It has been widely reported that Southern Baptist churches are on a downward trend. Many have voiced their opinions as to the solution to our decline, and yet, few are as poignant and direct as the 18th-century pastor-theologian, Andrew Fuller. In a diary entry, dated September 30, 1785, Fuller wrote of a meeting among ministers:
A question was discussed, to the following purport:—To what causes in ministers may much of their want of success be imputed? The answer turned chiefly upon the want of personal religion; particularly the neglect of close dealing with God in closet prayer. Jer. x 21, was here referred to, ‘Their pastors are become brutish, and have not sought the Lord; therefore they shall not prosper, and their flocks shall be scattered.’ Another reason assigned was the want of reading and studying the Scriptures more as Christians, for the edification of our own souls. We are too apt to study them namely to find out something to say to others, without living upon the truth ourselves. If we eat not the book, before we deliver its contents to others, we may expect the Holy Spirit will not much accompany us. If we study the Scriptures as Christians, the more familiar we are with them, the more we shall feel their importance; but, if otherwise, our familiarity with the word will be like that of soldiers and doctors with death—it will wear away all sense of its importance from our minds. To enforce this sentiment, Prov. xxii. 17, 18, was referred to—‘Apply thine heart to knowledge—the words of the wise will be pleasant if thou keep them within thee; they shall withal be fitted in thy lips.’ To this might be added Psal. i. 2, 3. Another reason was, Our want of being emptied of self-sufficiency. In proportion as we lean upon our own gifts, or parts, or preparations, we slight the Holy Spirit; and no wonder that, being grieved, he should leave us to do our work alone. Besides, when this is the case, it is, humanly speaking, unsafe for God to prosper us, especially those ministers who possess considerable abilities.
Andrew Fuller, The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller, 1:47-48
He attributes the “want of success” in his day to:
- The lack of personal prayer
- The lack of personal devotion to the Word (reading and studying the Scriptures)
- The lack of humility (or, stated otherwise, the sin of pride)
As Southern Baptists consider our own “want of success,” perhaps it would be helpful to consider such a heart-check. It is likely that there are dozens of reasons that conversions have dropped in Southern Baptist churches and that many of them are beyond our control. But these three answers would appear to have some credence for us today.
Are we, pastors and laymen alike, devoted to God in prayer? Are we diving deeply into Scripture, seeking what the Lord would have of us before seeking what the Lord would have of them? Are we relying on our own man-made methods and systems and programs to reach the lost or are we relying on the power of the Holy Spirit to change hearts and lives?
Perhaps, Andrew Fuller has the answer to the decline of SBC baptisms after all.
Pastor at University Baptist Church, San Antonio.
Professor. PhD in Theology.
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