It was the rare Billy Graham Evangelistic Association event in which Graham was in the audience — incognito in a hat and dark glasses — and his brother-in-law Leighton Ford was in the pulpit.
Graham was set to preach the next day, noted Ford, who told this story many times. At the altar call, Graham saw the man seated in front of him was struggling. Leaning forward, but remaining anonymous, Graham asked if he wanted to go forward and accept Jesus as his Savior.
No, the man replied, “I’ll just wait till the big gun preaches tomorrow night.”
There was a time when Baptists and other evangelicals could count on ordinary people showing up at crusades and local “revivals” for a variety of reasons. Some were worried about heaven, hell and the state of their souls. Some were impressed by strong local churches and figured they had little to lose, and maybe something to gain, by walking the aisle and getting baptized.
That was then. Anyone who has studied Southern Baptist Convention statistics knows times have changed. That will be a big subject looming in the background when America’s largest Protestant flock gathers Tuesday to Wednesday in Birmingham, Alabama, for its annual national convention.
For decades, Southern Baptists have “relied on revivalism” as an evangelistic engine that would deliver church growth, noted the Rev. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.
“The problem is that revivalism only works when Christianity is triumphant or on the rise,” he said. “Revivalism ... isn’t going to be as effective when Christianity is seen to be in eclipse — like it is in American culture at this point.”
Southern Baptist membership hit 14.8 million last year, down from 16.3 million in 2006 — falling 8% in that era. That reality cannot be ignored, even if it isn’t as stunning as the 30% to 50% declines seen in mainline Protestant churches since the 1960s. The most telling statistics point to declines in baptisms, which fell 3% in 2018 — down to 246,442 baptisms — following a 9% drop in 2017.
Thus, Mohler recently published an essay, entitled “The Future of the Southern Baptist Convention: The Numbers Don’t Add Up,” covering several sobering trends:
- Southern Baptist Sunday school students used to complete forms indicating if they had arrived on time, brought their Bibles, studied the day’s lesson, stayed for worship, etc. “We not only counted Sunday School students; we graded them,” he noted.
Today, many churches struggle to maintain Sunday schools and youth programs. Many parents have “bought into the larger culture’s portrait of the good childhood, complete with incessant sports activities, violin and ballet lessons and activities perceived to boost a child’s eventual college admissions application.”
- SBC numbers peaked as declines began in U.S. birth rates, a cultural trend now seen in most pews. “There is no question that children raised within Christian homes by Christian parents are most likely to make their own profession of faith and continue church participation into adulthood,” Mohler wrote.
Rising numbers of Americans feel lonely, and even desperate. However, few fret about what will happen when they die. Embracing a vague faith researchers have called “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,” many Americans believe the goal of life is to “be happy,” “be nice” and “be fair” while trusting God lets “good people” go to heaven.
“There’s a good reason few churches hold revivals anymore,” Mohler said.
- Parents face tough choices about how to control smartphones, tablets, laptops and other devices that dominate daily life. Parents and church leaders, Mohler said, may fear what will happen if they ask children to be truly countercultural on many media issues.
“SBC trends looked great when our neighbors ... gained social status and trust within the community by joining the First Baptist Church or another evangelical congregation,” Mohler wrote. “That is no longer the case. Now, given secularization and the sexual and moral revolutions utterly reshaping our culture, our neighbors may well lose social capital by joining our churches.”
Mattingly is the editor of GetReligion.org and Senior Fellow for Media and Religion at The King’s College in New York City. He lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.