Some years ago a dear old friend now with the Lord who pastored and taught in a prominent Bible college for forty years reminisced to me what it was like to be in the ranks of the independent Baptists in the 1950s through the 1980s. “Oh, Brother John,” he said with that remarkable grin of his, “It was wonderful seeing all of our Churches being filled with those people pouring in from mainline denominations.” Pouring in from mainline denominations? This was just the comment I needed to spark my interest in a line of inquiry growing out of my increasing frustration at seeing so little fruit from my agonizing hours spent knocking on doors while refusing to try to coax someone into repeating words of a prayer I recited for them if I saw no discernible evidence of spiritual interest or conviction. Many of my younger former Bible college classmates who had grown up in IFB Churches were thrilled whenever they could persuade someone to repeat the sinner’s prayer no matter the insincerity written all over the subject’s face. To repeat the words meant the sinner was saved, or so they thought. However, I had stumbled through a false hope and knew what pretend Christianity was from my experience.
Coupled together with that wonderful gentleman’s remark was a second illuminating experience. Here at my second pastorate, our Church worked hard to fill the auditorium at the end of an evangelistic campaign that featured a wonderful Gospel preacher more than two decades ago. On that last night of the crusade we had such an overflow crowd that well over a hundred men had to stand outside to make room for women and children in the auditorium. There was simply no place to put them. Thankfully, everyone could hear the wonderful Gospel message, with 54 responding to the invitation to be saved if memory serves me correctly, most of them adults. When I sent the great report to the Sword of the Lord, I quickly received a strongly worded letter of rebuke from Curtis Hutson. “How dare you describe them as hopeful converts,” he wrote. “It shows a lack of faith on your part to count them as anything but new creatures in Christ.” I was stung by his remarks. After countless weeks of follow-up letter writing, phone calling, personal visitation, and yet not one single person who responded to the invitation that last night and praying the sinner’s prayer ever visiting our Church again, I became convinced the description hopeful converts was the appropriate designation.
You may wonder what the two illuminating experiences I have related have to do with each other. They are vitally connected, I assure you because there is a world of difference between obtaining a profession of faith, either being out soul winning or at the front of the auditorium during an invitation and adding someone to the Church. I beg your indulgence while I describe what I think happened in the heyday of Baptist fundamentalism when the ten largest Churches in the United States were all independent Baptist Churches.
Of the thousands of two-person soul winning teams earnestly desiring to reach the lost for Christ with the Gospel, consider the experiences of one team that illustrate the familiar pattern of so many other teams. They knock on door after door after door. Most doors are closed to them or are opened by hostile or indifferent people. At one door, however, they find someone who is open and curious, who graciously allows them to present the Gospel, and who then bows his head, closes his eyes, and repeats the words he has been told to repeat. He is then asked one or two questions, assured from First John 5.13 that now that he has trusted Christ he is secure forevermore, and arrangements are made for him to attend Church the next day. This pattern is repeated all over America, and as with most who follow this pattern the subject, despite repeating words of a prayer, did not trust Christ as his savior and did not attend Church the next day. Two more times that day this soul winning team erroneously thought they met with success as they led two more subjects in a prayer that did not result in them finding new life in Christ. Despite the spiritual reality, the soul winning team reported three people saved that day.
Unknown to that soul winning team, one of the couples they came to during the day who turned them away closed the front door but then said to each other, “I wish our Church did that.” Then, when they attended their Church the next day they were reminded of its spiritual deadness by the lifeless preaching and the obvious absence of zeal in the lives of others attending. Several weeks later, using the Gospel tract handed to them by the soul winners from the Baptist Church, they attended the energetic fundamental Baptist Church, were thrilled by the preaching, and then decided to join after attending for several consecutive weeks. When they went forward during the invitation, they were asked, “Why have you come forward?” They said, “We want to join.” “Are you Christians?” “Oh, my, yes.” “Have you been baptized since you were saved?” “We were sprinkled when we were very young.” To join they agreed to be immersed and thereby became Baptists.
What the IFB pastors did not know during the rapid growth years of the last half of the 20th century is that the matter of false hopes was a vastly more serious problem than their inexperience and lack of training had taught them. They were convinced that those who said they were Christians were, in fact, Christians. And they attributed the growth of their Churches to aggressive soul winning. Their Churches did grow as a result of aggressive soul winning, but not by adding newly born again Christians. Their Churches grew by adding still unsaved members from mainline denominational Churches, with the baptismal waters being stirred by the immersion of still unsaved people who were excited by the energy, the passion, and the vigor of the determined independent Baptist pastors who sought to win ‘em, wet ‘em, and then work ‘em without much attention paid to whether they were truly won to Christ.
