While Southern Baptists today are considered a missions-minded group committed to sharing the Gospel around the world, at one time, evangelism was not considered a priority in Baptist life.
Dr. Phil Roberts, president of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, told OBU students how Baptists came to embrace missions during the 2011 fall Hobbs Lecture Wednesday, Nov. 2, at 10 a.m. in Raley Chapel. His lecture was titled, "Pursuing God: Obeying His Call to Reach the Nations -- A Perspective on Baptists and the Missions Enterprise."
The Baptist churches of the 1600s and 1700s, Roberts said, focused on their view of the church and what should be involved in creating a perfect New Testament church. Therefore, Baptists were focused inward rather than outward during a time of spiritual deadness and religious decline. The mentality of many evangelical churches was a "survival" mode.
"What energized these Baptists was designing the perfect church," Roberts said. "Missions was not a part of it."
Despite Baptist pastors' resistance to the 18th-century preacher George Whitefield, the eloquent speaker has been credited with the survival and eventual resurgence of the Baptist Movement. They accused the itinerant preacher of substituting "the effects of mere passion" for real religion. Whitefield was so dramatic, he once preached to 30,000 people in Philadelphia - which, at the time, had a population of 25,000. His friend Benjamin Franklin once estimated Whitefield's voice could carry a full mile. Many who heard his sermons made professions of personal faith in Jesus Christ.
"What we discover is that because Baptists were so tied up in themselves and this perfect order for a church movement, they could not fathom that a man could go ride around the country preaching Gospel messages," Roberts said. "They said, 'Surely all these people who are coming to Christ are false converts.'"
Critics indicated true conversion to Christianity must take place only following the long process of the conviction of sin and dealing with doubts, a calculated decision to be made most likely in the context of a local church. They believed the church should grow quietly and steadily under the gradual influence of church worship, preaching by the pastor and reasoned belief.
History proved differently, Roberts said, noting it was the revival converts who affected a crucial change in values in terms of theology and ministry from that of their forerunners. The older leaders died, and the new believers were brought into the church as pastors and in other roles of influence. The new leaders focused the church on its true mission: to spread the good news of Jesus Christ.
"Sometimes we forget what a radically wonderful message the Gospel is and what a difference it can make to the world when people hear it," Roberts said.
Reviewing the change in Baptists' perspective offers several contemporary lessons, Roberts said. First, it is a reminder that people can be influenced by the spirit of the age in which they live, even in the church. Early 18th century Baptists were surrounded by deadness, sarcasm and defensiveness, which affected them. Second, Roberts noted, the retrospective is a reminder to maintain biblical values. Proper doctrine or church order should never become an end to itself. Finally, he said, history reminds believers that, ultimately, the task of the church is to take the Gospel to others in any way possible.
The Herschel H. and Frances J. Hobbs Lectureship in Baptist Faith and Heritage was OBU's first endowed lectureship beginning in the fall of 1980. The Hobbs Lectureship program annually sponsors a lecture at OBU and highlights speakers that share phases of Baptist faith and heritage with the OBU community.