NASHVILLE, Tenn. (ABP) — Sixteen months from now, Southern Baptists should know if they have been able to reverse their evangelistic decline — or if there is a deeper problem that will require a more drastic remedy — said Bobby Welch as he concluded a year as Southern Baptist Convention president that has focused almost full-time on the SBC's flagging evangelism.
At Welch's urging, the SBC will soon launch a 12-month, all-out effort to evangelize and baptize 1 million new Christians, called “Everyone Can.” It will address the most critical need Welch sees among the nation's 16 million Southern Baptists — a five-year slump in baptisms that belies the denomination's legendary evangelistic image.
It's been a quarter century since conservatives, alarmed that liberal views of the Bible were dulling the SBC's fervor for evangelism, wrested control of the SBC from moderates. But evangelism statistics have declined while conservatives have been in charge — hardly a badge of honor for the SBC messengers who gather June 212-22 for their annual meeting.
Welch's ambition is to see the SBC baptize 1 million people between October 2005 and September 2006 — a statistical year for the SBC. That total would be almost three times the annual average. After a year promoting the need, and months of preparation, Welch said Southern Baptists now must prove they believe what they say about the urgency of salvation.
“After that year has past, it will be as clear as the handwriting on the wall,” Welch told Associated Baptist Press June 14 in a telephone interview from Nashville, site of the 2005 convention. If Southern Baptists can't turn around the baptism decline after more than a year of “extraordinary effort,” he said, “we are going to have to face some reality out here in the convention.”
“When we get to the end of that year, if something significant hasn't happened in baptisms, we'll have to look ourselves in the face and say, 'Something is wrong.' If it does show improvement, it will demonstrate that, if the convention goes to the people with a message that's near and dear to their hearts, then you can expect the people to respond.”
Either way, he said, “There will be a tale told.”
Welch and convention leaders hope to set the tone for the two-day convention — and the year ahead — with a successful weekend of door-to-door witnessing in Nashville, an annual pre-convention project called Crossover.
The urgency of evangelism is expected to be the centerpiece when the annual meeting returns — for the first time since 1914 — to Nashville, home base for the SBC and several of its agencies. But, as with each annual SBC meeting, unexpected issues may steal the spotlight from what Welch might hope would be a single-minded convention.
Some messengers want the SBC to denounce public schools. One proposed resolution would decry the secularization of public schools and urge Southern Baptists to start Christian schools or home-school their children. Another resolution goes further, urging churches to investigate their local school districts to determine if they promote homosexuality and calling for a wholesale withdrawal from such schools. A similar resolution failed last year. The SBC resolutions committee will decide which statement, if any, to propose for adoption.
Welch said he doesn't agree with the proposal to withdraw from public schools, a popular premise among ultraconservative Christians but impractical and unaffordable for many Southern Baptists, he said. Ultimately, the SBC must trust parents to make those decisions, he said, since they have the biblical responsibility. Besides, he says, “The schools are North America's greatest mission field,” given Southern Baptists' historic success with childhood converts. “We don't need to be withdrawing from the mission field.”
Other “culture war” issues could come up during the June 21-22 meeting, perhaps during a live video message from President George W. Bush scheduled for Tuesday.
And the SBC may vote to end its eight-year boycott of the Disney Co., which was prompted by alleged pro-gay policies and immoral entertainment content. Anti-Disney activist Donald Wildmon of the American Family Association said recently Disney is now “one of the less egregious perpetrators of the homosexual agenda.” And SBC ethics leader Richard Land said the SBC, as the largest boycott supporter, may vote to “declare victory in this matter and move on.”
The least contentious event of the two-day meeting could be the scheduled tribute to Billy Graham, who is ending a long and storied career in evangelism. The special recognition of Graham — which will be accepted by his grandson — makes perfect sense, Welch said, since the North Carolina native is a Southern Baptist, is the best-known Christian leader in the world, and has devoted his life to “what Southern Baptists say they love most” — evangelism.
Welch is expected to be re-elected to the customary second term as SBC president without opposition. While moderates quit fielding candidates in the early 1990s, conservatives have continued to rally around a consensus candidate rather than risk splitting the vote.
But some convention leaders — including SBC chief executive Morris Chapman and LifeWay president Jimmy Draper — worry the close-to-the-vest pattern of SBC politics is no longer necessary and discouraging to younger and lesser-known Baptists ready to lead.
At the 2004 SBC, Chapman said conservatives have not made good on their pledge to bring a broader range of Southern Baptists into leadership positions. “We cannot let this convention be driven by politics,” he told messengers.
There is a hint Chapman's warning is being heard. With Welch's re-election assured, the convention powerbrokers apparently have stepped aside this year and let nominees for other offices surface on their own.
