Archives For evangelism

Raising baptism

ib2newseditor —  March 6, 2017
baptism-cover

Pastor Sammy Simmons of Immanuel Baptist Church in Benton baptizes Pastor Adron Robinson of Hillcrest Baptist Church in Country Club Hills while Pastor Brian McWethy of Grace Fellowship in Amboy looks on. They were on a tour of Israel led by IBSA’s Pat Pajak.

As rates continue to decline, can evangelism as a lifestyle make a comeback—and make the difference?

Until recently, the man who accepted Christ at Cross Church a few weeks ago was a skeptic. He was moral and hard-working, said Pastor Tim Rhodus, but he just didn’t buy into Christianity. But a few weeks ago, he came to a point of personal faith.

“It wasn’t an evangelistic message in that guy’s case,” Rhodus said. “It was two-and-a-half years of authentic living in front of him, [so] that he saw it was real.”

At Rhodus’ church, which has campuses in Carlinville, Staunton, and Hettick, evangelism is a way of life—of living, actually. Cross Church offers evangelism training a few times a year where participants learn tools to share their faith, but mostly, they’re encouraged to reflect Christ in their everyday lives.

“It’s not a gimmick or a program,” Rhodus said. “It’s normal people choosing to reflect Jesus in their normal lives. And then God uses that to draw people to himself.
“All you have to do is just not be afraid to have the conversation.”

According to a 2016 survey by LifeWay Research, 79% of unchurched Americans say they don’t mind if their friends talk to them about their faith. But only about one-third of unchurched people say they’d go to a worship service if a friend invited them.

As people grow less and less connected with the church as an institution, the numbers show that churches are finding it more difficult to reach people with the gospel. IBSA churches baptized 3,953 people in 2016, a decrease of 10% from the previous year. And 352 churches reported no baptisms for the year.

“This is the lead strategic concern we should have as we try to help churches,” IBSA Executive Director Nate Adams said of the decline in baptisms.

While possible solutions abound, Rhodus and other leaders have seen people come to Christ through lifestyle-oriented evangelism, a method which has gotten a bad rap when used an excuse to not have difficult conversations. But Rhodus explained Cross Church’s philosophy this way: If you’re a mom, you don’t have to fake being a mom. You are a mom wherever you go. You talk openly about it, you’re proud of it. It’s who you are. “How we try to teach it here is that following Christ ought to be just as authentic.”

More talk and more action
The decline in baptisms isn’t just a problem in Illinois. Nationally, baptisms in Southern Baptist churches fell 3.3% in 2016 from the previous year, and the total has fallen eight of the last 10 years, according to data from LifeWay Christian Resources. In an informal Twitter survey last summer, LifeWay President Thom Rainer asked why many churches are less evangelistic than they once were. The top response: “Christians have no sense of urgency to reach lost people.”

Tim Rhodus agrees. “If people aren’t coming to Christ, we should be broken-hearted,” he said. “If there’s a budget crisis (at the church), we call a timeout and have big meetings about budget crises. We don’t have big meetings [if] nobody got baptized in a while, because nobody wants to own that.”

But owning up to the evangelism crisis is exactly what Christians are called to do, said Levi Hart, pastor of Ignite Church in Breese. His church baptized 16 people last year while meeting in a bar in Hart’s hometown. “We’ve got some excited people,” Hart said of his congregation, and they’re excited about making disciples.

Hart pointed to Jesus’ example in the New Testament. “His absolute focus was bringing people to himself.” After Jesus met the Samaritan woman at the well, he told his disciples, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work” (John 4:34).

“I think it starts with (church) leadership being in that place as well,” Hart said. “‘Bringing people to Jesus is my food, it’s my sustenance, it’s the way I will spiritually thrive.’”

Gospel conversations
Even with an evangelism method focused on living out one’s faith naturally, it can be difficult to know what to talk about when the opportunity arises. Hart encourages people to start with their own story.

“Our testimony should be the easiest story we know how to tell,” he said. “It should be like the back of our hand.” And not just the moment we were saved, Hart said, but how God led us to that moment, and what he’s done in our lives since then.

