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Postmodern Martyrs

eric4ibsa —  March 16, 2015
Artwork by Kerry Jackson

Artwork by Kerry Jackson

The call to live–and die–for Christ in the age of terrorism. Are we ready?

By Eric Reed

THE WORLD | The scene is chilling, even a month after it happened: 21 men in orange jumpsuits are led along a beach in Libya by masked men holding knives over their heads, then to their throats. The men in orange are captives, Egyptians working in Libya; more important, they are Christians, Coptic Christians, with up to 20 million adherents, whose branch of the faith dates to the third century AD.

The masked men in black are ISIS rebels, part of the radical faction of Islamic extremists marching across Iran, Iraq and Syria, and taking control of towns and regions ceded by Al-Qaida in the battle with American and indigenous forces over the past decade.

The men in orange are forced to kneel, ordered to recant their faith in Jesus Christ, and when they refuse, they are pushed face down into the sand and the knife blades are placed against their throats.

Mercifully, the video ends there for American television viewers, but for the men in orange there is no mercy.

They are beheaded.

Coptic_ChristiansAnd we, believers watching in disbelief, are little comforted by the great distance between us and the bloodstained beach as we come to the twin realizations that ISIS is on the move with a brutality that the world has not seen in a long time, and we have entered a new era of martyrdom.

A growing threat here?
Sixteen past presidents of the Southern Baptist Convention joined current president Ronnie Floyd in sending an open letter to President Obama, urging the U.S. to “take the necessary actions now” against the ISIS terrorists. They called ISIS “a continuing threat to world peace in a way unknown to us since the Nazis of World War II…”

The March 1 letter came two weeks after the beheading of the Egyptian Christians, and a week after the report that ISIS captured more than 200 Assyrian Christians, including women, children and elderly people. “People are frightened, people are concerned,” concurred Frank Page, SBC Executive Committee President, who said he is often asked about the threat of ISIS. Page’s signature was one of the 17 on the letter.

The concern Page cites is not only about the abominable acts by Islamic extremists abroad—killing a young, female American aid worker, burning a Jordanian pilot alive—it’s about the growing threat on our own shores as young adults, Americans included, are wooed, recruited, and radicalized via the Internet to join ISIS forces in the Middle East. And if not there, to carry out terrorist acts here.

A Somali militant group, al-Shabab, released a video in late February calling for Muslims to attack malls in Britain, Canada, and the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn. “Hasten to heaven,” the video advised, by disrupting the safety of “disbelievers” (meaning non-Muslims) “in their own land.”

U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said such groups are “relying more and more on independent actors to become inspired” and “attack on their own.” The threats should be taken seriously.

If this seems like an exaggeration of the growing threat, one only needs to consider the Boston Marathon bombing in April 2013. On trial now is Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, charged with the attack that killed three people and injured 260.

“The defendant’s goal that day was to maim and kill as many victims as possible,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney William Weinreb during opening arguments. “He believed that he was a soldier in a holy war against Americans. He believed he had taken a step toward reaching paradise. That was his motive for committing these crimes.”

Tsarnaev, with his older brother, was said to be “self-radicalized,” not identifying with a specific terrorist group, but with extremist Islamist beliefs and the wars in Iraq and Syria.

It is those new radicals who are hardest to identify and who may pose the greatest threat in the West. What seemed distant and improbable now feels near and possible. And the threat causes Christians to ask, are we ready?

Wish we’d all been ready
Since we first saw the 1972 film “A Distant Thunder,” many evangelicals have expected their faith would bring them to this moment. Recall the Christian teenagers, converted after they were “left behind” in the rapture, are clad in white. They are led to some secret place to face their death, and the film cuts from their horrified faces to their means of execution, the gleaming blade of a guillotine.

Didn’t we all gasp at that point? Naïve believers in the 1970s hardly imagined their deaths could be worse, but the untelevised portions of the ISIS video say otherwise.

