Baptists, Baptism and the need for revival

Southern Baptists seek revival as evangelism sputtersBy Adelle M. Banks Religion News Service from USA Today

For the last two years, the annual meetings of Southern Baptists have emphasized baptisms and evangelism, with local pastors immersing new converts in pools prominently placed in the arenas where they gathered.

This year, when Southern Baptists meet June 12-13 in San Antonio, the focus will be on prayer for revival. But officials continue to hope for the same result: a new energy that will reverse declining baptism rates and barely lukewarm increases in church membership.

"I think we've been trying to raise baptisms in nonrevived churches among nonrevived people," said Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) President Frank Page, a pastor in Taylors, S.C. "The only key to turning baptisms around is a revitalization of God's Holy Spirit."

This push for spiritual renewal comes as statistics from the nation's largest Protestant body paint a picture of evangelism in decline. Baptisms in 2006 dropped 1.89 percent, to 364,826, from 2005, according to a church study. Those figures contrast sharply with the goal of 1 million baptisms that was set by the denomination's immediate past president, Bobby Welch.

Welch, who crisscrossed the country in a large bus touting his "Everyone Can!" baptism campaign, said he never expected to meet the goal by its October 2006 deadline. Nonetheless, he said some churches were energized - with several baptizing 100 or more in one service.

"I was surprised that we still fell 7,000 or more short," he said. "Once this thing gets into a nosedive, it's hard to pull it up. That's what we're fighting right now."

Experts inside and outside the church point to all kinds of reasons for the seeming malaise, from apathy within to lack of interest without. Some question whether older approaches to evangelism still fit modern-day needs. Others wonder if the conservative leadership's views on doctrine and values have chased people away.

When Southern Baptists meet in San Antonio, one item on the agenda will be a new national evangelism strategy to try to turn things around.

Welch, now the SBC strategist for global evangelical relations, believes too many churches still think evangelism happens when people come to the church door rather than when congregants go out into the community.

"We have a lot of churches that ... even with their best effort have not been able to move off of their decline," he said. "It takes a big effort to stem a tide that has already gained some momentum, but we're on our way."

Gerald Harris, the editor of The Christian Index, the newspaper for Georgia's Southern Baptists, has used his column to decry what he calls a lack of "passion" for evangelism.

"There's just a lukewarmness, I think, that permeates our society right now in terms of religion that keeps us from having the fervor that we really need to reach out to people in evangelism," he said in an interview.

In a column last March, he was more blunt.

"Most Southern Baptists are as far from revival," he wrote, "as Rosie O'Donnell is from getting her own talk show on the Trinity Broadcasting Network."

More than 25 years after a conservative resurgence that Southern Baptist leaders hoped would fuel evangelism, the denomination is struggling to bring more people into its fold. "I think it's very poignant that they missed the goal so terribly because again that's an illustration that the leaders of the convention are not able to engage or energize the grass roots because the whole system is coming apart," said Bill Leonard, dean of Wake Forest University Divinity School in Winston-Salem.

Leonard, a former Southern Baptist who is now affiliated with the American Baptist Churches USA, thinks the focus on orthodoxy and conservative social values has made the denomination less attractive.

"They have to continue to keep that base loyal (and) committed but by virtue of playing to that base, they alienate the people they want to evangelize," he said.

Thom S. Rainer, president of the denomination's LifeWay Christian Resources, acknowledges that the resurgence has not produced all the results Southern Baptist leaders would have liked.

"We had higher expectations for the conservative resurgence and the impact that it would have on our churches evangelistically," said Rainer, who leads the publishing and research arm of the denomination. "It would appear had there not been a conservative resurgence, that it could be worse."

In LifeWay's most recent Facts & Trends bimonthly magazine, Rainer complained about the ineffectiveness in evangelism. "Basically we were charged with a job and we are not getting the job done," he wrote.

The magazine highlighted some of the few "standout" churches - 22 out of more than 43,000 that meet these criteria: baptized at least one person every other week over a 10-year period; saw worship attendance growth in that same period; and baptized one person for every 20 members each year.

Some younger pastors think evangelistic techniques need to change.

"We've slapped a Jesus sticker on everybody who will raise their hand and say `I do' in a church without questioning whether their faith is legitimate, whether they're making a real conscious decision, whether they're just emotionally responding," said Micah Fries, a 28-year-old pastor of a St. Joseph, Mo., church.

"I can whip a crowd into a frenzy and I can get response. ... I don't want response. I want changed lives."