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June 13, 2014

On the Southern Baptist agenda: Get the evangelizers evangelizing

BALTIMORE — From Billy Graham's roadside tent revivals to Jerry Falwell's TV ministries to Rick Warren's 20,000-member megachurch, Southern Baptists dominate the evangelical brand in America.

This is apt for the country's largest Protestant denomination, whose doctrine says nonbelievers are doomed to hell. Sharing one's story of coming to Christ and bringing others along are among the core responsibilities of a Southern Baptist.

But as the group held its annual meeting this week in Baltimore, the top agenda item was this: The evangelicals aren't evangelizing.

Baptisms have been going steadily down in the past decade for the first time since records started to be kept in the 1800s, according to the denomination's LifeWay Research. Other LifeWay research about devout Protestants generally shows other measures down as well, such as how often people look for ways to share the gospel or to create intentional relationships with nonbelievers.

The question of how to function openly as a religious person in an increasingly secular, relativistic culture is not particular to Southern Baptists. Catholic Church leaders have dubbed this the era of the "new evangelization," and the Mormon Church has expanded its online outreach.

But an evangelization crisis feels a bit different to the 16-million-strong Southern Baptist Convention.

"I always resist the word 'crisis,' but in this case, I think when your name is 'Baptist' and you're named after baptisms, yes, this is a crisis," said Ed Stetzer, a pastor and author who is president of LifeWay Research.

Thousands of Southern Baptists at the meeting approved a resolution vowing to revitalize the practice and prayed for forgiveness.

"God, please forgive us for not being obedient and sharing the good news of the Gospel with those in our community," outgoing president Fred Luter said in his address Tuesday.

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