Pastor Robert Jeffress of First Baptist Church of Dallas summarized the terrorist threat in an interview with Fox News: “These Islamists will not rest until they’ve exterminated every Jew and every Christian from the face of the earth, and if you think that is hyperbole, just listen to what they said on that Libyan beach after they butchered those 21 Christians.”

And the Pew Research Center reports threats against Christians worldwide are on the rise. In fact, “…Christians are at the top of the list,” researcher Peter Henne said. “Christians were harassed in 102 countries when you look at either governments or social groups.” Pew also reports an increase in anti-Semitism. “Overall we found that Jews are harassed in 77 countries around the world when you look at both government and social harassments together….It’s also a seven-year high of the number of countries in which Jews were harassed.” Pew’s example: Europe, where Jews were harassed in 34 of the region’s 45 countries.

We do not desire to traffic in fear, but the possibility of martyrdom on our own shores is increasingly real; and it forces us to consider what we may not have given serious thought in a long time: It could be us. It could be me.

And that demands a new theology of martyrdom.

The end of symbolic martyrdom
When Jesus called his followers to take up the cross, he was issuing a call to follow him, even unto death. Many have done so. The apostles died tragically at the hands of oppressors. Scripture reports that James the son of Zebedee was executed by Herod. The deaths of others were told by early church historians and tradition:

Andrew was crucified.

Peter was crucified upside down.

James the son of Alphaeus was stoned, then clubbed to death.

Thomas was run through with spears.

And Paul, it is believed, was beheaded in Rome, to name a few.

Jesus, the Savior-Martyr, was followed willingly and courageously by many across the centuries. And in the 20th century, we have the witness of Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was hanged in a Nazi concentration camp for standing against Hitler’s Third Reich. But somehow, his forbearance in the face of a monolithic, systemic, political evil 70 years ago seems different from what we have seen recently.

We ask, is the death of these Copts the harbinger of the ordinary-believer martyr?

Certainly we are witnessing the death of the symbolic martyr, where the faithful Christian is willing to sacrifice social approval or career advancement in the name of the gospel; where the dutiful believer picks up his cross and marches to the marketplace, willing to suffer the slings and arrows of foulmouthed and hedonistic co-workers—but keeps his life. After all, Paul told Timothy that “in the last days, perilous times will come” and those who desire to live a godly life will be persecuted (2 Timothy 3:1, 12).

Many Christians have assumed the call to suffer for Christ meant the loss of religious liberties, particularly in the West. But now, we’re talking literal martyrdom. Since the murders of 12 students at Columbine High School in 1999, including Cassie Bernall and Rachel Scott who were credited with holding fast to their faith at gunpoint, martyrdom in the postmodern era has had a new face.

Today, the Christian faith really is a matter of life and death in ISIS-held regions of the Middle East, as several missions groups report the killing of indigenous children as their Christian parents refuse to deny Jesus.

And in the rest of the world, believers are challenged to take up the cross, not only in the spiritual sense, but in very real ways, here and now. Paul’s words in Philippians, “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain,” take on stark new meaning.

So does Romans 8: “Because of You we are being put to death all day long…” And the need to hold to the promise written by a man facing his own execution: “For I am persuaded that not even death or life…hostile powers…or any other created thing will have the power to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord!”

What to do now
In the meantime, we pray.

“We ought, indeed, to pray for the gospel to go forward, and that there might be a new Saul of Tarsus turned away from murdering to gospel witness,” wrote Russell Moore, president of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.

“At the same time, we ought to pray, with the martyrs in heaven, for justice against those who do such wickedness. Praying for the military defeat of our enemies, and that they might turn to Christ, these are not contradictory prayers because salvation doesn’t mean turning an eye away from justice.”

Additional reporting by Lisa Sergent

Look for more on this topic in the newest issue of the Illinois Baptist, online at http://ibonline.IBSA.org.

Chicago leaders convened a one-day prayer meeting and equipping conference in January at Lighthouse Fellowship Baptist Church in Frankfort.