And sometimes, an evangelistic encounter starts with a simple question, said Associate Executive Director Pat Pajak, who directs IBSA’s evangelism efforts.

“My wife and I have always made it a practice when we go out to dinner to say to the waitress, ‘Hey we’re going to pray for our meal in just a minute. How can we pray for you today?’” That’s one way to do lifestyle evangelism, which Pajak also calls “conversational evangelism.”

“You start a conversation with someone and you make it plain that you are a Christian and that you have a concern for that person. It’s the way I live my life publicly before somebody else so that they say, ‘There’s something that they have that I want in my life.’”

While evangelism tools and training resources can be helpful, when an opportunity is presented to share the gospel, a memorized presentation isn’t required, Pajak said.

“I’ve used part of the Roman Road, along with the F.A.I.T.H. presentation, a few things I learned from Evangelism Explosion, and some Continuous Witness Training. In other words, you don’t need a canned approach that’s been carefully memorized, but rather a desire to help those who’ve never heard the story of why Jesus died and rose from the dead, and how he can change their life for all eternity.”

At Cross Church, Tim Rhodus encourages his church members to live evangelistically by authentically, accurately representing Christ. “You be you,” he advises them. “Let Jesus be himself in and through you. And then all the other things fall into place.” After all, the man who recently came to faith at Cross Church was drawn by watching the Christians around him live authentically.

“Increasing baptisms is more about the spiritual temperature in the room,” Rhodus said, “and whether the people are good reflections of [Christ] from Monday to Saturday.”

Our ultimate purpose
A 2012 LifeWay Research survey found that while 80% of people who attend church at least once a month believe they have a personal responsibility to share their faith, 61% had not told someone how to become a Christian in the previous six months. And 48% hadn’t invited anyone to church in the same time period.

While a pastor isn’t solely responsible for reinvigorating evangelism in his church, he does have an integral part to play, Pajak said. He gave an example of pastor who’s able to stand before his church on Sunday morning as a couple walks down the aisle who he personally led to Christ. As pastors are engaged in evangelism and modeling it before their congregations, it sends a message to their congregation.

“Can you imagine what would happen if we had a couple of thousand people in our churches spread out all across Illinois who took this thing seriously—the Great Commission—and really began to share their faith with friends and neighbors and co-workers and family members? What a difference that could make evangelistically, and in baptisms in our churches,” Pajak said.

Rhodus, whose church has grown from 90 people to more than 600 in his 17-year tenure, said the authenticity he thinks is so crucial to reaching people with the gospel starts at the top. Like the apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.”

A church follows its pastor’s example, Rhodus said, and churches that see lives transformed by the gospel are led by pastors who radiate that.

Before he planted Ignite Church in Breese, Levi Hart reconnected with a high school friend whom he started discipling. The man is now the discipleship director for Ignite. “He is all about discipleship,” Hart said. “He wants to see people not just get saved, but discipled and grown up (in their faith).”

That example brings him great joy, Hart said, because the mission of making disciples is a Christian’s ultimate purpose, and therefore the thing that brings the most fulfillment. When pastors and leaders communicate that to their congregations, the excitement is contagious.

“I really think it comes down to this very simple, basic thing,” Hart said. “Each one of us living our life on mission, and that being not just taught, but lived out.”

-Meredith Flynn

The power of one

ib2newseditor —  February 13, 2017

red leaves church steeple

This is a time of year when we at IBSA do a lot of evaluating, not only of our staff’s efforts, but also of the overall health dynamics of churches. An outstanding 95% of IBSA churches completed annual church profile reports for 2016, and this gives us a wealth of information to study.

Like every year, some churches thrived last year and others struggled, so it’s possible to overgeneralize. But looking at the broad stroke data for 964 churches and missions (up seven from the previous year), it’s reasonable to say that some ministry areas such as leadership development and Sunday School participation were up, while others such as church planting and missions giving were down, at least compared to the previous year.

