The “conservative resurgence” in the Southern Baptist Convention failed in its goal of making the denomination more evangelistic, a professor at an SBC seminary says in an article in an upcoming journal.
“An honest evaluation of the data leads us to but one conclusion. The conservative resurgence has not resulted in a more evangelistic denomination,” Thom Rainer of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary writes in the spring issue of The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology.
The journal isn’t due out for a couple of weeks, but the April 28 Florida Baptist Witness carried two articles based on an advance copy of Rainer’s paper, titled “A Resurgence Not Yet Realized: Evangelistic Effectiveness in the Southern Baptist Convention since 1979.”
While Southern Baptists were told one of the primary benefits of the movement launched by Paul Pressler and Paige Patterson would be unprecedented evangelism, the dean of Southern Seminary’s Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism and Church Growth writes, the denomination is less evangelistic now than it was before the reformation.
The SBC’s baptism statistics have not improved since 1979, Rainer says, and they are essentially unchanged since the 1950s. That is despite a much larger church base. In 1950 Southern Baptists recorded one baptism for every 19 church members. By 2003 the ratio grew to 43:1.
Still, Rainer argues that the picture would be even worse without the conservative course correction. In churches publicly identified with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, which Rainer says are generally considered to represent the status quo before 1979, the baptism rate is 92:1.
“To use a medical metaphor, the resurgence slowed the bleeding of lost effectiveness, but the patient is still not well,” Rainer says.
While baptism statistics alone do not measure all “matters of the heart,” Rainer says, he believes they are a reasonable benchmark in evaluating evangelistic effectiveness.
“Frankly, most Southern Baptist churches today are evangelistically anemic,” Raider says, noting that most reported baptisms take place in relatively few churches. He said 82 percent of SBC churches “are clearly non-evangelistic,” baptizing fewer than 12 in 2003.
Rainer says better evangelistic results are the only major objective of the conservative resurgence that has not been attained. Other priorities, he says, were “doctrinal reformation” at SBC seminaries, “engagement with culture” on social issues and a “conservative and conversionary direction” in international missions.
Rainer isn’t the only one concerned about Southern Baptists’ flagging evangelistic zeal. LifeWay Christian Resources President Jimmy Draper last summer cited four straight years of declining baptisms as a sign the convention had “lost its focus.”
According to new statistics, baptisms increased last year by about 10,000 over the previous year. Draper called the increase “slight” but “encouraging” and a sign “the denomination may be heading in the right direction.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.