Chicago leaders convened a one-day prayer meeting and equipping conference in January at Lighthouse Fellowship Baptist Church in Frankfort.

HEARTLAND | Eric Reed

First Baptist Church of Paxton has a newfound calling as prayer intercessors. “Christ’s church in America is in desperate need of spiritual revival and renewal,” said Pastor Bob Stilwell. “We need to be awakened from our comfort and complacency in our salvation. We need to be shaken from our evangelistic lethargy.”

In January, Stilwell led his congregation in a concert of prayer similar to the prayer for spiritual awakening at the IBSA Annual Meeting in November. The Paxton church is one of many in Illinois joining a national call to prayer, including more than 30 in metro Chicago.

“As I prayed in preparation of God’s message to our congregation for the week focusing on interceding, the Lord revealed His vision for us as an intercessory church,” Stilwell said. “God has begun the process of renewing hearts, changing attitudes and giving new life to our church.”

The call to prayer comes ahead of the 2015 Southern Baptist Convention meeting in Columbus, June 10-11. SBC President Ronnie Floyd picked up past president Fred Luter’s call for revival. “Our greatest need is a mighty awakening in the nation. This has to be preceded with a strong sense of personal revival and church revival,” Floyd said.

At a meeting of SBC leaders and editors in Orange Beach, Alabama, last week, Floyd said registration for the Ohio convention is up 5% compared to this time last year. That is significant, especially for a meeting held outside the Deep South, and Floyd is encouraged. But, he said commitments to attend, made in the next 30 days, “are critical.”

“Are (Southern Baptists) really in agreement that the number one need in America is spiritual awakening?” Paraphrasing the theme of the annual meeting, he said, “We need visible union, we need to lock our arms together, and we need to extraordinarily pray for spiritual awakening.”

In metro Chicago, more than 75 people gathered at Lighthouse Fellowship Baptist Church in Frankfort for an all-day prayer and equipping conference in late January. The prayer coordinator for Chicago Metro Baptist Association, Cheryl Dorsey, urged attenders to seek God’s direction.

“I used to tell God what I wanted and needed until I had a time when I didn’t know what to pray. I learned to pray, ‘God, how am I going to pray about this?’” Dorsey said. “It was as if God said, ‘When are you going to find out what I want you to pray?’”

IBSA’s Dennis Conner, church planting director for the Northeast region, told one breakout session, “We say with our mouth that we trust God, but in our hearts, we trust ourselves. Our churches need a sense of desperation.”

That feeling of great need is common to people responding to the call to prayer. “We need to be filled with a sense of urgency in sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ—the unfailing hope that only he offers to a hopeless world,” Stilwell said. “At FBC Paxton, we’re praying for the Holy Spirit to
bring about such a renewal in our own hearts and the hearts of all of believers throughout Illinois, across the nation and throughout the world.”

And from Floyd: “Why don’t we call on God to do…what we wring our hands about because it hasn’t happened?”

By Eric Reed

Editor’s note: Baptist news editors met in coastal Alabama this week. Look for stories in the Illinois Baptist and online over the next few weeks.

Orange Beach, Ala. | It’s a wonder the local paper didn’t call this “The Battle of Mobile Gay.” This is, after all, the place where in 1864 Admiral Farragut famously condemned the torpedoes and ran his ship “full speed ahead” past Confederate forts and mines (called “torpedoes”) tethered in the Bay.

The 2015 version had attorneys dueling on the courthouse steps and clerks inside shuttering the marriage license window because the probate judge refused to accept applications from same-sex couples.

“I’m plumb ashamed of this town,” one applicant said outside the courthouse on Monday when he and his partner were unable to get married. On Thursday, that same man declared, “In Alabama! I never would’ve believed it!” as he waved his new license in the air with one arm and hugged his new spouse with the other.

Between Monday and Thursday, the Battle:

A federal judge in Mobile, Callie Granade (pronounced like the ammunition), had ruled Alabama’s ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional on January 23. Marriage licenses were to be issued starting Monday. But on Sunday night, Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court Roy Moore told the state’s probate court judges, who issue marriage licenses here, that the federal ruling did not apply to them.