The three W's seemed like a good approach to the pragmatists of our movement, but after a while the old approaches began to wear thin and were eventually discarded. How can we be sure the old approached wore thin? They were discarded, for the most part, with few Churches running buses these days, few Churches having big days these days, few Churches “scheduling revivals” these days. What has replaced the specific crowd draws of days gone by? I could list a whole number of things, but the important thing is what is still not taking place for the most part; conversions. How do I know few conversions are taking place? Two things persuade me: First, if real conversions were occurring with regularity those conversions alone would be all that was necessary to get lost people to Church since that was the approach used in the first century. Second, if real conversions were occurring with regularity growing Churches would not seek to grow at the expense of other Churches. Let me address this second phenomenon at this time because I am convinced it contributes to the departure of our young people from our Churches and the departure of our young Gospel ministers from our movement.
Most growing Churches in California do not grow using evangelism but using sheep stealing, which is to say the enticement of Christians to leave the congregations where they were reached with the Gospel to find greener pastures elsewhere. Most Christians are reached in medium to small congregations using intimate personal witness and contact with faithful Christians who do not employ a scheme, an evangelistic plan, or some template. It is one concerned prayer warrior who is burdened for a friend, co-worker, or neighbor and who witnesses, patiently interacts, and invites to Church. That subject then comes under real conviction and genuinely trusts Christ as his Savior. However, with the passage of time that fairly new Christian displays impatience associated with his spiritual immaturity and succumbs to the enticements of a nearby ministry that focuses on entertaining music or a truly exciting youth ministry to attract members of nearby Churches. Of course, they claim their interest is evangelism, but an accounting of their growth patterns reveal they are actually “reaching” already Churched people.
Imagine for just a moment the impact that approach has on the young people in both types of Churches, those whose people are leaving to go to a larger ministry for what are essentially carnal reasons and those whose friends have left the smaller Churches they are attending for what are essentially carnal reasons. It establishes as acceptable a pattern of conduct by Christians that is most definitely not acceptable. Yes, Aquila and Priscilla left Rome for Corinth where they met Paul. However, their departure was of necessity and not for reasons of personal preference or the lure of entertaining ministry. When I was a young Christian Church letters were still the norm in most Baptist Churches because leaving one’s Church for another Church was still a serious matter in those days. No longer. When was the last time you granted a Church letter to another Church where one of your people had joined? Even rarer, when was the last time you were made aware of a Church letter request being denied because the move from one Church to another was for unspiritual reasons?
Is it any surprise that our young people treat attendance at Church, faithfulness in Church, and respect for Church so casually given the way pastors have come to treat such matters? Pastors in our day are for the most part no longer leaders who set the pattern for Christian practice and convictions, but followers with a spiritual wet finger in the air to detect which way the ecclesiastical winds are blowing. And the pastors of growing Churches are too often cleverly, if not consciously, growing using solicitation of other Church’s members and not evangelism. This is easy to verify by simply asking members if they were ever members of other Churches. A very significant number of our Church members came to us lost, and I can tell you from twenty years of experience in a forty-year-old ministry that getting folks saved, really and truly saved, is not only the result of a great deal of hard work but a huge investment of time.
Our young people used to leave our Church, but that was back in the day when our membership was a revolving door of comings and goings. Since we stopped inviting members of other Churches to attend our services (even on special days and holiday season events) and focused on reaching out only to the unchurched or those who attend Churches that do not preach the Gospel we have noticed two things: First, new Church members are very hard to come by now that we have limited ourselves to growth by evangelism only, real evangelism. Also, far fewer of our young people leave now than they did before, partly because our entire congregation treats membership and faithfulness to this ministry as being very important. We not only encourage our people to be faithful to our Church, but we also encourage anyone who visits us from other Gospel Churches to be faithful to their Church, as well.
Is there a Scriptural warrant for our approach? I think so. In addition to displaying straightforward ethical conduct, we consider Christians to be sheep who are best situated in their home flock. However, for those who are allergic to any principle drawn from the Old Testament, consider Paul’s comments to the Corinthian congregation in First Corinthians chapter 9.10, where the pastor is likened to a plower and a thresher who should be granted the fruit of their labor. To engage in sheep stealing is taking from a faithful pastor the blessing God would give him of benefiting from the fruit of his labor. Sadly, there are many sheep stealers in the Gospel ministry these days, and I am convinced it affects our young people and our young Gospel ministers.