Over the years members have asked why I did not give more forceful invitations. My reply was that it was the Holy Spirit’s job to save people, not me! Further, protracted invitations are no longer a culturally effective method of evangelism. These members are well intentioned — they desire to see people come to faith in Jesus Christ. While they fail to comprehend that their preferred method of evangelism is no longer effective, they do understand that we are not “evangelistic” in any sense of the word.
As a rule, we moderates are uncomfortable with the practices associated with evangelism, especially rejecting any confrontational model of evangelism. We do not like the “you will burn in hell” model, saying we opt for the relational model. We all like the idea of building a relationship with someone in order to enable them to come to Christ.
The underlying reality is that we have really opted for no model other than baptizing the children who grow up in our churches. (Since many of us accept transfer without re-baptism we no longer baptize many adults.) We moderates are terrified of evangelism in any other shape, fashion or form. Our baptismal rates, my church included, are abysmal. (After reading this article many of my longtime moderate Baptist friends will think I have become fundamentalist! There is a lot of irony here, for I have consistently emphasized the ethical/intellectual aspects of our faith over the last 25 years. Maybe this article is my mea culpa!)
In our operative model of church growth we depend upon other churches to be evangelistic. How will we grow? We believe that after persons come to faith elsewhere, they will realize our way of practicing our faith is far superior to theirs. Once they are sufficiently “mature” in the faith, then they will come to us — so we will grow by transfer. In other words, other churches are the neonatal unit, we are the adult room. However, transfer growth is mostly inadequate to support our churches in the future. For some reason these believers are not finding our churches sufficiently attractive.
So, we have a problem: our churches are slowly dwindling. What are we to do? Most of us opt for thinking that if our buildings are beautiful, up to date and inviting; if our programming, bulletins and worship are engaging — then we will win this slow battle of attrition. Are we sure?
A few years ago I engaged with Scottish Baptists for the CBF of North Carolina. As I rode the train around Scotland I decided to engage young people in dialogue regarding their faith in God. I have yet to have one tell me that they attended church other than for weddings and funerals. Their reasons varied, but most indicated they found no overwhelming reason to attend. Nothing in church life or God intersected with their world in any meaningful way.
In these ten years hence I have paid attention to young adults in our communities — and I confess that I am beginning to hear many of these same responses. As our older generation dies off and our churches slowly but surely dwindle, we begin to realize that the “under 40 crowd” are no longer packing our churches. They give many reasons, but I fear that at the center is a failure to apprehend any meaningful reason for doing so. We have lost the battle at the university and now we are losing it in our homes.
If we do not make sharing of the good news in an intellectually challenging and spiritually uplifting pattern the central focus of our mission, then American Protestant Christianity will slowly follow the path of European Protestant Christianity. No, we will not die today or tomorrow…but we will surely die.
Why our Aversion to Evangelism?
Is our aversion to evangelism based in an unbelief in the good news of Jesus Christ? I think not, though I do believe that we are often victims of an underlying, modern gnosticism, i.e., an “intellectual gospel” which does away with any concept of hell, i.e., an eternal existence apart from God. We so believe that God is love that we cannot conceive of God allowing any person to go to hell. We have all come close to saying this in preaching the funerals of persons whose lives contained no scintilla of faith practice.
Our aversion can be due to what we perceive as a political bias on the part of those who do practice active evangelism. When we see organizations whose purpose is supposedly to bring people to Christ becoming more politically active, when we see those same groups marrying evangelism with conservative political views as if these went hand in hand, then we moderates tend to ease out of the room. Coming to Christ and being a disciple of Christ is about a spiritual, not a political reality. There are many, many disciples of Christ who disagree on the political scene — and there is nothing wrong with that. When any one political perspective is equated with Christian belief, then we are in deep trouble.
But, maybe, just maybe, our problem is not that we do not believe in hell or have an aversion to political Christianity. Maybe our problem is that we fail to see the “hell on earth” in which people are living apart from Jesus Christ. Have we been so long in the Christian cocoon that we have lost touch with what it is like to have no objective meaning or driving purpose to our lives other than our own human nature? Have we forgotten what life apart from Christ is like? Are we so removed from our “pre-Christ life” that we do not remember life when ruled by the secular trinity of greed, self-aggrandizement, and success? Could it be that what we all need “saving from” is first and foremost ourselves? How can that happen in our time and culture apart from Jesus Christ?
Central to the problem are the mixed messages we send in the church. Too often we equate success with salvation and poverty/financial need with being lost. We confuse dressing well and having good manners with a faith relationship with Jesus Christ. Let’s ask a blunt question: “Does financial and social success equal salvation?” We see someone whose faith is virtually nonexistent, yet they are a “success” in the world’s perspective: successful business, nice family, house at the beach and mountains, etc., etc. So, we assume that they have everything together and do not need Christ. Is that so? Do they need a relationship with God through Christ Jesus? What can Christ do for them?
Obviously our answer ought to be no, success does not equal salvation. To believe the good news of Jesus Christ is to believe that each and every person is in need of a life transforming relationship with God which comes through a personal encounter with and surrender to Jesus as Lord and Savior. Just because one drives a Lexus or lives in a multimillion dollar home does not excuse them from the need of a relationship with Jesus Christ.