Of all the “down” areas, though, none concern me more than our churches’ overall baptism number, which dropped more than 11% in 2016, to 3,953. The number of churches reporting zero baptisms increased by over 10%, to 352, meaning that more than a third of IBSA churches did not baptize anyone last year.

Just one voice, one commitment, one resolution of faith can turn things around.

A few days ago, one pastor asked me how things were going, and the first burden I found spilling out of my heart was the decline in church baptisms. He nodded his head in empathy and agreement. “I know we were down in our church last year,” he acknowledged.

But what he said next truly encouraged me. “So we are really getting after that this year. We have set a baptism goal, and we have evangelism training planned. But we also have set goals as a church for the number of gospel presentations we will make, and the number of spiritual conversations we will seek to have, believing that those will then lead to gospel presentations.”

He went on to tell me how each leader and church member was being challenged to look for these opportunities, and that they were reporting them through Sunday school classes and other ways.

That same week, a young pastor wrote me an e-mail, thanking me for how two of our IBSA staff members had specifically helped and encouraged his small church. He admitted that in the past he had questioned how much his church’s Cooperative Program giving helped struggling churches, compared with church plants. Now, in his first senior pastorate, he had experienced firsthand the practical ministry support that state staff provide. Others in his association felt the same, he said, and were planning to join him in increasing their Cooperative Program giving this next year.

What struck me about both these conversations, and both these pastors, was the positive power of one voice, one commitment. One pastor looked at a lower baptism number and said, “We will not be satisfied with that. Here’s what we’re going to do.” Another pastor took a fresh look at the value of cooperative missions giving and said, “We can do more.”

So often it just takes just one voice, one commitment, one resolution of faith to turn things around. I think of Noah, and David, and Elijah, and Nehemiah, and other Old Testament heroes. I think of Peter’s boldness and Paul’s resilience in the New Testament. And of course I think of Jesus, not only on the cross, but also in eternity past, saying to the Father, “This shall not stand. I will do what it takes to make this right.”

Today, each of those pastors is using his own power of one to lead and inspire his church to a better place, regardless of the past, or what happened last year. In doing so, they reminded me how much can change when one person simply refuses to accept the status quo.

Nate Adams is executive director of the Illinois Baptist State Association. Respond at IllinoisBaptist@IBSA.org.

The Reformation at 500

ib2newseditor —  January 30, 2017
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Rose Parade Jan. 2, 2017

When the Protestant Reformation gets its own float in the Tournament of Roses Parade, something big must be happening. Not that we needed the Pasadena tableau to underscore the upcoming event, but we must admit it was surprising to hear NBC’s Al Roker announce the 500th anniversary of the Reformation as three flower-covered church bells tolling “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” cruised by at 10 mph.

Would Martin Luther—ex-communicated, jailed, and persecuted for his pursuit of biblical faith—have been shocked to see his life’s work trussed in rose petals and paraded before cheering crowds?

I was.

There, following the surfing dogs, the Rose Queen, and the Salvation Army Band, was the Wittenberg Door, covered in black beans and poppy seeds, commemorating that All Hallow’s Eve in 1517 when the angry priest Luther nailed his complaints against the Catholic Church on the front door. Inscribed on the giant bells was “Faith Alone,” “Grace Alone,” and “Scripture Alone,” the three-sola distillation of Reformation theology.

Also at the front of the float was a man dressed as Jesus, waving to the crowd on one side of Colorado Boulevard and then the other. We can’t fault the sponsors, Lutheran Layman’s League, for their exuberance, for Luther himself redirected the attention of the faithful worldwide to the finished work of Christ as the only means of salvation. Not obeisance to saints or Mary, time served in purgatory, the purchase of “indulgences” for others or ourselves—only God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ can save us. So commonplace today, this must have sounded radical to Luther’s first audiences. Yet, here we stand, benefactors of his brave actions, celebrating his Halloween escapade and all that resulted from it.

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But five centuries after the fact, this anniversary is an opportune time for Southern Baptists to ask a few serious questions:

How Reformed are we? What was started by Luther was picked up, refined, and defined by John Calvin and others. The line from Calvin (and other Reformers) to Southern Baptists isn’t as obvious as is the line from John Knox to the Presbyterians or Luther to the Lutherans, but the Reformers have certainly informed our Baptist theology.

