In 2019, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) – the nation’s largest and arguably most conservative and evangelical Christian denomination – reported its 12th year of declining membership. Baptisms also declined by approximately 7,600. In fact, baptisms have declined for the SBC in eight of the last 10 years and are down more than 100,000 from 2009. As Scott McConnell, director of the SBC’s LifeWay Research said, SBC leaders “look at numbers like this and see a wake-up call for the church to get back to the roots of what really matters—very actively sharing, with our local communities, the Gospel, the message of the Gospel and what the church has to offer.”
While the appropriate response, there’s a difference between rhetoric and reality. Similar statements were made in previous years when declines were reported, yet the declines continued unabated. And Southern Baptists aren’t alone. A 2019 study from Exponential by LifeWay Research found that six in 10 of all Protestant churches are plateaued or declining in attendance and more than half saw fewer than 10 people become new Christians in the past 12 months. Most have fewer than 100 people attending services each week, including 21% who average fewer than 50.
It would seem to go without saying that the clarion call of the church would be outreach, coupled with a renewed missional mindset that wrestles with the question Lesslie Newbigin pursued throughout his writings: “What would be involved in a missionary encounter between the Gospel and this whole way of perceiving, thinking and living that we call ‘modern Western culture’?”
Yet many simply lament and pray for revival.
Without question, the resolve to pray for and desire the experience of revival can be found throughout the biblical narrative. And few would deny the cultural impact such movements of God can bring.
Twice in North American history, God has brought about what can truly be called national revivals. The first began in 1729 when a small band of young men at Oxford University met to pray, fast and study the Word. From this came what is known as the Evangelical Awakening in America or the First Great Awakening, led by such luminaries as Charles and John Wesley, and George Whitfield.
This was followed in 1806 by the Second Great Awakening, which found its roots in the “Haystack Prayer Meeting” of five collegians at Williams College in Massachusetts. It was given this name because of the momentous night when the Holy Spirit blew through their lives and they were forced into a barn by a thunderstorm and found themselves praying huddled under a haystack. Among that group was Samuel Mills who became one of the founders of the American Bible Society, and another joined the first team of five missionaries to India.
These revivals produced unprecedented mass evangelism, groundbreaking missionary activity and significant social change throughout North America. I confess I am very attracted to this approach and have given a great deal of my life to pursuing it; but by itself, revival is insufficient.
I was reminded of this when I spoke on the campus of Williams College at the invitation of the C.S. Lewis Foundation in honor of the 200th anniversary of the great Haystack Awakening. After I spoke in Thompson Memorial Chapel, built in 1905 to be the visible center for the school’s spiritual life, a local pastor in attendance remarked how my address was the first time the gospel had been proclaimed there in his memory. In other words, the great Haystack Awakening was not a long-lasting influence.
But more critically, a dependence on revival can lead to a passive approach to cultural engagement. I’m not suggesting that prayer is passive, nor that a revival – once unleashed – is by any means tame. But to simply wait for, hope for, or look to revival to solve the challenge of cultural engagement is a passive approach, and one would be hard pressed to find any biblical support for such “waiting.” Or as Leonard Ravenhill once wrote:
“I am fully aware that there are those who in their sleepiness will swing back to the sovereignty of God and say, ‘When He moves, revival will come.’ That is only half-truth. Do you mean that the Lord is happy that 83 people per minute die without Christ? Have you fallen for the idea that the Lord is more willing that many should perish?”
It’s time to state things plainly. In the face of a post-Christian world, you can either be a church for the unchurched, or a church for the churched. I do not mean choosing between evangelism and discipleship. That is a false dichotomy, as scripturally both are mandated. I mean choosing missionally who you are going to try and reach.
With all of the talk about what it means to be missional and how to engage the culture, I cannot help but feel that the most pressing need is for churches and its leaders to get back to bold, courageous evangelism. That is what it means to be a church for the unchurched. When you think of how you want to grow, who you want to reach, you think of the person who is not in a saving relationship with God through Christ. Period.
And who knows?
That might just bring about the revival so many are praying for.
James Emery White
Travis Loller, “Southern Baptists See 12th Year of Declining Membership,” The Tennessean, May 24, 2019, read online.
Aaron Earls, “The Church Growth Gap: The Big Get Bigger While the Small Get Smaller,” Christianity Today, March 6, 2019, read online.
Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture.
Leonard Ravenhill, Why Revival Tarries.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunct professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His newest book, Christianity for People Who Aren’t Christians: Uncommon Answers to Common Questions, is now available on Amazon or at your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.