In a recent consultation with a church in the Southwest, I was confronted with a situation that has not been uncommon in my consultation ministry. The church in question had declined in attendance from 1,200 to 700 in ten years. The pastor was an outgoing leader who communicated well. The church was in a suburban area that had more than doubled its population in the same ten-year period. The church's facilities were well maintained. Visibility of the building was good. Despite all of the church growth possibilities the church was struggling. I sensed quickly that my role was to find the right "formula" to reverse the trends of decline.
One of the facets of my church consultations is to distribute a church health inventory to the congregation. The inventory asks basic questions about the church's attitude toward worship, evangelism, discipleship, ministry, fellowship and prayer. But it also asks ten basic biblical questions. The survey asks the respondents to agree or disagree with such statements as, "The only way to heaven is through Christ," "Hell is a literal place" and "A good person of another faith other than Christianity may go to heaven." Almost three-fourths of the respondents in the Southwestern church indicated that they believed there are ways to heaven other than through Jesus Christ.
When I shared with the pastor my belief that the church's decline was related to theological issues, he responded with anger and indignation. "Why bother with doctrine?" he inquired. "Why can't we show people the love of Jesus and leave the theological debates to others?"
The simple yet profound response is that without a biblical foundation we have no way of knowing the content of our witness to the world, nor of knowing our commands to communicate the gospel. Only in Scripture do we see clearly that we are sinners in need of forgiveness and purification (Isaiah 6:1-6). Only in the Bible do we read clearly that we all are sinners who have fallen short of God's glory (Romans 3:23). Unlike my pastor friend who believed that everyone is basically good, the Bible teaches that humanity's true nature is perverted and corrupted by sin (Romans 7:18). The task of evangelism is made urgent by the biblical teaching that we are sinners in need of a Savior.
The natural tendency of humanity is to be blind to our sin. And without the convicting words of Scripture, we may be tempted to think in the same way as the doubting pastor, that people are basically good. With the viewpoint that evangelism is not necessary, a lecture on self-esteem would be more meaningful. The writer of Hebrews warns us to take heed to the truth of God's Word: "For this reason we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away from it. For if the word spoken through angels proved unalterable, and every transgression and disobedience received a just penalty, how will we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? After it was at the first spoken through the Lord, it was confirmed to us by those who heard" (Hebrews 2:1-3).
The 2000 edition of the Baptist Faith & Message states clearly the scriptural basis for our obligation to be engaged in evangelism. "Missionary effort on the part of all," the BF&M states in Article XI, "rests upon a spiritual necessity of the regenerate life, and is repeatedly commanded in the teachings of Jesus." Why then do we evangelize? First, we evangelize because our Lord commanded us to do so in Scripture (Matthew 28:18-20; Acts 1:8). Second, we evangelize because Scripture teaches clearly the exclusive way of salvation through Jesus Christ (John 14:6).
The world rejects exclusivity
We live in a culture that has difficulty accepting the exclusivity of the gospel. In a recent speaking engagement, I was chastised during the dialogue session by an unidentified man who called me "arrogant and narrow-minded." His issue of contention, it seems, was a comment I made about Christ being the only way of salvation. I responded to him that my comment was a direct quote of Jesus in John 14:6: "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through me." My antagonist responded that he did not believe that passage to be authentic.
When we do not accept the full authority of God's Word, when we do not believe the Scriptures to be inerrant, our evangelistic efforts have no authority. The Bible becomes what is most convenient for us.
It is not surprising, therefore, that many people do not hold to the exclusivistic claims of Christ. A relatively small number of Americans are universalists, believing that all people go to heaven. A significant number believe in pluralism, which teaches that the way to God can be found in many "good" religions. And an increasing number of people, including some active church-goers and teachers in Christian colleges, hold to the position of inclusivism. The heresy of inclusivism sounds orthodox on the surface. An inclusivist will say that he or she affirms that Christ is the only way of salvation. But, the inclusivist says, a person may be "saved" through Christ without any knowledge of Christ. A "good" Mormon or Muslims thus can be saved as an anonymous Christian. That person, the inclusivist claims, does not need to knowingly place his or her faith in Jesus.
The verbal witness and evangelism
The major change in Article XI of the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message is in the final sentence of the article: "It is the duty of every child of God to seek constantly to win the lost to Christ by verbal witness undergirded by a Christian lifestyle, and by other methods in harmony with the gospel of Christ." The words "verbal witness" were added to the 2000 statement. These two words were absolutely needed, and they added a component to the mandate of missions and evangelism that was conspicuously absent in previous statements.
Perhaps a current illustration can illuminate the importance of a verbal witness in the evangelistic mandate. I recently provided a brief consultation with a denominational group outside of our Southern Baptist Convention. My assignment was to offer counsel and provide insight to the reasons the regional denominational group was declining. In the course of my research, I asked if the group provided any evangelistic training for their churches. The key leaders proudly showed me how they had developed a series of training modules which had been eagerly accepted and utilized by a majority of their churches.
My next step was to examine the evangelism training provided by the denominational group. The material was well done. Teaching units were available to the churches on CD or video cassette. The quality of the audio/video material was excellent. But one aspect of the training concerned me. I could find no material which provided training on how to present a verbal witness for Christ. Thinking that I must have missed something, I asked the leaders what type of verbal witness training they provided. Their answer was a curt and succinct "we don't." Seeing the perplexed look on my face, they explained that it was their role to provide lifestyle evangelism training. But, they insisted, it was not their place to train others to tell people about Jesus. Such an approach, they told me, presumed that Christians had a monopoly on truth. And such a presumption from their point of view reeked of arrogance. They would be happy to train people in a Christian lifestyle. And if others inquired of their members, they could certainly tell them about Christ. But they would never be so narrow-minded as to insist that others hear the gospel message.
Such is the danger of speaking about missions and evangelism without explicitly mentioning the mandate to tell the good news. A Christian lifestyle witness is imperative. It provides the foundation from which a verbal witness can be heard with credibility. But a lifestyle witness alone is insufficient. The Apostle Paul was clear on this issue when he wrote the church at Rome: "How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed. How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard" (Romans 10:14a). As Paul admonished Timothy, we are to do the work of an evangelist, clearly speaking the good news of Christ.
The key changes in Article XI of the 2000 BF&M are the additions of "verbal witness" and "the preaching of the gospel to all nations." Both changes rightly correct earlier statements' omissions of any type of explicit verbal proclamation of Christ. And both changes are much more consistent with the biblical teachings which command us to tell the good news to everyone.
Thom S. Rainer is dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism and Church Growth at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.