Santyana Was a Pessimist

Santyana said those who do not learn from history are doomed to relive it. True. But he was a pessimist. I think we can learn positive lessons from the past as well.
This spring I have three, count ’em three PhD students graduating as well as another with his D.Min. So I have set aside the joy of reading books for the task of grading dissertations. The first by Bobby Lewis examines C. B. Hogue’s impact on evangelism. Whether you know the name C.B. Hogue or not matters little for what I am writing below. But if you have the slightest interest in history or in reaching people today the following may offer a little insight. I will point out a few markers to relate the past to today.
At its founding in 1845, the Southern Baptist Covention began with a passion for evangelism. At its first annual meeting in Augusta, GA, it was agreed to form a society “for the propagation of the Gospel.” A Board of Foreign Missions and a Board of Domestic Missions would be established. The Board of Domestic Missions focused much of its resources on evangelism. At the annual meeting in 1877 the board reported one-third of its employees were “field evangelists.”
In 1904, Georgia Pastor Len Broughton moved that a department of evangelism be formed in the Board of Domestic Missions. The motion brought much controversy. A five-member committee was formed (it was a Baptist group, after all). In 1906, the recommendation was passed to create the department, but only after heated debate. Many felt establishing a department would infringe on the autonomy of each local church. Hold that thought.
W.W. Hamilton served as the founding head of the department from 1906-09 and again 1918-21. For the first decades of its existence the department would simply provide evangelists for evangelistic meetings. MARKER ONE: while this may seem odd to missional-minded readers, in that period evangelistic meetings were actually quite an effective means of contextualizing the gospel. Mass evangelism marked the early 20th century as an effective tool as men such as Wilbur Chapman, Billy Sunday, Gypsey Smith, Mordecai Ham, and others saw remarkable results in mass meetings. Southern Baptists have been arguably the greatest supporters of and benefactors from mass evangelism. So this strategy contextualized the gospel in the south in a manner that fit both the churches and the culture.
After a financial scandal and crisis disabled the department for a season it was revived in 1936. The new head, Roland Q. Leavell, began to shift from a staff of evangelists to promote evangelism among the churches. But this shift would not become a part of the culture until the coming of C.E. Matthews, who served 1947-55. Under the leadership of C. E. Matthews, who had been a very successful pastor in Fort Worth, Texas, a convention-wide evangelism strategy was implemented for the first time in the 100-year history of the SBC. This strategy, which he called The Southern Baptist Program of Evangelism, included the following two features:
1. Organizational: Securing a head for evangelism at the state convention, associational, and church level.
2. Promotional: Creating a statewide evangelism conference and associational, simultaneous revival crusade in every association.
MARKER TWO: Like the earlier mass evangelism focus, this approach fit the culture of its time. Some readers today may grimace at the idea of a “program of evangelism,” as our culture has changed yet again (although more than a few have not yet quite realized it!). But in a post-World War II generation this approach worked well. The Builder generation was marked by a love for institutions, respect for authority, and a penchant for organization. So, in a far less flattened world a carefully planned, organized approach both to leadership and implementation fit so very well with the culture of the 1950s. The problem is so many of our churches and more than a few leaders still operate as if that is the dominant cultural view of our time, but it is not. “If the fifties come back,” I have often said, “We are ready.” I do not mean that as a slap at the fifties, which were arguably our greatest years of evangelism. I mean by that statement that if we had the same cultural context today as then we would be effective.
We do not.
And we are not. Effective that is.
So let me jump to today. I would submit that the driving force behind evangelism in our time must be the passion to turn everyday laypeople into missionaries in a missional focus. People outside our walls do not flock to services today, although I submit mass evangelism should still be a part of our evangelism. Organized simultaneous meetings and training have been and can yet be helpful, but the unintended consequence has been to reduce the gospel to its most simple form and lose the greatness of the gospel in the middle of our training to share it! Today, we must recover the amazing grace that is found in the gospel. In a culture filled with growing masses of the unchurched who are not attending our churches or impressed by our acrostics, maybe to reach them we must take the posture of missionaries who live in other lands. This will mean working against the tide of institutionalism rampant in churches, associations, state conventions and national agencies today. It will mean shifting from defining a great Christian as one who attends, gives, and serves (all good but very institutional) to judging a Christian by his impact away from the church as much as (or more than) his service in the church.
From the 1950s until now the church has lost the home field advantage in the U.S. We must recover the spirit of the church in the time of the Acts, when ALL believers “gossiped the gospel” as Michael Green put it (see Acts 2:1-11; 4:29-31; 8:1-4; 11:19-23). Maybe we need a new paradigm for reaching the lost in our time. We do not need to jettison all from the past. We can add without subtracting.
So some suppose that people today who do not support as much a national strategy are being disloyal. I would submit the hesitancy to jump on a denominational bandwagon could be driven less by disloyalty and more by a desire to be faithful to Scripture and to be effective in ministry. Mass evangelism in one era proved culturally effective, while convention-wide, programmatic strategies in another reached many. Equipping believers to live as missionaries in an increasingly unchurched society may be the approach for our day. May we understand both the Scripture and our times well enough to share Christ both biblically and effectively.
Ironically, it may be that the same voices desiring the local church be respected when an evangelism department was created 100 years ago are those who want to be respected now for the very same reason. Those raising questions then were considered loyal dissenters, not critics. May we return to a focus on the “propagation of the Gospel” as we had in 1845, and give a little wiggle room in our practice.

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