On Monday, it was reported 60 counties started processing applications from same-sex couples; seven did not, including the state’s second most populous county, Mobile. Probate judge Don Davis ordered the license window, festooned with purple and gold Mardi Gras masks, shuttered. No licenses were issued to any couples, same-sex or otherwise.

By Wednesday, it was reported only 23 counties were issuing same-sex licenses.

Attorneys representing gay couples and Judge Davis went to court.

And Roy Moore went on TV.

The last time Moore opposed a higher court ruling, he was removed from the bench. That was over the monument to the Ten Commandments at the State Supreme Court. This time, Moore went to the court of public opinion.

For many observers, he appeared to win in Alabama, where his stance is based on a state’s right to amend its own constitution as 81% voters did in 2006, limiting marriage to the traditional, biblical definition. But on TV, against CNN’s Chris Cuomo, Moore lost, according to national pundits who gave the win to the news anchor/attorney.

It didn’t matter. Late Thursday, Granade ruled again. Probate courts must issue marriage licenses to all couples, despite the state constitution. And today, Friday, it is reported all counties’ license offices are open for business.

Frankly, in Alabama, many would never have believed it. I wouldn’t, because I grew up here.

As Baptist editors gathered for their annual conclave to hear reports from SBC entity heads and discuss journalism, I was also looking forward to a short visit to my old home. I didn’t expect to see history made.

I learned to report from that federal courthouse where TV reporters waited this week for the rulings, reporting breathlessly at 5, 6, and 10 on the latest developments—or lack of them. I covered the same county governments at the place where a half-dozen gay couples were wed in the hour after the marriage license office reopened. And I thought I understood this coastal town where half the people are Baptist and the other half are Catholic, and their alliance has kept the politics and the morals mostly conservative for 300 years.

Until now.

Leaders of the Baptist state convention in Alabama quickly commented: “The vast and overwhelming majority of Alabama Baptist leaders and other church members continue to affirm the biblical view of marriage and the historic declarations that Alabama Baptists have made concerning the marriage relationship,” executive director Rick Lance said.

But the comment did not appear on local newscasts in Mobile.

I did hear a comment from an SBC leader at this meeting that demands my consideration. Given the rapid liberalization of public opinion on same-sex marriage and other moral issues, is it possible that pastors and leaders of SBC entities will find themselves heading organizations that are more conservative than the people in the pews—especially younger people? (That’s just the opposite of what happened in mainline denominations in the second half of the 20th century, when leaders grew far more liberal than church members.) Our church members will be shifted by the tide of public opinion, he said, if we pastors and teachers don’t provide a firmer biblical foundation.

And the next wave is coming soon. From here, it’s full speed ahead to the U.S. Supreme Court, where a ruling possibly in June is likely to determine the legality of same-sex marriage in all 50 states. Expect Southern Baptists to speak to that, but will anyone listen?

The Baptists came to Alabama this week, but that wasn’t news. The world changed while we were here. That’s the news.

Eric Reed is editor of the Illinois Baptist newspaper and associate executive director for the Church Communications team of the Illinois Baptist State Association.

 

Even in Alabama

eric4ibsa —  February 10, 2015

NEWS | Eric Reed

Orange Beach, Alabama — As Baptist newspaper editors and executive directors of state conventions arrived in coastal Alabama Monday, the ground under our feet shifted a little. The day’s big news story: The state started issuing marriage licenses for same sex couples.

Even in Alabama, and only in a few counties, but it is happening. And to hear how the local news reporters tell it, no one imagined this day would come.

According to USA Today’s most recent marriage map, same-sex marriage is banned in 13 states, but court actions are pending in all 13. The federal courts ordered Alabama to begin issuing same sex marriage licenses, but Judge Roy Moore (of Ten Commandments monument fame) ordered state offices to ignore that mandate.

