It was the rare Billy Graham Evangelistic Association event in which Graham was in the audience — incognito in a hat and dark glasses — and his brother-in-law Leighton Ford was in the pulpit.

Graham was set to preach the next day, noted Ford, who told this story many times. At the altar call, Graham saw that the man seated in front of him was struggling. Leaning forward, but remaining anonymous, Graham asked if he wanted to go forward and accept Jesus as his Savior.

No, the man replied, “I’ll just wait till the big gun preaches tomorrow night.”

There was a time when Baptists and other evangelicals could count on ordinary people — unbelievers, even — showing up at crusades and local “revivals” for a variety of reasons.

Some were worried about heaven, hell and the state of their souls. Some were impressed by strong local churches and figured they had little to lose, and maybe something to gain, by walking the aisle and getting baptized.

That was then. Anyone who has studied Southern Baptist Convention statistics knows that times have changed. That will be a big subject looming in the background when America’s largest Protestant flock gathers June 11-12 in Birmingham, Alabama, for its annual national convention.

For decades, Southern Baptists have “relied on revivalism” as an evangelistic engine that would deliver church growth, noted the Rev. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

“The problem is that revivalism only works when Christianity is triumphant or on the rise,” he said. “Revivalism ... isn’t going to be as effective when Christianity is seen to be in eclipse, like it is in American culture at this point.”

Southern Baptist membership hit 14.8 million last year, down from 16.3 million in 2006, a decrease of 8 percent. That reality cannot be ignored, even if it isn’t as stunning as the 30 percent to 50 percent declines seen in mainline Protestant churches since the 1960s.

The most telling statistics point to declines in baptisms, which fell 3 percent in 2018 — down to 246,442 baptisms — following a 9 percent drop in 2017.

Thus, Mohler recently published an essay, entitled “The Future of the Southern Baptist Convention: The Numbers Don’t Add Up,” covering several sobering trends:

Southern Baptist Sunday school students used to complete forms indicating if they had arrived on time, brought their Bibles, studied the day’s lesson, stayed for worship, etc. “We not only counted Sunday School students; we graded them,” he noted.

SBC numbers peaked as declines began in U.S. birth rates, a cultural trend now seen in most pews. “There is no question that children raised within Christian homes by Christian parents are most likely to make their own profession of faith and continue church participation into adulthood,” wrote Mohler.

Rising numbers of Americans feel lonely, and even desperate. However, few fret about what will happen when they die. Embracing a vague faith that researchers have called “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,” many Americans believe the goal of life is to “be happy,” “be nice” and “be fair” while trusting that God lets “good people” go to heaven.

Parents face tough choices about how to control smartphones, tablets, laptops and other devices that — hour after hour, day after day — dominate daily life. Parents and church leaders, Mohler said, may fear what will happen if they ask children to be truly countercultural on many media issues.

In other words, the age of easy, “nominal” faith is over.

Terry Mattingly is the editor of and Senior Fellow for Media

and Religion at The King’s College

in New York City. He can be reached


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