HEARTLAND | Eric Reed
Owen Cooper was a prophet. “We live in an age when it is popular to be tolerant and it is a stigma to be called intolerant,” the chemical engineer from Mississippi preached to messengers at the Southern Baptist Convention. “Tolerance of a half truth soon leads to tolerance of an untruth and then to tolerance of an error,” he warned. “Social and political pressures in the name of tolerance are quenching the flame of missionary zeal.”
Cooper was describing his own time, but his convention sermon delivered in Atlantic City in 1964 has proven an apt description of our time.
Among Cooper’s insights: Christianity is losing ground in the U.S., world population is growing faster than the Christian faith, and Islam is on the rise; baptisms in SBC churches are declining, more ministry is focused on places where Southern Baptists are strong than to regions and nations where evangelical witness is weak, and the word “witness” itself is almost lost from our vocabulary – and our activity.
“Southern Baptists are losing their mission zeal because of a growing feeling among many theologians and the laity that, after all, man is not lost.” He cited contemporary articles declaring the beginning of “the post-Christian era.”
In 1964? Really?
“Perhaps it is well to ask ourselves the question, ‘What is wrong?’” Cooper said. “‘What is the trouble? Why the diminution of spiritual momentum in the world, and in our country, and in our denomination?’”
In the two decades after World War 2, the Southern Baptist Convention grew rapidly. An emphasis on Sunday school and evangelism that reached the burgeoning families of returning GIs swelled the ranks. The SBC eclipsed the mainline denominations that peaked in 1964 and started their downward spiral. Even as the SBC rallied for growth in membership, Cooper sounded an alarm. Ten million Southern Baptists were on the church rolls, but three million of them couldn’t be accounted for. Baptisms flatlined.
The numbers are no better today. With 15.7 million members officially, our churches report only 5.8 million in worship on any given Sunday. And baptisms are down for seven out of the last nine years, after 40-plus years mostly plateaued. We peaked in 1972.
“We may find ourselves somewhat in the position occupied by Gideon when his followers included…those who follow the crowd as well as the earnest and dedicated,” Cooper said. Apparently some thinning of the herd at the watering hole wouldn’t hurt. “It’s too easy to join a Baptist church,” he stated.
But more than the incipient decline, Cooper decried the loss of commitment to evangelism. “The Southern Baptist Convention was organized for the purpose of ‘directing the energies of the whole denomination for the propagation of the Gospel.’ Witnessing was acknowledged as our principle objective; it must continue to be such.”
Cooper, a layman, was very public about his faith. (Even in 1964, he said personal witnessing would be considered “intolerant, bigoted, and improper” in many circles.) One of only two laymen elected president of the SBC, he served two terms starting in 1973.
In the 1964 sermon, Cooper called on messengers to increase Cooperative Program giving. In 1962, he said, citing the most recent statistics available, 10% of receipts by Southern Baptist churches went to the CP missions and 8% to state missions; today CP giving is down to 5.4% per church, on average. And he called for more money, missionaries, and church planters in distant and unreached parts of the U.S.
But mostly Cooper called for a return to witnessing: “The challenges and problems faced by Southern Baptists, yea even in Christianity for that matter, seem overwhelming when viewed in their totality. Yet broken into their component parts, it becomes much simpler. As Southern Baptists, as Christians, our task is to ‘win them one by one.’
“Ask men to witness,” he urged. “At the time a person joins the church, he should understand that part of his responsibility is to witness, and opportunities should be provided for Christian witness…Without the primacy of missions and witnessing, the church is without true purpose,” Cooper said, “the pulpit is without power and the pew is without potency.”
Eric Reed found Owen Cooper’s 1964 convention sermon while researching the SBC for the Illinois Baptist series B-101. Cooper, from Yazoo City, Mississippi, was a member of the SBC Executive Committee at the time he delivered it.