“I had to clarify this for the probate courts to ensure order. Ok? And it was about that, but it was also about that federal courts do not have the authority to redefine marriage,” Moore told media after a late intervention.

So 60 counties refused to process applications filed for the first time yesterday. But in five counties, including Birmingham’s Jefferson County, the state’s most populous, gay couples were given licenses and some were married.

In the second most populous county, Mobile, the clerk’s office was shuttered as a dozen couples sat on benches outside for several hours until the office closed.

And in Baldwin County, where the annual Baptist executive directors and editors meetings are being held, one couple was allowed to apply, but the form was not processed. More noteworthy was the protest outside the county office by 75 people holding signs bearing Bible verses.

“United we stand…together against gay marriage,” protestor Sarah Baggett told a local television station. “We believe marriage is between…a man and a woman and we want to show that….We believe the Bible states firmly that’s not correct and we believe God loves everyone but sin is sin and that’s wrong.”

 

Read more here: http://www.fox10tv.com/story/28059021/baldwin-county-to-only-accept-marriage-applications-for-same-sex-couples#ixzz3RMAi2QNq

 

At the 2013 Southern Baptist Convention, David Platt, at the time pastoring a megachurch in Birmingham, was asked about Alabama’s stance on same-sex marriage. He chuckled, saying Alabama was standing firm. Three years later, it’s no laughing matter.

 

Alabama Baptists felt the need to issue a statement today making their position clear. “The vast and overwhelming majority of Alabama Baptist leaders and other church members continue to affirm the biblical view of marriage and the historic declarations that Alabama Baptists have made concerning the marriage relationship,” executive director Rick Lance said.

 

“Therefore, any church that allows staff members to officiate at same-sex ceremonies is clearly outside biblical teachings about marriage and human sexuality, and they demonstrate that they are not in like-minded fellowship or friendly cooperation with Alabama Baptists and Southern Baptists.”

 

In Mobile, the marriage license office is closed again today, and nobody is getting married. Attorneys are preparing to file for another injunction.

Eric Reed is editor of the Illinois Baptist newspaper.

HEARTLAND | Eric Reed

When I said to my co-workers, “Well, let’s go meet a thousand of our closest friends,” I didn’t know how true that statement would be. We left our offices and drove the four blocks to Springfield’s Crowne Plaza Hotel, site of the 2015 Midwest Leadership Summit. And like so many of our Baptist gatherings, this one felt like Homecoming Week at Sandy Creek Church. We saw dear friends from across Illinois, and some we knew from the other dozen states in attendance.

Eric_Reed_Feb9But I never expected to see Woodie.

After all, it’s been 35 years. And the last time I saw Woodie, he was a Mormon. In Alabama. Go figure. Woodie and his siblings were fourth-generation Reformed Latter Day Saints (RLDS) living in a fishing town on the Gulf Coast. We all went to high school together. Although our school was a ministry of a conservative fundamentalist church, no one made an issue of Woodie’s religion. All his family
were clean-cut, well-mannered, and better behaved than many in our class who claimed to be Christians. I remember Woodie as a great guy, a good football player, and very well liked. But lost.

Woodie came to that truth while in college. Through a campus ministry he came to a life-saving faith in Jesus Christ and left his family’s religion. Later, he attended Mid-America Seminary and was called to ministry. Eventually Woodie moved to Lamoni, Iowa, the place where Latter Day Saints founder Joseph Smith once lived and present-day home to the RLDS college. Woodie had attended that college for a couple of years until he began question the RLDS religion.

Returning in 1991, Woodie started a Baptist student ministry, reaching out to RLDS students and others.

Eventually he pastored First Baptist Church of Lamoni, the sponsor of his college ministry, for nine years, and just recently was called to lead Calvary Baptist Church in Clinton, Iowa. Woodie said God is opening doors to Brazilian soccer players (in Iowa!) because his son plays soccer and his wife is originally from Brazil. Go figure.

That’s why he was at the Midwest Leadership Summit and standing in the hallway outside the ballroom at the Springfield Crowne Plaza. Woodie is a Southern Baptist pastor in the Midwest, looking for fresh ideas, inspiration, and encouragement.