Some Southern Baptists fully embrace Calvin’s doctrines of grace, the sovereignty of God, and election, considering themselves “five-point Calvinists.” Others, who defined their position as “traditional” Southern Baptist in the 2012 debate at the New Orleans convention, accept some of Calvin’s points, but rely more on the verses about God’s desire that all would be saved. Some would say they live in the tension between Calvinism and Arminianism, between the sovereignty of God in bringing people to salvation and the free will of man to accept or reject God’s offer.

This anniversary is a good opportunity for churches to study the principles of Reformed theology and ask, How Reformed are we?

What is the appeal of Reformed theology? For people who have grown up in an era of slushy theology and postmodern uncertainty, Reformed theology offers clear, clean delineation of belief. It’s faith with handles on it. That might explain the appeal to Christians who were described as “young, restless, and reformed” in Collin Hansen’s seminal work by that name in 2008. Hansen capsulized a phenomenon that had been in development for two decades by the time he wrote the book, and must be credited in large part, in SBC life, to Albert Mohler. From his position as president of Southern Seminary starting in 1993, Mohler has schooled a generation of young pastors, theologians, and now seminary presidents.

What is the long-term impact of rising Reformed theology on the SBC? Not everyone is enamored by the growth of Calvinism in Southern Baptist ranks. Some leaders have expressed concern about the possible impact on missions and evangelism.

Certainly our theological debate has been invigorated in recent decades. A denomination given to pragmatic, applicable theology through the Baby Boom years has more recently turned to serious consideration of the nature of the gospel. Can committed Calvinists, “traditional” Southern Baptists focused on evangelism, and the “somewhat Reformed” all coexist in the SBC tent, with a shared purpose that unites us, despite differences over finer points of theology? Or is another schism coming?

What will happen to evangelism? Our denomination’s baptism numbers continue to decline. Southwestern Seminary President Paige Patterson, a “traditionalist,” continues to express concern that rising Calvinism will naturally cool the fires of evangelism.

International Mission Board President David Platt might demonstrate a new kind of Reformed pastor, for whom evangelistic work by God’s people has high priority in God’s sovereignty. Will Platt’s zeal prove characteristic of the younger generation who are following his charge: “For the nations!” Or will the soul-winning Calvinist prove to be an anomaly?

Now, 500 years after Luther struck the first blows for Reformation, these are a few of the issues Southern Baptists must address—before the parade passes by.

– Eric Reed is editor of the Illinois Baptist.

watch pocketIn the church I grew up in, “missionary” was a sacred and scary title, bestowed only upon the spiritual elite, the Navy Seals of the Christian world. We considered them heroes, sat in awe through their slideshows, and gladly donated our money to their ministries.

It was years later that I first realized that every Christian was a missionary, that all Christians were called to leverage their lives and talents for the kingdom. God’s calling into mission is not a separate call we receive years after our salvation; it is inherent in the very call to salvation. Every believer is given a spiritual gift and a role to play in the spread of the Great Commission. “Follow me,” Jesus said, “And I will make you fishers of men.” That’s for everyone, not just those who feel a special tingly feeling they interpret as the call of God, or those who see some message from heaven spelled out in the clouds. Too many Christians sit around waiting on a “voice” to tell them what God has already spelled out in a verse.

Another way to put it: The question is no longer if we are called to leverage our lives for the Great Commission; it’s only where and how.

When “normal” Christians embrace this idea of calling, the gospel spreads like a prairie grassfire. Luke, the writer of Acts, goes out of his way to show us that the gospel travels faster around the world in the mouths of regular Christians than it does through full-time, vocational Christian workers. Luke notes, for example, that the first time the gospel left Jerusalem, it was not in the mouths of the apostles. Regular people “went everywhere preaching the word,” while the apostles stayed in Jerusalem (Acts 8:1–4). The first time the gospel actually went out into the world, not a single apostle was involved.

