By James Merritt, pastor of Cross Pointe Church in Duluth, GA
What have younger Southern Baptists lost in terms of evangelism that previous generations had? Perhaps I should somewhat broaden the question by replacing “younger” with “contemporary.” I don’t want to make only the “younger generation” the scapegoat for addressing what both objective statistics show and our subjective hearts know: Southern Baptist churches are not evangelizing like they used to.
Take the term “soul-winning,” for instance. It’s got so much dust on it that I need to take a leaf blower and dust it off before my congregation even knows what I mean! For most Millennials and Gen-Xers, “soul-winning” belongs in the linguistic dinosaur category. But the disappearance of “soul-winning” simply reflects deeper trends. When it comes to our present situation in the SBC, I am not concerned as much with terminology as I am with problems of methodology and theology.
Southern Baptists, young and old, share a strong belief that the Bible is God’s Word. Yet when we read in Acts that Jesus said to disciples “You shall be my witnesses…” we have to ask, “Where are they? Where are the witnesses in Southern Baptist life?” Call me a dinosaur, but I want to know,“Where are the soul-winners?” And before you criticize my use of the word, give me a better one I can use in its place. Isn’t that the core of gospel ministry—winning souls back from death in the power of the Spirit for our King Jesus? Allow me to venture into choppy waters and give three thoughts to ponder.
First, I think there is a famine for the gospel, both inside and outside the church. I have personally attended some of the largest and fastest growing churches in my city and throughout the country. Churches whose creativity, innovation, and ability to draw large crowds are both admirable and inspirational. Yet in most of these churches the gospel wasn’t even mentioned, much less preached. Paul told the Corinthians that the central message of Christianity, the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus was “of first importance” (1 Cor 15:3), and that he would know nothing else but “Christ and him crucified.”
The most important message we have is the gospel! Why in the world would we ever want to hide it? We should declare the gospel at every weekend service and share it in every individual situation where God even cracks open the door. The gospel is the message of life, and I cannot think of one downside of making sure that message is clearly presented in our churches.
That leads to my second thought: many people seem reluctant, if not revolted, at the idea of giving an “invitation” during a worship service. I am not necessarily advocating for a “come down the aisle” moment every week. Some of my generation have made that practice into a litmus test for whether a person is a true ”pastor/evangelist.” They have made a sometimes-useful tool into a methodological idol.
Let’s be careful, though, not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. There are many ways to extend an invitation: it may be to walk forward, but it doesn’t have to be. We can invite people to walk to the back, as we do in our church, where people can come talk with me at a designated pastor’s table. Or we invite them to fill out a card, so that we can contact them first thing Monday. We may have designated follow-up times for those with questions.
The younger generation seems to be doing a far better job than previous generations in getting more unchurched people into our services. We should celebrate that! We should also use the opportunity God has given us in that moment. Let’s take a cue from a prior generation by presenting the gospel clearly and giving people a chance to respond. If I could say it this way: Maybe the evangelism explosion we yearn for today will be found when we take the younger generation’s ability to engage and wed it to the previous generation’s ability to harvest.
My third observation is the most crucial: many of our pastors, staff, and laity are simply not witnessing themselves. No generation gets a pass here. But when you listen to this generation, to their stories, their narrative, their messages, and their books, it can be difficult to hear a burden for one-on-one evangelism.
I read something many years ago that gripped my heart: “The two most embarrassing questions you can ask any Christian are these: (1) When is the last time you led a person to Jesus Christ? and (2) When is the last time you tried?” I will be the first one to admit that there are times in my life when I am glad no one asked me that question. My embarrassment level would have been a 10.0 on the Richter scale!
Jesus plainly said to all of us, “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men” (Matthew 4:19). There aren’t a lot of hooks in the water, even though the lake is filled to the brim. There aren’t a lot of plows in the ground, even though the fields are white unto harvest. That applies to all of us.
We need to ask: Do we really believe that the most important decision anyone will ever make in life is to follow Jesus? Do we really believe that people without Christ will spend eternity separated from God? Do we really believe what Jesus said about being his witnesses and his fishermen? Do we really believe the greatest love one person can show to another is to share the life-changing message of the gospel?
We know the right answer to these questions. But we need more than the right answers. When it comes to evangelism—and yes, soul-winning—we need obedient actions, because actions will always speak louder in words.
Every day Jesus is asking all of his followers, in every generation: “Can I get a witness?” May our preaching in the church and practice outside the church be a resounding “Yes!”