Many Christians sincerely talk about the “community” their church possesses and what a loving community they have. That’s great — but I fear that we have put community ahead of the gospel. Genuine Christian community, koinonia, is a by-product, an out-growth of the gospel of Jesus Christ, not the criterion by which we are judged. When I have conversations with long-time members I hear the community card played again and again. What I don’t hear is the desire that we reach people who are different from us. As a result we are more likely to have Christian clubs — in which everyone resembles everyone else — that we are Christian churches. If your church looks a lot like you, then chances are you’re in a club and not a church.
The Centrality of Evangelism as the Purpose of the Church
Why is this important? The good news of Jesus Christ is the most powerful force in the world. The gospel is the only force I know which can permanently shift our hearts and minds, our very souls, from self-centered to other centered. The gospel destroys barriers and brings down walls — cultural, racial and political. What we need, as Christians, is to let the gospel go forth and to live it out in every aspect of our lives. Could it be that we are really afraid of the gospel and of its ramifications for our lives and our church?
As Baptists we believe that individually we must come to our own acceptance of Christ as our Lord and Savior. Yes, in so doing we become a part of the community of faith and join with other believers in serving and worshipping Christ. Yes, we rarely come to Christ alone — many others are used by God to reach us. Yes, having Christian parents who love and direct us in our growth as children is of great importance for our faith development. Yes, conversion is a first step — but it is a vital first step, without which none of the other steps will ever take place. Each of us needs that experience of surrender to Christ Jesus — of all that we have been, are and ever will be — whatever form that may take for us.
Some how, some way, either we moderate Baptists will return evangelism to its core position as the unifying focus in a wholistic church, or we will die. Seeing people come to faith in Christ can serve to rejuvenate our own faith and rekindle the fire on the altar of our heart. Participating in a church in which people express their love for Christ unites a community of faith in ways that nothing else can or will. It is the center out of which worship, social ministries, social justice, spiritual growth and all the other vital aspects of faith come to life.
We are now said to be living in a “post-Christian era” which is more like the 1st century than the 19th to the mid 20th centuries. We are called upon to see ourselves as “resident aliens” or missionaries living not in a Christian culture but on mission outposts in the middle of a pagan land. If so, then would it not behoove us to look back at the New Testament and see how this first church understood its priorities? Whether one believes Matthew 28: 16-20 goes back to Jesus as an exact quote or as a summary is beside the point. Certainly the early church believed this to be their mandate. Whether one believes Acts 2 is fully historically accurate is again, not of my concern. Evidently Luke believed that God was doing something dramatic through Simon Peter and these early disciples. We have to say that Paul, with his missionary journeys, certainly believed that sharing the good news was vital to the purpose of all the churches of which he was a part.
In our post-Christian era over the last 25 years or so many churches have become much more concerned with institutional survival than with missional purpose. We employ methods of church growth, new programming, etc, for the purpose of gaining new members so they can give to our budget and keep our churches afloat. Do we see what is wrong with this picture? Such an approach is totally unethical, for it uses the gospel — and the other — not to help them come to Christ and grow in their faith, but as a way of keeping our beloved communities afloat. Who is important, here? Is institutional survival more important than the other coming to Christ?
The “how” of evangelism I have not the time to develop at this point. In fact, the how can and usually will be unique in any and every particular situation. An attentive church will figure out for themselves what sharing the good news of Jesus Christ will look like in their context. Any approach must be configured in ways that are culturally appropriate and individually sensitive, characterized by humility, integrity and utmost respect for the personhood of the other. What is important is that our churches take seriously the call to be “evangelists,” i.e., sharers of the good news that life eternal is found in a relationship with Christ Jesus.
So, as I walk off into the sunset to retirement, I am asked: “Will the moderate Baptist movement and churches survive in the next 50 years?” My answer is in the form of a question itself: “Do we deserve to survive?” I believe that we will not only survive, but we will thrive when our focus is upon sharing the good news of Jesus Christ in all that we say and do — and in such a way that people are born from above and come to faith in Christ Jesus. If not, then we will be nothing but museums in which a few people pause and remember “the good ole days.” Meanwhile, that contemporary church across town is packing them in — even though their theology, ethical teachings and liturgy is not nearly as sophisticated as ours.
Frederich Nietzsche told the story of a madman who ran through the market place with a lantern shouting “I seek God…I seek God.” The people laughed, saying to him, “Don’t you know God is dead?” The madman paused, held up his lantern, looked at the churches and synagogues surrounding him and said, “What are these now but not the tombs and sepulchers of God?” Just as Christianity died in Europe, so it can die here if anything but the sharing and living out the good news is our focus.
1I am chief among sinners in this regard. This article is written from a confessional stance wherein I admit my complicity in what I see as a significant challenge to our moderate Baptist movement. As one who is moving toward retirement in the next year I see much good that moderate Baptists have accomplished. However, I live with an underlying sense that we could have done so much more in this vital area of evangelism.