  • The first “international mission trip” was taken later in that same chapter by Philip, another layman. The Spirit carried him to a desert road where he met an Ethiopian government official, and Philip led him to Christ.
  • The church at Antioch, which served as the hub for missionary activity for the last half of the book of Acts, was not planted by an apostle, but simply “some brothers,” whose names Luke did not even bother to record—presumably because no one would have known whom he was talking about.
  • Apollos, a layman, first carried the gospel into Ephesus, and unnamed brothers first established the church at Rome. These Christians didn’t travel to Rome on a formal mission trip, but were carried there through the normal relocations that come with business and life. As they went, they made disciples in every place (Acts 8:5–8; 18:24–19:1; 28:15).
  • As the historian Steven Neill notes, “Nothing is more notable than the anonymity of these early missionaries.…Luke does not turn aside to mention the name of a single one of those pioneers who laid the foundation. Few, if any, of the great Churches were really founded by apostles. Peter and Paul may have organized the Church in Rome. They certainly did not found it.”

The next wave of missions will be carried forward, I believe, in much the same way—on the wings of business. Consider this: If you overlay a map of world poverty with a map of world evangelization, you will find that the areas most in need of business development are also the most unevangelized. Many of the most unreached places in the world, most closed to Christian missionaries, have arms wide open to any kind of businessmen.

Missiologists frequently refer to a “10/40 window” in which the most unreached peoples live (lying between the 10 and 40 degree latitude lines). For business leaders, the 10/40 window isn’t a window at all; it’s a wide open door.

God may not call you to leave the United States (though he might!). But if you’re a believer, he is calling you to follow him where he goes, as he seeks to make his name known. Whether you’re an investment banker or a full-time pastor, a stay-at-home mom or an overseas missionary, God has a mission for you. From Raleigh-Durham to Bahrain, the responsibility to think that way belongs to every believer. As we often say, “Whatever you are good at, do it well for the glory of God, and do it somewhere strategic for the mission of God.”

It’s time for the “ordinary believers” in our churches to recover the understanding that they are called to the mission and shaped by God for a specific role in that mission. The question is no longer if we are called to leverage our lives for the Great Commission; it’s only a matter of where and how.

J.D. Greear, Ph.D., is pastor of The Summit Church in Raleigh-Durham, N.C., and author of “Gaining by Losing: Why the Future Belongs to Churches that Send.”

The BriefingPhyllis Schlafly, ‘Founding mother’ of the modern conservative movement, dies at 92
Phyllis Schlafly, best known for her tireless work to defeat the Equal Rights Amendment, has died at the age of 92. “Phyllis Schlafly courageously and single-handedly took on the issue of the Equal Rights Amendment when no one else in the country was opposing it,” said James C. Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family. “In so doing, she essentially launched the pro-family, pro-life movement.”

SBC leaders grieve court’s expansion of parenthood
The decision by New York’s highest court to expand custody and visitation rights to “de facto parents” serves as evidence same-sex marriage advocates desire to overthrow humanity’s oldest institution and as part of “a major turning point in human history,” Southern Baptist leaders said.

Chicago homicides in 2016 reach 500
Chicago’s 500th homicide of the year happened over Labor Day weekend, according to the Chicago Tribune. That number carries a lot of weight for the city — not just in quantity, but in meaning: 2016 is now the deadliest year in two decades.

‘Sad’ Russian anti-evangelism law ends a ministry
Independent Baptist missionaries Donald and Ruth Ossewaarde always suspected their Gospel ministry in Oryol, Russia, wouldn’t last when they began in 2002. But they did not expect Donald to be among the first people arrested under Russia’s new law prohibiting organizations from evangelizing outside church walls and without a government permit.

Missouri sends first openly lesbian to Miss America Pageant
Miss Missouri, Erin O’ Flaherty, will compete for the Miss America crown this weekend as the first openly lesbian contestant. “Behind the scenes, we’ve been well-represented, but I’m the first openly gay title holder, so I’m very excited,” she told The Associated Press. “I knew going in that I had the opportunity to make history. Now I get to be more visible to the community and meet more people.”

