By Lonnie Wilkey
Editor, Baptist and Reflector
The Fellowship of Tennessee Baptist Evangelists met last week at First Baptist Church in Joelton.
Sad to say, very few people attended though the meeting was publicized.
That is no reflection on the organization. It is made up of some of God’s choice servants – men and women who have dedicated themselves to the biblical call to be an evangelist.
The attendance can be attributed primarily to the twin sins of apathy and busyness.
One of the advantages of having served on the staff of the Baptist and Reflector for nearly 28 years is knowledge of the past. When I joined the B&R in 1988, I soon learned that one of our “big” events each year was the state evangelism conference. Normally held in January each year, the event regularly drew crowds of 1,000 or more to Belmont Heights Baptist Church in Nashville. A “layman’s night” was held on Tuesday and it brought hundreds of laity from Middle Tennessee to the event as well.
My most memorable evangelism conference was the one that had to be canceled in 1994 due to a winter snow and ice storm that blanketed the state. The headliners that year were Southern Baptist legends W.A. Criswell and Herschel Hobbs. They came to Nashville the day before the storm hit on Monday. When a few brave souls who had not heard the meeting had been canceled showed up, Hobbs and Criswell each preached a sermon that afternoon.
Later that day, I had the privilege of interviewing the two Southern Baptist stalwarts for a feature story. It was one of the best interviews I ever did and I was blessed just to be in the presence of these two “giants” of our denomination.
The state evangelism conference challenged and inspired ministers and laity to share the gospel across Tennessee. And, as a prelude to the conference, the Fellowship of Tennessee Baptist Evangelists whetted the appetite of those who came early (and there normally was a good crowd) with preaching from some of our state’s finest preachers.
But in the late 1990s attendance at the conferences began to dwindle to the point that it was no longer feasible to hold a statewide conference. Why? Rewind to the beginning of this column – apathy and busyness.
As I visited with those who have kept the Tennessee evangelists’ organization alive last week, I listened to their hearts and came away impressed with their commitment and love for what God has called them to do.
Despite the fact that many churches no longer have revivals or special events that call for their skills of “drawing in the net,” they plug along, speaking and sharing God’s Word whenever and wherever they are given the opportunity.
They shared with me that the changing culture has hurt evangelism to some extent. While many people may be “too busy” to attend revivals and evangelistic events, there are a significant number of folks who would attend, they agreed. The evangelists encourage more churches to offer revivals or events with an evangelistic focus.
One music evangelist shared that she is saddened by the apathy of so many Christians. People would rather have their “ears tickled” than hear the Word preached, she observed.
The first of the Five Objectives (goals that have been adopted by Tennessee Baptists) is to see at least 50,000 Tennesseans annually saved, baptized, and set on the road to discipleship by 2024.
Members of the Fellowship of Tennessee Baptist Evangelists want to play a role in helping to accomplish that objective. These men and women can inspire your congregation to be better witnesses in the communities where they live and work. They are not competitors to pastors. They are “helpmates.” Use them, whether it be for a four-day revival, a weekend evangelistic event or revival, or just a “one-day” revival. Your church will be blessed.
As one evangelist told me, “We will work together in a team to build the kingdom.”
And for those who miss the evangelism conferences, there may be a ray of hope. Union University evangelism professor Earnest Easley was reading a Baptist publication from 20-plus years ago recently and noted that on “every page there was something about evangelism, outreach, training, and rallies.”
The lack of emphasis on evangelism today led Easley, in partnership with the Tennessee Baptist Convention, to organize the West Tennessee Evangelism Rally to be held at Union on Feb. 21 (see story on page 2).
Easley said the rally is designed to encourage, equip, and engage participants. “In a nutshell,” he said, “it is to fan the flame of evangelism in people’s hearts.”
Sounds a lot like a mini-evangelism conference. Make plans to attend. Apathy and busyness must take a back seat. Evangelism has to be the heartbeat for all Christians, our churches, and our convention.
God will hold us accountable one day if it’s not.