Two nominees have emerged for first vice president — Dan Spencer, pastor of First Baptist Church in Thomasville, Ga., and Mike Boyd, pastor of Wallace Memorial Baptist Church in Knoxville, Tenn. Each is a conservative who will be nominated by a conservative, but neither candidacy bears the marks of a political effort. Meanwhile, widely loved evangelism professor Roy Fish of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary will be nominated for second vice president.
“There appears to be less emphasis upon enlisting nominees to be nominated for the various SBC offices — and rightly so,” Chapman observed in an e-mail interview with ABP. “For 25 years, interest in who would be nominated to these offices was intense because the convention was in transition and the election of these officers was critical to assuring that the convention would return to the biblical roots of our forefathers. There is a lessening of that intensity, and that fact alone likely will give rise to number of highly qualified and strongly conservative nominees being nominated for the same office in the near future.”
Welch said many conservatives agree with Chapman's and Draper's desire to bring new blood into the conservative leadership. “I would like to think we're all after the same thing,” he said. “It's just hard to know how to get at it.”
Although Welch said he is reluctant to assume he'll be re-elected, he is already mulling plans for a second term, While he has been the busiest president in memory — essentially taking a leave from his Florida pastorate to work full-time for the SBC — he has a plan he says will make future presidents even more effective. Make the presidency an automatic two-year post, he advises, so future presidents can plan longer and think more strategically.
Welch is asking the Executive Committee to study the change. Committee president Chapman told ABP he has not had much time to weigh Welch's suggestion, but he added: “I did promise to try to determine if the idea would have any traction with the Executive Committee between now and [the committee's meeting in] September. On the surface, I can see certain advantages for the president, but also certain disadvantages for the convention. It's an idea that may ultimately fall under the category, 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it.' I personally appreciate Dr. Welch's desire to improve the use of the tenure given a president and his belief that a two-year term could possibly enhance the president's leadership.”
Welch's role as “a full-time president” is “a rarity that may never occur again in the convention,” Chapman said. “We owe him and his church family our profound thanks.”
Welch's actions as president reflect the urgency he feels about the SBC's future — which is tied to recovering its urgency for evangelism. The stakes are high for the nation's largest Protestant denomination, which in his view lives or dies by its evangelistic zeal. He said his year of meeting Baptists nationwide has convinced him of this: “We've got good people doing good things. But we haven't got enough people doing the main thing.”
To drive his point home, Welch drove — or rode at least — through all 50 states, mostly by bus, meeting rank-and-file Baptists and touting the need to recover the evangelistic edge. He logged more than 20,000 miles and spoke more than 200 times in his 365-day term. “The SBC is all about the people, an eclectic people that love the Lord,” he told ABP. “Everyone is important and everyone's contribution is critical.”
Welch even moved to Nashville for three months this spring to lay the groundwork and stir enthusiasm for the Crossover effort — an estimated 12,000 volunteers pitching in for what convention leaders predict will be the largest door-to-door witnessing event ever.
Does Nashville, buckle of the Bible Belt, really need more evangelizing? “That [familiarity and complacency] is one the things we've been fighting,” Welch said. In fact, the “lostness” in Nashville is “striking,” he said. “They have a whole county full of lost people.”
“We've got enough lost people in the Bible Belt to have one of the greatest revivals of all time,” he added.
For the first time in five years, Southern Baptists saw a slight upturn in their baptism count last year — from 377,357 in 2003 to 387,947 in 2004. That's not enough to signal a turnaround, but Welch and Draper say it could be a good harbinger.
Winning a million conversions isn't a good enough goal, Welch says. Baptism is a better measurement of evangelism because it requires churches and converts to follow through on those decisions.
Always serious about modeling desired behaviors, Welch has given the ordinance of baptism a high place in the upcoming SBC meeting. A new convert will be baptized during each session of the convention — actually baptized by a local church, which the convention-goers as observers, since only a church can baptize, in strict Baptist doctrine.
Why is it important to demonstrate baptism? “You have to realize, 10,000 [of the SBC's 43,000] churches haven't seen a baptism in a year,” Welch said.
He is encouraged by the response he's received to his call to recommitment, although most of the indicators are preliminary or anecdotal — churches and state conventions raising their evangelism goals, pastors urging him on, more speaking invitations than he can accept, even working full time.
“No doubt about it, we've got a heightening of awareness for evangelism, of what we haven't done, what we should be doing. … But the key, as you know, is getting that interest to the local level and putting some feet to it.”
One early measurable indicator will be participation in Crossover and the SBC meeting, he said. But the real work still lies in the months that follow, he said.
Welch's only regrets during year No. 1 were a cancelled trip to Iraq and turning down so many speaking invitations. “Everything else was beyond expectation.”
He has steeled himself for the almost-certain second term, trying to decide how to follow up his 50-state barnstorming tour and ambitious million-baptism challenge. He wants to travel to the mission field, which he hasn't had time to do, and there's probably another bus tour in the offing — though he doesn't know where it will go.
“I'm not looking for an encore,” he adds. But neither is he willing to let any grass grow under his feet.