In June, I will be starting some a summer school intensive for seminary. It’s “intense” because it’s a 3-credit class crammed into four days of lectures and a handful of papers to be submitted afterwards. I’m gung-ho about the class seeing as it’s on “Baptist History” with Dr. Jason Duesing presiding. I’m delighted to be learning more about my Baptist roots, even if that history is coming from a Southern Baptist perspective. (I am not affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention [SBC] outside of my enrollment at an SBC seminary. Even still, I am grateful for my SBC brothers and sisters in ministry.)
Be that as it may, as I have been getting ahead in my reading for this class, I’ve been working my way through The SBC and the 21st Century: Reflection, Renewal, & Recommitment, a book edited by Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (MBTS) president, Dr. Jason K. Allen. The reading has been enjoyable and informative thus far, even if it does come across as a tinged with a healthy dosage of “rah-rah-SBC!” enthusiasm. But seeing as the chapters are essentially transcripts of talks from a 2015 Southern Baptist symposium hosted by MBTS that included all the who’s-who from across the Southern Baptist Convention, that doesn’t (necessarily) bother me.
Nevertheless, in a paper entitled, “By the Numbers: What SBC Demographics Tell Us About Our Past, Present, and Future,” Thom Rainer spends some time examining raw numbers from reports in the SBC’s past that present some uncomfortable realities. Rainer highlights some dark years of church planting doldrums, discipleship nonchalance, the “influence of affluence,” and overall lack of evangelistic effort. All of which lead him to make the following assertion, one that has stuck with me for a few weeks now. He writes:
A church that does not have an intentionality about evangelism is unlikely to be evangelistic.1
This alone would be convicting enough, but Rainer presses further:
We may not be reaching people for Christ because we are not trying to reach people for Christ.2
Those words are like a shot to my heart, forcing me to confront the fact that my efforts in evangelism haven’t been as intentional or purposeful as they ought to be. And that stings.
We all, certainly, know the Great Commission. We are familiar with Jesus’s words to his disciples just before his ascension about preaching the gospel to all peoples and nations. (Mk 16:15; Mt 28:18–20; Acts 1:7–8) But — and I’m speaking from personal experience, here — oftentimes the Great Commission is seen less as a verbal errand and more like a visible chore. Let me explain.
Have you heard of that quote that’s usually attributed to St. Francis of Assisi about using words “when necessary” to preach the gospel? It goes something like, “Preach the gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.” I have wrestled with this sentiment for a long time now, primarily because I’ve experienced firsthand the “preaching the gospel without words” scenario. Once upon a time, I worked at Panera Bread as an artisanal sandwich creator. It was my first “real” job. My two stints working at that establishment went pretty well, despite the manager . . . well, that’s another story for another day. But I remember a distinct moment when a new female co-worker who was hired to work on the registers came up to me abruptly and said, “You’re a Christian, aren’t you?”
I was taken aback by the comment, and not because I was covert with my testimony, but because I wasn’t necessarily “trying” proselytize anyone when I worked there.
“Yes, I am,” I replied. “How did you know?”
“I could just tell,” she told me.
That stuck with me. The notion that I had carried myself differently than my fellow-purveyors of soups, sandwiches, and salads was a striking reality. My co-workers knew I was a Christian, I am sure of that. When opportunities arose, I wasn’t shy about sharing my faith. But, at the same time, I didn’t go into work preaching. I was just working hard and being punctual and doing my best to make orders as fast as possible. (Chipp Greene, if you’re reading this, you know.) But enough back-patting.
The point I’m trying to make is not how remarkably I “lived” my testimony. Rather, it’s how insufficient a living testimony is to actually sharing the gospel. Some theologians will dismiss “preach the gospel at all times and, when necessary, use words” out of turn. But rather than flatly dismissing such a sentiment, I would say that while partly true, preaching the gospel without words (and only actions) can only get you so far. While a living testimony will allow others to see the difference the gospel makes, it won’t ever cue them in to the deliverance the gospel offers. And that’s the point.
To return to Rainer’s assertion, then, sharing the gospel (also known as, evangelism) necessitates both a visible and a vocal testimony to the power of grace that rescues sinners from the deepest darkness. This, I would say, is what is meant by “intentional evangelism.” Sharing your faith with deliberate, purposeful actions and conversations. Saving grace can be evidenced without words but it is only experienced with words. It is made effectual when the Word is preached. (Rom 10:8–16) “So faith,” St. Paul concludes, “comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the message about Christ.” (Rom 10:17)
Therefore, I am left to ask myself: What am I doing to share the gospel intentionally? Am I trying to let my actions speak by themselves or am I accompanying actions with words that bring the good news of Christ’s substitution into the ears and hearts of those who are desperate? Am I being casual or purposeful with my witness? I’m chewing on that.
Thom S. Rainer, “By the Numbers: What SBC Demographics Tell Us About Our Past, Present, and Future,” The SBC and the 21st Century: Reflection, Renewal, & Recommitment, edited by Jason K. Allen (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2016), 26.