Resurrecting the ‘E’ word

FL_pewsA column provided in collaboration with the Center for Healthy Churches (chchurches.org)

Evangelism — the sharing of the good news of Jesus Christ — has become a missing element in much of moderate Baptist life. For a tradition founded on the belief that each person is to have a personal experience with Jesus Christ as his or her Lord and Savior, this is incredible.

We may give lip service to evangelism, but any evangelistic emphasis seems non-existent.

Over the years church members have asked why I did not give more forceful invitations. My reply was that it was the Holy Spirit’s job to save people, not mine. Further, protracted invitations are no longer a culturally effective method of evangelism.

These members are well intentioned; they desire to see people come to faith in Jesus Christ. While they fail to comprehend that their preferred method of evangelism is no longer effective, they do understand that we are not “evangelistic” in any sense of the word.

Many moderates are uncomfortable with practices associated with evangelism, especially confrontational models. We do not like the “you will burn in hell” model, saying we opt for the relational model.

We like the idea of building relationships with others in order to enable them to come to Christ. However, the under-lying reality is that we have often opted for no model other than baptizing the children who grow up in our churches.

Since many churches accept transfer of membership without re-baptism, few adults are baptized in our churches. Our baptismal rates, including in the church I serve, are often abysmal.

Some longtime moderate friends will think I have become fundamentalist, although I have consistently emphasized the ethical/intellectual aspects of our faith for more than 25 years. Maybe this article is my mea culpa!

Our operative model of church growth depends upon other churches to be evangelistic. So how will we grow?

We believe that after persons come to faith elsewhere, they will realize our way of practicing our faith is superior. Once they are sufficiently “mature” in the faith, then they will come to us — so we will grow by transfer. Other churches are the neonatal unit; ours are the adult room.

However, transfer growth is mostly inadequate to support our churches in the future. For some reason, these believers are not finding our churches sufficiently attractive. So, we have a problem: our churches are slowly dwindling.

What are we to do? Some think that if our buildings are beautiful and inviting, and if our programming and worship are engaging, then we will win this slow battle of attrition. Are we sure?

A few years ago I engaged with Scottish Baptists on behalf of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of North Carolina. Riding the train around Scotland I decided to talk with young people regarding their faith in God. Not one told me they attended church other than for weddings and funerals.

Their reasons varied, but most indicated they found no overwhelming reason to attend. Nothing in church life or God intersected with their world in any meaningful way.

In the 10 years since I have paid attention to young adults in our communities — and am hearing many of the same responses. As an older generation dies off and our churches slowly dwindle, we begin to realize that the “under-40 crowd” no longer packs our churches.

They give many reasons, but I fear at the center is a failure to find any meaningful reason for doing so. We have lost the battle at the university and now are losing it in our homes.

If we do not make sharing of the good news in an intellectually challenging and spiritually uplifting pattern the central focus of our mission, then American Protestant Christianity will slowly follow the path of European Protestant Christianity. No, we may not die today or tomorrow — but we will surely die. NFJ

By Robert U. Ferguson Jr.

Robert U. Ferguson Jr. is pastor of Emerywood Baptist Church in High Point, N.C. He blogs at drbobsebcblog.blogspot.com.