I stand amazed by all God has done in Woodie’s Christian life and Baptist ministry. And I’m so glad God brought our paths to cross again.

I should be more amazed that 35 years after high school—even though Woodie hasn’t changed much—I recognized him standing there. But that’s the Lord’s doing too.

Go figure.

Eric Reed is IBSA’s associate executive director for the Church Communications team, and editor of the Illinois Baptist newspaper.

HEARTLAND | Eric Reed

The world has gotten scarier in recent months. If the ongoing threat from Al Qaida, government-sponsored terror in Syria, escalating conflict in Israel, and the persecution of Christians across the Middle East were not enough, now there’s the march of ISIS, a vast, mobile, and unpredictable kind of terror that produces beheadings on our TV screens and a surge in troop deployment.

We might soothe ourselves by saying, “That’s far away—over there,” if not for Ferguson, Missouri. The scenes of protests following the shooting death of a teenager by a city policeman are still fresh, and the threat of deadly riots pending the outcome of a grand jury investigation of the policeman’s actions is even scarier. Our Illinois friends who live in metro St. Louis television market have been subjected to four months of daily news coverage predicting trouble. Teachers, pastors, and church leaders have all been advised what to do if protests again turn violent.

Eric_Reed_Nov24And don’t forget Ebola. For people all over the world, these are scary days. But into such frightening times, God often sends a message: fear not.

The Lord assures Joshua as he assumes command after Moses, “Haven’t I commanded you: be strong and courageous? Do not be afraid or discouraged, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1:9).

Gideon, ordered to save Israel from the Midianites, is fearful until he hears from God himself: “But the Lord said to him, ‘Peace to you. Don’t be afraid, for you will not die’ (Judges 6:23).

From Lamentations, the prayer of all Israel: “You come near when I call on You;
You say: ‘Do not be afraid.’” (Lam. 3:57).

And most famously, the head of a night-sky army tells a little band of shepherds outside Bethlehem, “Fear not, for behold…” In their declaration there’s a reason for steely nerve: A savior, a rescuer has been born.

When God sends the message to be brave and courageous, he often couples it with an assurance of his own presence. “Do not fear, for I am with you; do not be afraid, for I am your God. I will strengthen you; I will help you; I will hold on to you with My righteous right hand” (Isaiah 41:10).

In Isaiah’s question, “Who has believed what we have heard?
And who has the arm of the Lord been revealed to?” (53:1), the prophet is referring to the coming Messiah. God’s strong right arm is Jesus himself. That’s who will defend us. That’s who will protect us.

“Fear not” is not an idle command; God backs up what he says. “For behold” is an invitation to look and see that His promise is ready to be tested and fully verified.

Jesus, walking on water, tells the disciples: “‘Have courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.’

‘Lord, if it’s You,’ Peter answered Him, ‘command me to come to You on the water.’

‘Come!’ He said” (Matt 14:27-29).

Fear not, Peter, the Lord’s strong arm will hold you up, even on the roiling sea. With such an all-powerful guard alongside, there is no reason to be afraid.

Kizzie Davis, owner of the Ferguson Burger Bar, told KMOX radio last week she refused to board up her new business, as other owners were doing ahead of the grand jury’s report. The mom-and-pop hamburger shop opened one day before the death of Michael Brown and survived the first protests. “We had no issues at that time,” Davis told the reporter. “Prayerfully, we won’t have any issues if unrest occurs this time.”

Customers commended her brave stance. “Cool management. They fear no one, but God,” one posted at the restaurant’s website. (And the turkey burger topped with a fried egg got five stars.)

Davis reminds us all that we can’t live in fear, even in fearful times. And if we follow her example, we too will stay open, keep cooking, and pray.

Eric Reed is editor of the Illinois Baptist and associate executive director for IBSA’s Church Communications Team.

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.”

Owen_Cooper_0616

Photo from Mississippi Historical Society website

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.