The Puritans of the seventeenth century believed that the greatest hindrance to the Gospel in their day was nominal Christianity.1 They found themselves to be members of and preaching in churches that were filled with unconverted men and women who professed faith in Christ. For many members, if not most, Christianity was a religion affirmed with the mouth but not rooted in the heart. It became the task of puritan ministers to evangelize the “Christians” who were already in the church, but had not yet experienced conversion. This task was particularly difficult, for most had obtained some false assurance of their salvation and were therefore no longer concerned for their souls. This led the puritans to address the issue of conversion in their day and forced them to practice evangelism with greater care and thought than their contemporaries.
I am convinced that many of us within the Southern Baptist Convention today find ourselves facing the same situation our Puritan fathers faced 400 years ago. Bad theology and careless evangelism have padded our churches with unconverted Christians. Though we are the largest Protestant denomination in the world on paper, we cannot account for well over half of our baptized members.2 Many of those we can find are seldom involved in ministry and often show no real signs of spiritual life. Like the men who have gone before us we find ourselves in need of revival, awakening and a reformation of our theology and practice of evangelism.
It seems like everyone is crying for some kind of reformation in our Convention at the moment. I believe one of the critical areas of needed change is how we believe a person comes to faith in Christ, and how we help them along the way. And this is much more than simple Calvinism.
While the cry for reformation is good, reforming our evangelism is no small task, because it cuts against many of the traditions that have developed in the Convention over the last 150 years. Not only is there difficulty in overcoming traditions, but there is also the difficulty of doing theology, and this task of change is truly the task of the theologian. In fact evangelism itself is the task of the theologian. Iain Murray put it this way, “The Preacher must be both Evangelist and divine because conversion is too deep a subject to be preached without being studied and too glorious a truth to be studied and not preached.”3 It is unfortunate that we have divorced the evangelist from the theologian in the Southern Baptist context. It is curious that our seminaries divide the Schools of Evangelism from the Schools of Theology. It is disturbing to see that we train our lay people to evangelize without training them in doctrine. It has not always been this way. As recently as 1943 The Sunday School Board of the Southern Baptist Convention (now Lifeway Christian Resources) published a book titled, Soul-Winning Doctrines. In this little book J. Clyde Turner lays out doctrines like the atonement, regeneration, repentance, faith, justification, sanctification, and assurance as essential to winning the lost for Christ. Though this was written after the Convention had moved away from its reformed heritage, it’s clear that theology was still valued and seen as a necessary part of proper evangelism. The stock of theology has dropped considerably since. If we are to begin rebuilding our churches through authentic conversions we have to return to a theologically driven methodology.
In the next post I will begin laying out what I believe is a better approach to evangelism in our post-Christian culture, than what we have generally practiced as a Convention. In short, I believe we need to recover a better understanding of the process of conversion and what generally preceeds it, a more dialogical, seeking approach to evangelism and the ability to diagnose a person's spiritual condition beyond “Christian” and “non-Christian.” I will also suggest other resources that can be used in this task.4
1 Iain Murray, Thomas Hooker and the Doctrine of Conversion, pg. 14 2 The facts are available in many places, here is a good article dealing with the numbers. 3 Murray, pg. 26 4 For starters, check out Thomas Boston's The Art of Manfishing and Solomon Stoddard's A Guide to Christ.