By David Leavell
President, Tennessee Baptist Convention
& Alan Quigley
Mobilization Team Leader, Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma
Last year, the North American Mission Board (NAMB) publicly announced that 29 percent of Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) churches reported no baptisms, and 47 percent reported two or less. In the SBC 2017 Book of Reports, NAMB reported that baptisms had fallen to 295,000 in 2016, which is the first time the convention reported less than 300,000 baptisms since the late 1940s.
These statistics and trends over the last decades have raised concern among all Southern Baptists. So much concern that the convention voted to appoint a special task force to study the issue and bring back to the convention findings on how to revitalize evangelism in Southern Baptist life.
The idea of an evangelism task force is not new to Southern Baptists. In 1904 the convention put together a task force to address the need for evangelism in our churches. In 1906, the report to the convention was lengthy, but one portion rings true today:
“But with all our opportunity as Southern Baptists there is a serious weakness. We have the evangelistic soil; we have the evangelistic spirit; but we need a better evangelistic organization. To be sure, this work is, and ought to be, under the direction of the churches, just as every other agency of the denomination is. It is our profound conviction that the supreme centers of evangelism are the churches … but why should Southern Baptists not be better organized?”
After this report, the Home Mission Board (HMB, now known as NAMB) developed the evangelism secretary office within its organization. Over the next 20 years, progress was made across the continent. However, the office was closed for eight years and three months because of the lack of resources.
In 1936, the office was reestablished, and Roland Q. Leavell (the co-author’s great uncle) was elected as the new secretary of evangelism. Leavell put an emphasis on personal evangelism with additional equipping tools. He also wrote manuals on how to conduct a church, city-wide, and/or associational revival.
The convention was energized by the renewed emphasis, and in 1945, they set out to reach one million souls in one year. The convention fell short of this lofty goal but learned that if ever such a goal were to be reached, a better organization structure was needed.
In 1947, the first unified program of evangelism for all the state conventions and churches was adopted. Each state convention was to establish a department of evangelism; all associations were to establish two leaders for their churches (one was to be an organizer and the other the general chairman). The strategy centered on associational revivals.
From this, the Home Mission Board had an army by which to organize the convention for evangelism. This army had four tasks: find and promote the best methods of evangelism known; hold annual statewide evangelism conferences for the purpose of inspiration and promotion, with a major emphasis on a unified program for mobilizing the church; give proper effort to the promotion and conduct of simultaneous crusades (today we might say ‘conduct a unified strategy’ rather than crusades); and emphasize the use of the association as the basis of operation.
Today, the SBC has more human, financial, and technological resources than ever to reach our continent with the gospel. What is lacking nationally has been our strength in Tennessee.
Nationally, we lack the organization (and sometimes cooperation) necessary to build a nationwide strategy for evangelism, and we don’t have the organization to build synergy for an effort. In Tennessee, while we still have much to learn and to accomplish in the area of evangelism, we do have the organization to affect the entire state with statewide strategies like the “John 3:16 Challenge.”
We have the potential to connect to thousands of Tennessee Baptist churches to take the gospel to the 3 million lost Tennesseans. Do you realize that 57 percent of Tennesseans have no relationship with Jesus Christ? For some of us, we still think we are living in the “Bible Belt” and we might actually be the belt buckle. The reality is that the United States of America doesn’t have a “Bible Belt” and there is no belt buckle unfortunately.
Randy C. Davis, our Tennessee Baptist Mission Board president and executive director, recently said “if trends continue, Tennessee will look like modern day California in 10 years.” The day in which we live is an urgent day for the Good News of Jesus Christ. Tennessee Baptists, we must see lostness before we can impact lostness. We must personally feel the pain of people living in spiritual darkness — people far from God, people who act lost because they are lost. We must break free from our “holy huddles” and engage people in our communities with the life message of Jesus Christ. Use what you know — John 3:16. The challenge is to share John 3:16, once a week with a lost person with the intention of leading them to personal faith in Christ.”
Tennessee Baptists, we have the soil and the spirit for evangelism. We even have the organization through our partnerships with the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board, local associations, and some 3,000 Tennessee Baptist churches.
All we need now is a Matthew 9:38 movement. “Pray to the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into His harvest fields.” That is why we have the “Pray4TN.” That’s why we have the “John 3:16 Challenge.” We are being led to the missions field! Let’s be obedient and follow our Leader! Jesus said, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Mark 1:17).