First, what does the Southern Baptist Convention get? Evangelism. Baptists understand far better than other Protestant traditions that the Protestant faith is a pietistic and revivalistic faith. As much as doctrine may be inscribed in confessions, as much as church order and discipline may be practiced, as much as the sacraments may be emphasized — Protestantism is not capable of sustaining these emphases without the balance of personal conversion in a new birth (yes, I mean, “a personal relationship with Jesus Christ”). Otherwise, the result is a Catholic rationalism without the Catholic Christ and Catholic conversion-to-Christ required by the Catholic dogmatic structure. Lacking the “Catholic,” Protestantism without evangelicalism becomes rationalism, of the sort abundantly exhibited by the mainline churches and taking various synergistic forms. While there’s much more to be said, I just wanted to register the point that Protestantism requires the sort of characteristics popular to evangelicalism, rightly finding their origins in both the Reformation and the revivals of Whitefield, Edwards, Wesley, and Graham.
This emphasis on evangelism is what grew the Baptist movement with an almost shocking success, especially on the fertile soil of the Southern states. I say, “fertile,” because the South was far less attached to or dependent upon established societal structures, such as the state church in England or the mainline churches of the North. This autonomy and individualism in the South is very congenial to the tenets of Baptist faith, with its most recognizable tenet being the rejection of infant baptism for undercutting the requirement of personal conversion to be a Christian. So, the Baptists grew and grew, and alongside the Baptists, various independent “Bible churches” and “nondenominational” churches grew as well, sharing the same Baptist beliefs. Today, the SBC, the largest cooperative program of Baptists, is the largest Protestant denomination in America. But, now they are not growing (for the first time in the SBC’s existence), and the leadership of the convention has been incessantly pushing for a “Great Commission Resurgence” (yes, with capital letters and all). The GCR has been a popular topic on SBC blogs and magazines, including the latest issue of SBC Life, and the popular mantra has basically been that the problem is “you,” i.e., the Baptist in the pew who is not evangelizing (or “soul-winning,” as it was called in my church growing-up).
Surely they are right. The problem is that people are not evangelizing. Or, at least, this is the surface-level main problem. And the SBC should at least be applauded for recognizing this problem (as anyone who has spent time in a mainline church can attest, many churches are utterly oblivious to the basic need to witness to Christ, with both words and deeds). But, Southern Baptists have heard of the need to evangelize all their lives. After all, they are Baptists and this is what Baptists do. Baptists may not do much in the way of art (like the Anglicans), or great systems of theology (like the Presbyterians), or profound ethical and societal philosophies (like the Catholics), but they can at least do evangelism — that is where all the money goes (the domestic and international mission boards). There have been programs and resolutions for increased evangelization long before the official decline in baptisms of late. So, now there is a new acronym (the GCR), but nothing else is new.
That’s the problem. Nothing else is new. Telling Baptists that they need to evangelize is not enough. This is not really the problem; it’s a result of the problem. The problem is that far too many Southern Baptists could not evangelize even if they wanted to. They do not have the intellectual and social resources to evangelize to our current society. This is not to go off on a postmodern rant. The solution is not capitulation to current modes of thought (a mix of rationalism and relativism). The problem is that (most) Southern Baptists are aloof to this mix of rationalism and relativism, and they have no idea how to proclaim the Gospel to those with little to no Christian presuppositions. Much is made of how evangelicals have capitulated to society (in a sort of American-style Constantinian complex), which may be true to some extent, but the greater problem is a continuing fundamentalist and sectarian influence on Southern Baptist thought. In other words, they are not secular enough. If you believe drinking alcohol and subscribing to evolution are anathema for a proper “Christian” life, then you are not going to get very far with the average “non-churched” person. Until a holism is achieved in Southern Baptist life and thought, an intractable barrier will continue to exist between the faithful in the pew and their co-workers at the office. How exactly I would suggest this holism is to be achieved would take a whole series of posts, and I certainly do not wish to devalue the importance of the Holy Spirit’s conviction of sin and other dogmatic matters. I simply question whether Southern Baptists, and similar evangelical bodies, have thought sufficiently whether their congregants have a depth of understanding about those issues which sustain the particular intellectual vision of their fellow men outside the church.