Southern Baptists will "see an upturn" in baptisms, giving, Sunday School attendance and church membership when they become more intentional about evangelism, Paige Patterson said.
Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, noted that one cannot look at the numbers and deny a general downturn within Southern Baptist life. Patterson joked that the solution to such unfortunate realities is often to form a committee to study and then report on what churches have done wrong and need to do differently. Even if these suggestions are followed, he said, there more than likely will still be a downturn in the end.
"The truth, as usual, is far more simple [than the hypothetical committee's suggestions]," Patterson told students during a chapel service on the seminary's campus in Fort Worth, Texas, Nov. 4. "The truth is that we'll see an upturn when we get back into the highways and hedges and start giving the Gospel to people."
Patterson said Southern Baptists’ focus on evangelism is the reason they have become the largest non-Catholic denomination in the United States.
"It was very simple," he said. "Everybody understood his obligation to take the Gospel to everybody else, and a large percent of them were doing it. We shared our faith, and God blessed it."
Patterson noted Scripture presents metaphor after metaphor, particularly in the teaching of Jesus, that focuses on evangelism. And in these metaphors, one key aspect always stands out—the intentionality of the evangelist. The parable of the sower in Matthew 13, for example, says the sower "went out to sow." The parable of the good shepherd says the shepherd left his 99 sheep in order to search for the one who had gone astray. The metaphor of Christ's followers being "fishers of men" calls to mind the fisherman who must get himself to the lake and cast his net into the waters.
"I'm saying this to you this morning," Patterson said, "because so many of you have not intentionally gone into the field looking for the lost sheep; so many of you have never been out there in the boat fishing for men. … Now if the Lord Jesus defined His own mission as seeking and saving the lost, and if He turned right around and said to us, 'As the Father has sent me, in the same way send I you,' can there be any question in anybody's mind that the chief reason we are left on the earth once we have been born again is to take everybody we can to heaven with us?"
Church leaders can do everything other than evangelism that they want to do, Patterson said, but none of it will avert the downturn in Southern Baptist life.
"The decline is going to go on unless we make up our minds that we will be faithful witnesses for Christ; we will accept the intentionality of getting out of bed and going out and sowing the seed; we will accept the intentionality of getting in the boat and going fishing; we will accept the intentionality of being the good shepherd, looking for the sheep that has gone astray.
"And if we do that," Patterson said, "there's a heavy price to be paid, but oh my goodness, what will happen will be unbelievable, because God will see and reward from heaven."