By Will Hall
DAVIS, Okla. — About 100 evangelists, pastors, directors of evangelism and some wives traveled from across the United States to gather in Oklahoma at the Falls Creek Conference Center to identify issues that have led to declines in evangelism as well as the use of evangelists in the Southern Baptist Convention. They also met to develop recommendations about how to restore the denomination to its Great Commission roots.
The group included a diverse representation in age and geography, with a large number among the crowd identifying themselves as 45 years old or younger. Participants included attendees from Oklahoma, Texas and Louisiana and other mainline state conventions such as North and South Carolina and Tennessee.
The “by invitation” Ephesians 4 Evangelists Summit was organized and hosted by the Conference of Southern Baptist Evangelists and led by international evangelist Sammy Tippit, who was elected president of the Conference of Southern Baptist Evangelists at the 2018 SBC annual meeting in Dallas.
Framing the context
The series of table conversations and broader open forums were supplemented by: a videotaped interview by Tippit with John Vaughn, founder of Church Growth Today and a leading researcher on church health; a presentation by Steve Pearson, evangelism specialist for the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board; and a live streamed message from Chuck Kelley, chancellor of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.
Pearson said the term “gospel-centered” is “thrown around” a lot of ways in some Southern Baptist circles, but among the top evangelistic churches in Tennessee, it means “a gospel message is preached, a gospel invitation is given,” and, members are trained to engage in “daily gospel conversations.”
Citing data from a study of the top 10 evangelistic Tennessee congregations in four size categories, he said these churches, which are intentionally evangelistic, averaged 15.4 baptisms per 100 weekly worshipers, compared to a 5.1 average across the SBC.
Pearson said these leading soul-winning churches typically held “six evangelistic events per year,” with the top four listed in the study as Vacation Bible school, Harvest Sundays, evangelistic revivals and concerts, and door-to-door neighborhood visitation. Moreover, he emphasized these congregations’ use of vocational evangelists, noting that “God gave evangelists to the Church as a gift.”
Kelley spoke to-the-point with his comments, underscoring some of the essential elements of his book on evangelism, Fuel the Fire.
“We must beat the drum for evangelism!” he said.
Conversations & conclusions
Framed by time in prayer with each other, the evangelists and evangelistic pastors gathered in small groups and came together as a larger body to engage the questions, “What has led to the decline of evangelism in the SBC?” and “What can we do?”
The primary issues that gained consensus agreement were:
- mistrust of messages and methods of some evangelists, grounded in part by the lack of relationship by some pastors with any evangelist;
- costs of Harvest events and general financial pressures facing congregations;
- basic busyness of Southern Baptists’ lives; and,
- general apathy among Southern Baptists regarding evangelism, and some caution toward evangelists because of examples of moral failure by a few.
Three broad recommendations were suggested to frame the hoped for national strategy moving forward:
- pastors need to lead church members to pray daily by name for lost people;
- Southern Baptists need training and accountability in personal evangelism; and
- churches need to plan regular Harvest events and engage Harvest evangelists.
Many of the thoughts expressed during both sessions were captured by a combination of comments shared during the proceedings, and later with the Baptist Message, by Clay Hallmark, pastor of First Baptist Church in Lexington, who represented the TBMB along with Pearson. Hallmark is chair of the TBMB board of directors.
Hallmark, whose congregation averaged about 700 in worship attendance and welcomed 62 new believers through baptism last year, according to SBC records, underscored that “churches prioritize what the pastor prioritizes,” especially with regard to soul winning.
“We, as pastors, have got to make evangelism a priority,” he said, adding that it must be central to a church’s strategy. Moreover, he was emphatic about intentional teaching about evangelism. “Pastors are called to equip the saints for the work of ministry,” he said.
Likewise, he said pastors need to be eager learners about evangelism and be trained in evangelism and know “how to lead” a Harvest event. Moreover, Hallmark said, the pastor cannot hand off this responsibility to any other person in the church.
“If the pastor will champion, be the leader in evangelism, and model it and equip people to do it, then in that church people will do it,” he said. “You’ve got to hold them accountable to do it. You’ve got to promote it. You’ve got to make sure that it becomes the focus of your strategy. It’s got to be done.”
Tennessee Baptist evangelist Jerry Drace, also bivocational pastor of Friendship Baptist Church, Friendship, and a past president of COSBE, agreed.
“It is evident from the recent findings regarding the baptismal statistics in the SBC that every method of evangelism which is God honoring is needed now more than ever. And one of the proven means of reaching the lost is through the use of the vocational evangelist.
“However, it takes more than scheduling an evangelist for a revival. The pastor must take the lead in preparing the church. Without proper preparation, with prayer as the focus, there will be a meeting, but no revival. If the pastor does not prepare, the people will not care.”
In a follow-up interview with the Baptist Message, Tippit said his hopes going into the summit were to start a discussion about evangelism “that would flow into our denomination.”
Tippit said he is anxious to see “some implementation” at the national level.
“I want to go back to NAMB and report what happened and open a discussion with Kevin Ezell, president of NAMB and Johnny Hunt, NAMB’s new vice president for evangelism about working together to restore Southern Baptists’ commitment to the Great Commission, he said.
“We must recapture evangelism!”
— Hall is editor of the Baptist Message in Louisiana.