Evangelism – the sharing of the good news of Jesus Christ – has become a missing element in moderate Baptist life.
For a tradition founded in the belief that each person should have a personal experience with Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior, this is incredible.
Yes, we moderates give lip service to evangelism, but any evangelistic emphasis is virtually non-existent.
Over the years, 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 me. 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.
As a rule, moderates are uncomfortable with the practices associated with evangelism, especially rejecting any confrontational model of evangelism.
We do not like the “you will burn in hell” model, saying we opt for the relational model. We all like the idea of building a relationship with someone in order to enable them to come to Christ.
The underlying reality is that we have really opted for no model other than baptizing the children who grow up in our churches.
We are terrified of evangelism in any other shape, fashion or form. As a result, baptismal rates, my church included, are abysmal.
In our operative model of church growth, we depend upon other churches to be evangelistic.
We believe that after persons come to faith elsewhere, they will realize our way of practicing our faith is far superior to theirs.
Once they are sufficiently “mature” in the faith, then they will come to us – so we will grow by transfer. In other words, other churches are the neonatal unit, we 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.
Our churches are slowly dwindling, so what are we to do?
Most of us opt for thinking that if our buildings are beautiful, up to date and inviting, and if our programming, bulletins and worship are engaging, then we will win this slow battle of attrition. Are we sure?
As our older generation dies off and our churches slowly but surely dwindle, we begin to realize that the “under 40 crowd” is no longer packing our churches.
They give many reasons, but I fear that at the center is a failure to apprehend any meaningful reason for doing so. We have lost the battle at the university and now we 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 U.S. Protestant Christianity will slowly follow the path of European Protestant Christianity.
Is our aversion to evangelism based in unbelief in the good news of Jesus Christ?
I think not, though I do believe that we are often victims of an “intellectual gospel,” which does away with any concept of hell – an eternal existence apart from God.
We so believe that God is love that we cannot conceive of God allowing any person to go to hell. We have all come close to saying this in preaching the funerals of persons whose lives contained no scintilla of faith practice.
Our aversion can be due to what we perceive as a political bias on the part of those who do practice active evangelism.
When we see organizations whose purpose is supposedly to bring people to Christ becoming more politically active, and when we see those same groups marrying evangelism with conservative political views as if these went hand in hand, then moderates tend to ease out of the room.
There are many disciples of Christ who disagree on the political scene – and there is nothing wrong with that. When any one political perspective is equated with Christian belief, then we are in deep trouble.
But maybe our problem is not that we do not believe in hell or have an aversion to political Christianity. Maybe our problem is that we fail to see the “hell on earth” in which people are living apart from Jesus Christ.
Have we been so long in the Christian cocoon that we have lost touch with what it is like to have no objective meaning or driving purpose to our lives other than our own human nature?
Have we forgotten what life apart from Christ is like? Are we so removed from our “pre-Christ life” that we do not remember life when ruled by the secular trinity of greed, self-aggrandizement and success?
Could it be that what we all need “saving from” is first and foremost ourselves? How can that happen in our time and culture apart from Jesus Christ?
Bob Ferguson is senior pastor at Emerywood Baptist Church in High Point, North Carolina. A longer version of this article first appeared on his blog and appeared in an edition of Nurturing Faith magazine. It is used with permission.
Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series. Part two is available here.