We have been told that baptisms are down in the Southern Baptist Convention. We have been told we need to re-double our efforts in witnessing. We have been told the reason for the decline is our lack of commitment and relaxed attitude toward soul-winning. Some have suggested that perhaps we need to tweak our methods.
PLEASE HEAR ME CLEARLY!!! I AM NOT AGAINST ENCOURAGING OUR PEOPLE TO BE MORE FAITHFUL IN THEIR EVANGELISTIC EFFORTS! AND I AM NOT AGAINST WORKING TO IMPROVE OUR METHODS IN COMMUNICATING THE GOSPEL MESSAGE!
However, I am not so sure that lack of evangelistic zeal or poor witnessing techniques are mostly to blame for the decline in baptisms.
No one in their right mind would call Western Europe, or more specifically Spain, where God has given me the privilege of serving Him for the last 16 years, a great "harvest field." Several years ago, I came across the little book Sowing, Reaping, Keeping, written by Lawrence Singlehurst, Director of Youth With a Mission, England. In this amazingly simple yet profound book, Singlehurst cogently makes the point that evangelism is made up not only of "reaping", but also of "sowing" and "keeping". And, in order to be most effective at the evangelistic task, it is necessary to analyze the context in which one finds oneself, and adapt the strategy accordingly. Upon my recommendation, the IMB Western Europe leadership has since made Sowing, Reaping, Keeping required reading for all new missionaries to Western Europe.
Another book with a similar message is Finding Common Ground, by Campus Crusade for Christ worker Tim Downs. I cannot recommend these two books strongly enough. In order to capture the force of the arguments made, you must get the books and read them for yourself.However, in light of recent admonitions to re-double our efforts at harvesting in the context of Southern Baptists in the United States, I want to leave you with some choice quotes from Finding Common Ground...
Many of our modern churches and evangelistic movements were founded during a time when the American fields were abundantly white for harvest. But the fields of the fifties and sixties, like the fields of Jesus’ time, were ripe for harvest because of countless sowers who had worked to create a soil that was conducive to the growth of the gospel. The "soil" of our society is the whole environment in which Christians seek to live and minister. It is the culture, the atmosphere, the worldview, the zeitgeist—the "spirit of the time" in which we live. In each generation, Christians must attempt to plant the seed of the Word of God in the soil of the prevailing culture. Historically, some soils have been better than others. In each case, the nature of the soil determines what kind of life it will support…
There is no doubt that the soil of our society has eroded significantly in a short period of time. Over the last forty years, many para-church organizations and churches have struggled with a thinning harvest in America. In an attempt to recapture the glory of past harvests we have recruited more harvesters, sharpened our sickles and scythes, and challenged our workers to greater commitment and longer hours.
Maybe it’s time to analyze the soil. Maybe it’s time to sow. (pp. 16-17)
Almost thirty years ago, as a young college student and a very new Christian, I was trained in the basic principles of evangelism. I learned to present the gospel using a simple tract, the Four Spiritual Laws. I discussed that little booklet with roommates, fraternity members, grad students, international students, and even professors. I presented the gospel to literally hundreds of people during my four years of college, and I found a tremendous amount of openness—even eagerness—to discuss spiritual things. In those days, I could assume the openness of the average hearer. My sole filter when considering a potential listener was, "Are you busy?" Today, many Christians attempting to do evangelism find that they now must assume the disinterest, or even the hostility, of the average hearer. As a result, the statistics on evangelistic success from most ministries are much lower than they were thirty years ago.
What accounts for this change? Our first instinct has been to examine ourselves. Have we lost our first love? Are we lacking in dedication or commitment? Are we as bold as we used to be? Our second response has been to reconsider our methodology. Is this booklet out-of-date? Are we behind the times? Should we expand this, enlarge this, reprint it in four-color, or make it available on CD-ROM? The option we rarely consider—perhaps because it sounds unspiritual—is that times have changed. Perhaps our nation has entered a different phase of the harvest cycle. Perhaps our culture’s fields are not as ripe as they used to be.
In John 4, Jesus uttered His famous words, "I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest" (v. 35 NIV). Christians have often assumed that Jesus was stating a timeless spiritual principle: Now that the Messiah has come, a new era has begun. The fields will always be white for harvest. Is that what Jesus was saying? If so, He picked a strange metaphor. In actual farming, a time of harvest is followed by a time of rest, followed by a time of sowing, and the process begins all over again. In farming, no field is always ripe for harvest Was Jesus telling us that His fields were different, in that they were always ripe? Or was He tellling His disciples something about the day in which they lived? "But when the fullness of the time came," Galatians tells us, "God sent forth His Son…" (4:4). Much has been written about the "fullness of the time" and why the Messiah came when He did. Could it be that a part of the "fullness of the time" was that the fields of Jesus’ time had been throroughly sown and were now abundantly—perhaps uniquely—ripe for harvest? (pp. 102-03)
Let me state my concern plainly. Because we enjoyed such evangelistic success in the sixties, we told ourselves that the American fields would always be white for harvest. Because harvesting was so effective, we told ourselves that harvesting was the only technique we would ever need. If the fields are eternally ripe, we only need to harvest. Why bother with anything else?
So we teach each new generation of Christians how to harvest—only how to harvest—and we assure them that the fields around them are ripe and ready for the picking, if only they will have the faith and the boldness to go. Our books and our training videos are loaded with illustrations that show how easy it is and how open people are to hearing the gospel. But when they go, they sometimes have a rude awakening. The fields around them do not always seem ripe. People are not as eager and open as they expected—sometimes they’re even hostile. And so, because harvesting is all they know how to do, they begin to withdraw from the fields. (p. 105)