the same, a “classic plateau.” In 1950 Southern Baptists baptized 376,085, while 377,357 were baptized in 2003. Throughout the period, the highest level of baptisms was 445,725 in 1972 and the lowest was 336,050 in 1978, the year before the beginning of the conservative resurgence.
The study was completed before statistics for 2004 were available, showing a small increase in baptisms with a total of 387,947.
More troubling, Rainer asserts, is the spike in congregational baptismal ratios – “How many members does it take to reach one person for Christ in a year? – which he regards as the preferred “measurement of evangelistic health since it takes into consideration church size.”
In 1950, one person was baptized for every 19 members of SBC churches. In 1978, the baptismal ratio increased to 36 to 1, and by 2003 the number had climbed to 43 to 1. A lower ratio is desired, he notes.
“The trend in total baptisms in the Southern Baptist Convention thus depicted a clear pattern of plateau. But the more revealing measurement of baptismal ratios reveals consistent evangelistic deterioration,” Rainer argues.
“The baptismal ratio since the onset of the conservative resurgence has worsened. The trend is negative and disturbing. Though numbers are not ultimate measures of spiritual realities, the data we do have indicate a denomination in evangelistic crisis,” he adds. In the next issue of The Pathway Part 2 of the series: What if CBF stats were representative?