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. At the altar call, Graham saw 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 wait till the big gun preaches tomorrow night."
There was a time when Baptists could count on ordinary people showing up at crusades and local "revivals." Some were worried about heaven, and hell. Some were impressed by strong local churches and figured they had little to lose by walking the aisle and getting baptized. Times have changed. That will be a big subject looming when America's largest Protestant flock gathers June 11-12 in Birmingham, Alabama.
For decades, Baptists have "relied on revivalism" as an engine that would deliver 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 in eclipse."
Membership hit 14.8 million last year, down from 16.3 million in 2006 - falling 8% in that era. That reality cannot be ignored, even if it isn't as stunning as the 30%-50% declines seen in mainline Protestant churches. The most telling statistics point to declines in baptisms, which fell 3% in 2018 -down to 246,442.
Mohler published an essay, titled "The Future of the Southern Baptist Convention: The Numbers Don't Add Up," covering several sobering trends:
• Baptist Sunday school students used to complete forms indicating if they had arrived on time, brought their Bibles, studied the lesson, stayed for worship, etc. Today, many churches struggle to maintain Sunday schools and youth programs. Many parents have "bought into the larger culture's portrait ... complete with sports activities, violin and ballet lessons and activities to boost a child's college admissions application."
• SBC numbers peaked as declines began in U.S. birth rates.
• Rising numbers of Americans feel lonely, and desperate. But few fret about what will happen when they die. They trust God lets "good people" go to heaven.
• Parents face tough choices about how to control smartphones, tablets, laptops and other devices.
"SBC trends looked great when our neighbors ... gained social status ... by joining the Baptist Church," wrote Mohler. "Now, given secularization and the sexual and moral revolutions reshaping our culture, our neighbors may lose social capital by joining our churches."
Terry Mattingly is the editor of GetReligion.org .
and Senior Fellow for Media and Religion at The King's College in New York City. He lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.