BALTIMORE — From Billy Graham’s roadside tent revivals to Jerry Falwell’s TV ministries to Rick Warren’s 20,000-member megachurch, Southern Baptists dominate the evangelical brand in America.
This is apt for the country’s largest Protestant denomination, whose doctrine says nonbelievers are doomed to hell. Sharing one’s story of coming to Christ and bringing others along are among the core responsibilities of a Southern Baptist.
But as the group held its annual meeting this week in Baltimore, the top agenda item was this: The evangelicals aren’t evangelizing.
Baptisms have been going steadily down in the past decade for the first time since records started to be kept in the 1800s, according to the denomination’s LifeWay Research. Other LifeWay research about devout Protestants generally shows other measures down as well, such as how often people look for ways to share the gospel or to create intentional relationships with nonbelievers.
The question of how to function openly as a religious person in an increasingly secular, relativistic culture is not particular to Southern Baptists. Catholic Church leaders have dubbed this the era of the “new evangelization,” and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has expanded its online outreach.
But an evangelization crisis feels a bit different to the 16-million-strong Southern Baptist Convention.
“I always resist the word ‘crisis,’ but in this case, I think when your name is ‘Baptist’ and you’re named after baptisms, yes, this is a crisis,” said Ed Stetzer, a pastor and author who is president of LifeWay Research.
Thousands of Southern Baptists at the meeting approved a resolution vowing to revitalize the practice and prayed for forgiveness.
“God, please forgive us for not being obedient and sharing the good news of the Gospel with those in our community,” outgoing president Fred Luter said in his address Tuesday.
Eighty percent of Southern Baptist churches baptize only one person between the ages 18 and 29 per year, Luter said. “If we were working in a secular job with these kinds of reports, many of us would have been fired a long time ago.”
Southern Baptists “must ask God for forgiveness” for failing to share the Gospel and forgetting its power to save sinners, he said. “We need to tell God, ‘God, we repent for using substitutes for the Word of God.’ ”
In meetings and side conversations, there was near-constant talk about why people aren’t evangelizing more and how best to do it in the 21st century.
Many blame the culture, saying there is no place for an orthodox person who believes in right and wrong and that one faith system rather than others has the correct answers.
“A lot of people fear being seen as judgmental, that [evangelizing] can damage friendships and relationships,” said Roger “Sing” Oldham, a spokesman for the convention.
Others said evangelicals themselves are to blame and that Southern Baptists need to eliminate Christian subcultures — bubbles with their own book clubs and cruises where one never mingles with a nonbeliever.
Still others said people need to focus more on conversation than rules. For example, don’t panic if all your child’s soccer games are Sunday morning. Just skip church and decide to be the soccer parent who brings Christian witness to the stands.
“You be the light and love of Christ to the other soccer moms; you be the representative to those people, because everyone needs Jesus,” said Michael Allen, the Chicago-area representative of the North American Mission Board, the denomination’s domestic evangelization agency. “Forget about all the tools and programs of evangelism and just tell people your story.”
But back to those tools and programs. The physical heart of the meeting was a massive exposition of books, instructional videos, apps, music and thinkers selling and sharing items and ideas meant to help evangelizers learn to evangelize.
Among the newer items were the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association’s “My Hope” videos, which are meant to be shared over a dessert in your home. Another is a mobile app called “3 Circles: Life Conversation Guide,” meant to help guide everyday talks.
To Dean Inserra, a Tallahassee pastor, such technologies are useless.
“Some people think it’s about technology, but I think it’s about lifestyle and relationship,” Inserra said as he stood in the expo’s bustling, loud center. “I think those things are a wall. A wall will go up if someone thinks they are a project. I’m not trying to convert someone.”
You’re not? Isn’t that the point?
“I care if they ARE converted, but there can be a perception that, ‘You don’t care about me as a person.’ I am trying to build relationships,” he said.
But there is an underlying question about beliefs. LifeWay research found that only half of Protestant churchgoers disagree with the statement that “eternal life can be obtained through religions other than Christianity.”
“When you think this, there’s a higher level of evangelizing,” said Stetzer. “Half don’t think that.”
A common topic at the conference was the apparent decline of what Al Mohler, president of the flagship Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, called “cultural Christianity” — the expectation that an American will be a Christian and a churchgoing one. Mohler and others said they celebrated the decline, even in the Christian heartland, of a faith that for some might have been superficial all along.
Many at the conference were upbeat, feeling they are entering a more genuine era of evangelizing. Both evangelizer and nonbeliever, people said, are able to be more frank.
“In the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, if you wanted to sell insurance in the South you had to join the local Southern Baptist church,” Mohler told a huge audience of younger pastors Tuesday. That is gone, “but on the other hand, we’re left with the Gospel, which is a good place to be. For us to think honestly about how evangelistic we are. Every believer is hard-won.”
Mohler went further, telling the crowd he thinks the reputation of Southern Baptists is overrated. “The vast majority of people we ever baptized were our own children,” he said.
Some research has shown that Christians in the millennial generation may be more open to speaking about their faith. A 2013 Barna Group study of self-described young born-agains showed that millennials share their faith more than any other age group and were the only ones among whom evangelism is on the rise. Southern Baptists weren’t addressed separately in that research.
The entire playing field has changed, Stetzer said.
“For 30 years, there was a standard evangelistic pickup line: ‘If you die today, do you know for sure you’ll go to heaven?’ We kind of had the home-field advantage. If you wanted to get right with God, we could tell you how. Now we’ve lost our home-field advantage, and I think there is now a hunger for more evangelistic engagement.”