More than a few people were shocked and disappointed last year when Danny Akin, among others, pointed out that declining evangelism statistics gave evidence of what he called "grave weakness" in the denomination. The disappointment was not in Akin but in ourselves. Akin was simply the messenger.
According to Associated Baptist Press, he "cited a recent journal article in which seminary professor Thom Rainer said, 'An honest evaluation of the data leads us to but one conclusion: The conservative resurgence has not resulted in a more evangelistic denomination.'"
"In 1950 Southern Baptists on average recorded one baptism for every 19 church members, Rainer wrote. By 2003 the ratio had more than doubled, to 43-to-1, suggesting Southern Baptist church members are less effective at evangelism. Moreover, a relative few Southern Baptist churches account for most of the baptisms, Rainer wrote, while the majority of SBC churches are 'evangelistically anemic,' baptizing fewer than 12 people a year."
Those numbers are enough to give any Bible-believing Christian pause. Is the culprit a conservative view of Scripture: that is a view that holds the Word of God to be inerrant? The answer is "no" in that "Rainer added, 'the statistics would be even worse without the conservative movement.' He surveyed a group of churches aligned with the moderate Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and found their baptism ratio was 92-to-1."
A number of reasons exist as to why even conservatives are less effective in evangelism than they were fifty years ago. Let us not dwell on those reasons for the moment, but rather, let us be admonished and encouraged. We need to understand some things in this anemic church climate in which we find ourselves.
First, we need to understand the strength of our ministry. When we go forth with the gospel to others, we do not go forth with empty hands. We go forth with the Word, the power, the Spirit, and the assurance of God (1 Thes. 1:5). Further, we can go forth with an expectation of results. It is the gospel message that produces in people powerful change, spiritual joy, holy living, gospel proclamation, eternal salvation, and eternal hope among other things (1:5-10).
By way of expansion, it is interesting that Paul had this to say to the Thessalonians: "For you yourselves know, brethren, that our coming to you was not in vain (2:1)." The phrase "not in vain" connotes much. The concepts of empty-handedness, worthlessness, and/or ineffectualness are all in view. A couple of implications may be gleaned.
The first implication is that Paul and his companions did not come empty handed. That is, when they came to Thessalonica, they did not come to receive but to give. While it is true they worked hard and were not a burden to the Thessalonians, Paul has something else in mind at the moment in this statement. They came with something more profound than mere material things. They came with the gospel of God. In so coming, they came with the power and Spirit of God. They came with joy, hope, and life to name of few of the wonderful blessings that accompany the message of the gospel.
The second implication is that because Paul did not come empty handed, his message, and by implication his ministry, was not empty. It produced tangible results. It produced changed lives. The Thessalonians turned from idols to serve the Living God (1:9). What better encouragement to take the gospel to others can anyone offer?
Second, we need to embrace a boldness in our witness. We must and can be bold despite potential suffering or persecution. Paul refers to previous suffering for the sake of the gospel and cites the fact that he came and preached the same message despite that suffering. The implication is that he is not in this thing for personal gain. He is a man under obligation from God and He has a message from God. Thus, he noted, "But even after we had suffered before and were spitefully treated at Philippi, as you know, we were bold in our God to speak to you the gospel of God in much conflict (2:2)."
This reference to suffering must be seen as at least two-fold. The first reference refers to the fact that Paul had been shamefully treated despite the fact that he was a Roman citizen. Luke faithfully records Paul's public beating, among other things, in Acts 16:11-40.
The second reference refers to the fact that this beating, which included being slandered, being robbed, and being hauled off to prison was for the sake of Christ. Paul wasn't concerned merely with the fact that his Roman citizenship had been violated. He connects this suffering to gospel proclamation and says that even in the face of such persecution he is still proclaiming that same message.
Further, even though Paul was beaten and arrested, he not only proclaimed the gospel, but he proclaimed the gospel boldly. His courage was not diminished. He did not cut and run. Had his focus been on self or self preservation, he would have no doubt protected himself. But, he was not a peddler. He was not guilty of that of which he had been accused. He was all the more emboldened to preach the gospel as a result of the persecution! May our courage not be diminished in the hostile culture!
Third, we need to realize our help is from God. Our boldness comes from God and it is the Lord God Almighty who enables us to speak despite great difficulty. Paul knew, of course, that this emboldening power in his life could only be explained by God. Paul notes that he and his companions were bold in God. It was their union with God by Christ that gave them boldness. It was the indwelling power and presence of God in the Holy Spirit. God had given them another comforter and He had given them help in time of need.
Read how Paul puts it on another occasion: "For these reasons the Jews seized me in the temple and tried to kill me. Therefore, having obtained help from God, to this day I stand, witnessing both to small and great, saying no other things than those which the prophets and Moses said would come--that the Christ would suffer, that He would be the first to rise from the dead, and would proclaim light to the Jewish people and to the Gentiles (Acts 26:21-23)." Paul continued to witness the gospel having obtained help from God. Shouldn’t we do the same and shouldn't we be encouraged by this realization?
Fourth, we need to consider the source of our message. Our message is the gospel of God. Just as Paul was granted boldness to preach the gospel of God to the Thessalonians, we are granted to preach the same in our context. Indeed he preached the gospel of God. It was the good news about God in Christ Jesus reconciling the world unto Himself. Further, it was the good news from God. No other source exists for such news and no other news rivals this news as good. It is from God and about God. It is the gospel of God. In other words, there is no greater message on earth by virtue of its content and source. Let us speak it without hesitation and without ceasing!
Fifth, we need to experience the negation of our conflict. Despite the fact that we preach the gospel in the midst of great conflict within ourselves or from others, our ministry is strong as we have noted. Our witness can and should be bold because God is our help. And, because God is our help and our message is from Him and about Him, there is a sense in which our conflict pales in comparison to the greatness of the message we have and the privilege we have to share it.
Even when Paul preached the gospel in Thessalonica there was conflict, tension, and anxiety. But, through it all, he preached. His primary defense of his calling and ministry was his willingness to speak these things despite the conflict. And again, his defense ultimately lies in the fact that he was God’s messenger speaking God's message to those in need.
Akin, Rainer, and others agree that Southern Baptists need to police their church rolls, prevent unregenerate persons from exerting influence in the church, be committed to biblical inerrancy, and so much more. At the same time, in light of downward evangelism trends, Akin urges Christians to become "'rabid dogs for evangelism' and defend 'the exclusivity of the gospel,' [contending] that salvation comes only through Jesus." He is on to something here. May we take his advice, be encouraged by the Word, and follow Paul's example for the glory of Christ and the salvation of souls.
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About Paul Dean
Dr. Paul Dean is a pastor, cultural commentator, and author. He serves as a Regional Mentor with the International Association of Biblical Counselors, speaks at several conferences throughout the year, and provides training for ministers and churches on a regular basis. Paul resides in the Upstate of South Carolina with his wife and three children.
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