Sources: Baptist Press, Religion News Service, CNN, Baptist Press, Time Magazine

The BriefingWhen it rains, it pours for weary south Louisiana
For the second time in five months, historic flooding has left widespread devastation and suffering through south Louisiana. As of Sunday afternoon, four people have been killed in the flooding, thousands have been displaced and thousands of homes, businesses and churches have been affected by the flooding. Louisiana Southern Baptist churches are responding amid the devastation.

Five Christian gold medalist Olympians at Rio 2016
Athletes from across the globe have gathered in search of gold at the 2016 Olympic Games, and five Christian sportspeople have managed to overcome obstacles to earn the top honor. Simone Manuel, Caeleb Dressel, Laurie Hernandez, Osea Kolinisau, and Anna Van Der Breggen are five Olympians whose Christian faith has helped them prevail when stumbling blocks could have prevented them from winning gold medals in Rio De Janeiro.

Egyptian sent home from Rio for refusing to shake Israeli’s hand
An Egyptian athlete who refused to shake his Israeli opponent’s hand after their judo bout has been reprimanded and sent home from the Rio Olympics. When Sasson extended his hand, El Shehaby backed away, shaking his head. The referee called the 34-year-old El Shehaby back to the mat and obliged to him to bow; he gave a quick nod and was loudly booed as he exited.

Russia’s ban on evangelism is now in effect
Last month, Russia’s new anti-terrorism laws restricting Christians from evangelizing outside of their churches, went into effect. The “Yarovaya package” requires missionaries to have permits, makes house churches illegal, and limits religious activity to registered church buildings, among other restrictions. Individuals who disobey could be fined up to $780, while organizations could be fined more than $15,000. Many are wondering how strictly will it be enforced.

Countries make Christian charity harder to give and receive
Nearly 20% of the world’s population could lose access to the ministry efforts of Western Christians next year. In April, China banned foreign nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) from engaging in or funding religious activities. The measure could expel Christian groups that are doing medical, developmental, or educational work in the world’s largest country by population, with 1.4 billion people.

Sources: Louisiana Baptist Message, Christian Post, Christianity Today, Christianity Today

The BriefingTransgender troop ban repeal called ‘disastrous’
The Obama administration’s decision to allow openly transgender people to serve in the U.S. military has been classified by Southern Baptist leaders as “deluded,” “disastrous” and a step toward self-inflicted “national weakness.” Mark Coppenger, a former Illinois pastor and retired Army officer, said lifting the ban imperils “decency” and “military readiness.

Justice Alito’s warning about religious freedom
The Court’s decision not to hear a case challenging a Washington state law that forces a family-owned pharmacy to dispense emergency contraceptives is an “ominous sign” for those who value religious freedom, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. said. “If this is a sign of how religious liberty claims will be treated in the years ahead, those who value religious freedom have cause for great concern,” Alito said in a critical dissent.

SCOTUS marriage ruling sparked ministry
Numerous Baptist state conventions have helped equip churches for ministry in the new marriage culture. “Our energy is going into making sure churches understand their religious freedoms regarding same-sex marriage assertions, and helping them take steps to protect those liberties through their bylaws and written operating procedures,” said IBSA Executive Director Nate Adams. We have used conferences, articles and especially downloadable resources on our website to make these protections as accessible to churches as possible.”

We’re talking about religion
When it comes to who’s having those religious conversations with family and friends, it’s particularly evangelicals and black Protestants. The majority of evangelicals talked about religion in the last month with their immediate family (70%) and people outside their family (55%). Most black Protestants also had religious conversations with immediate family (61%) and extended family (51%). \

Russian law would prohibit evangelizing
The proposed Russian laws, considered the country’s most restrictive measures in post-Soviet history, place broad limitations on missionary work, including preaching, teaching, and engaging in any activity designed to recruit people into a religious group. To share their faith, citizens must secure a government permit through a registered religious organization, and they cannot evangelize anywhere besides churches and other religious sites. The restrictions even apply to activity in private residences and online.

Sources: Baptist Press, Daily Signal, Baptist Press, Facts and Trends, Christianity Today