Decline in SBC Baptisms: Three Critical Invitation Factors?

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One of the books assigned to read for one of my classes is Pastor’s Handbook by John R. Bisagno which offers a lot of practical advice. The advice is mostly pragmatic seemingly from a consequentialist perspective. That is, Bisagno writes from experience with little Scriptural support for his advice. Bisagno’s advice is not intrinsically good or bad, right or wrong, but at times questions arise when experience seems to be his authority.

Previously, I commented on Bisagno’s perspective on extending the gospel invitation during corporate worship.1 Below I will comment on the three reasons he offers a partially contributing to a decline in baptisms in Southern Baptist churches.

Throughout Southern Baptist history, more conversions and baptisms have come through traditional invitations in the church than marketplace evangelism. From 1998 to 2010, baptisms in Southern Baptist churches consistently spiraled downward.

Three critical invitation factors are at least part of the problem.

  1. Lack of clarity in articulating the terms of the gospel such that no one can misunderstand.
  2. No sense of urgency. Don’t hide it. Stand up on your feet, look people in the eye, and urge them to be saved now.
  3. No music. I repeatedly hear it and it’s too sad for words: invitation music sung by only one person with one guitar singing an unfamiliar song that says nothing about coming to Jesus right now. Always use a praise band or choir, never a soloist. And sing something that is recognizable and conducive to everyone joining in. The power of surrounding music contributes to the ease of the “come forward” invitation. Even the most sincere soloist cannot help but draw attention to himself. And the better the soloist is, the worse it is. No solo should be sung during the invitation.

Find new ways to get the impact of “Softly and Tenderly,” “Only Trust Him,” “Oh Why Not Tonight,” or “Just as I Am” before your people in a musically contemporary manner.2

On point one, I agree. I have heard the gospel invitation given as – just ask Jesus into your heart or just receive Jesus today or just pray telling Jesus that you receive Him as Lord and Savior, etc. Absent from those gospel presentations is a clear explanation of sin, repentance and faith. The lack of gospel clarity ties into Bisagno’s second point on urgency, but for different reasons.

On point two, lack of a sense of urgency is a good observation. However, the solution is not biblically based. Scripture gives no indication of the physical action or appearance that Jesus and His disciples displayed when sharing the gospel. Rather, a sense of urgency is created by the Holy Spirit moving and people being convicted of their sins by a clear articulation of the gospel.

On the other hand, since Scripture gives no description of how a preacher should physically hold himself while sharing the gospel there is nothing wrong with Bisagno’s suggestion. A preacher should be able to stand and look someone in the eye when sharing the gospel. There is also a possibility of creating a false sense of urgency by using certain physical actions when sharing the gospel.

On point three, I find the most disagreement. In my mind, this point wreaks of pure pragmatism. The amount of emphasis and power Bisagno gives to music is chilling. He even mentions the “power of surrounding music.” No doubt that music has the power to move people emotionally. Believing the gospel is more than a simple emotional experience. The gospel, not any particular type of music, is the power of God unto salvation.

When so much emphasis is put on music as Bisagno does in point three, I want to ask how Jesus and His disciples ever shared the gospel with out a traveling choir.

Bisagno ends the chapter with the following two sentences.

I recommend that you always begin with a “come forward” invitation. Other options are fine but only following the “come forward” invitation, not instead of it.

Preaching the gospel without a specific, public, immediate opportunity to respond to it is unthinkable. Jesus never did. How can we?3

Notice that responding is equated with coming forward. When the church was gathered for worship in Scripture there is no indication of people coming forward in reply to the gospel. Bisagno’s last sentence comes across as if his suggestions are explicit, biblical commands on how to share the gospel during corporate worship. Where exactly are examples of Jesus giving out “specific, public, immediate” opportunities to respond to the gospel in corporate worship?

I think Bisagno’s suggestions above partially illustrate reasons for the divide among some older and some younger Southern Baptists on methodology. Some groups put forward what they seemingly believe is the Southern Baptist method for giving invitations. Southern Baptists claim to be people of the Book. Ironically, Bisagno, a faithful Southern Baptist minister for over 35 years, offers mostly pragmatic advice in his Pastor’s Handbook.

Christians are called to be Bereans so when some younger Southern Baptists strive to be people of the Book they are going to biblically challenge long-time pragmatic methods and find them wanting.

  1. Bisagno On Extending the Gospel Invitation
  2. Bisagno, John R. (2011-09-01). Pastor’s Handbook (p. 213). B&H Publishing. Kindle Edition.
  3. Ibid. 213
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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Joshua August 20, 2012 at 2:53 pm

I’m surprised Bisagno did not mention the necessity of having every single head bowed and eye closed. No one looking around, now!

It saddens me to see the invitation in Southern Baptist churches turned into a charade of incessant urgent appeals of emotionalism and psychobabble (I see that hand, thank you sir, thank you mam, I see you right there, What about over here? Anyone up in the balcony?).

2 Mark August 20, 2012 at 3:11 pm

I don’t really get the purpose of the “every head bowed, every eye closed” method.

3 Wayne Dawg August 27, 2012 at 7:33 am

Because, they say, they are not trying to embarrass anyone when the pastor asks them to raise their hand after they have “prayed the prayer”.

Number three on the list is what finally drove me from the SBC to a reformed church. I was soooo tired of theatrics from praise bands and the concert type atmosphere every Sunday morning.

4 GAC September 25, 2012 at 1:01 pm

Point number three is most egregious! I refer you to this sermon excert from John MacArthur. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y5ZRb2BByUg&feature=player_embedded

A Diagnosis of the Soils, Part 1
http://www.gty.org/resources/sermons/41-18/A-Diagnosis-of-the-Soils-Part-1

Let me tell you something. Never make a gospel appeal to people’s emotions…never…never. That’s why we don’t have some kind of an emotional appeal here and play all kinds of smaltzy music in the background. I don’t want you to do anything because we work your emotions up. Never appeal to people with any kind of gospel appeal that is directed at their emotions. Why? Because you can manipulate people’s emotions. And, frankly, most people have issues in their lives that make them sad and if you work well enough on their emotions, you’re clever enough at it, you can promise them happiness and when they make some kind of superficial step, they’ll have a momentary kind of relief. They’ll be a kind of newly stirred up feeling that they have. “Oh now, God’s on my side. Now I”m going to heaven. This is wonderful and you’ve accepted me and you’ve embraced me.” And that doesn’t signify anything at all.

You know, my approach to evangelism is here’s the truth, you drive it at the mind because all things pertaining to life and godliness, as I read for you in 2 Peter 1, pertain to the true knowledge of Him. So here’s the truth. Shut down the organ. Shut down the humming. We don’t need that. Let’s talk about the truth of your condition and Christ’s provision and emotion will take care of itself. I think you were all very emotional this morning when you were singing those hymns, weren’t you? Was there a lot of joy in your heart? You were lifted up, you were encouraged? But that’s the emotion that comes out of the true conversion, not the emotion that substitutes for it. No, we don’t need to do all that, all that kind of emotional manipulation.

There’s a second thing you never want to do, you never want to appeal directly to people’s will cause the world is full of weak-willed people. Are you aware of that? If you’re not, then you tell me how those phony evangelists get people to send them enough millions of dollars they can buy three jets. You can manipulate people’s will to do anything…anything if you’re clever enough. And if you create enough self-interest, right? Oh, I know what’s going to happen when I send in my money, I’m going to get rich, I’m going to get healthy, I’m going to be successful. God’s going to pour out all kinds of goodies on me.

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