Southern Baptist evangelists celebrate their 50th anniversary next year but the golden year comes as revival meetings have lost momentum and are seen as old-fashioned, in some cases.
The Conference of Southern Baptist Evangelists (COSBE) is pushing to re-invent itself with goals of increasing membership and recruiting younger evangelists. And the nearly 50-year-old organization is aiming toward at least 100 revival meetings and over 1,000 professions of faith each year.
"We have to improve our image," said Canton, Ga.-based evangelist Jamey Ragle, vice president of COSBE, according to Baptist Press. "I look at some evangelists' promotional materials and videos and it looks like something from 'Leave It To Beaver.'
"It's old," he continued. "If we evangelists don't change, we will die. The reality is that if we keep on doing what we've always done, we'll keep on getting what we always got."
Southern Baptist evangelist Junior Hill, 71, remembers past revivals that packed churches across the rural South and went on for two weeks. Today, however, revivals aren't as popular or as long-lasting.
Some churches believe revivals are obsolete or no longer work.
In response, Brian Fossett, COSBE's current president and a Dalton, Ga.-based evangelist, cites Dr. Roy Fish, saying, "Revivals work when people do." Fish is a distinguished Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary evangelism professor.
Churches across the Southern Baptist Convention – the largest Protestant denomination in the country – are encouraged not to give up on revivals and evangelistic crusades.
"I would tell pastors that just because you've had one bad experience with an evangelist in the past, don't write off all evangelists, saying you're never going to use one again," said Ragle, according to Baptist Press.
People are making decisions for Christ and lives are being changed, according to Ragle, who recently drew 20,000 to a crusade in Warner Robins, Ga.
"Salvation happens when the Gospel collides with people who need Christ," Fossett noted, according to Baptist Press. "I see many good men out here, wonderful evangelists, who are still conducting effective revivals."
Still, evangelists need to make some changes.
"Evangelists have to understand that they are at a church for a specific purpose: to encourage, empower the people and evangelize – not to set every wrong in the church right, and not to come in like Sheriff Buford Pusser and tell the preacher how to do his job," Ragle said.
The emphasis on evangelists and revivals come as baptisms are declining across Southern Baptist churches. The all-time record number of baptisms was 445,725 in 1972 and annual baptisms have hit below 400,000 since 2000.
COSBE partnered with the North American Mission Board, SBC's domestic mission agency, and launched the Baptism Assistance Project to overturn the declining trend. The project assists churches with COSBE-certified evangelists.
In the meantime, COSBE is working toward doubling membership, which is currently at 200 evangelists, over the next three years and then doubling it again over the following three years.