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Hi and welcome back! Recently, I caught this story from Baptist Press. It concerns a church claiming big success with their recent evangelism effort. The story reminded me of how evangelical churches have been responding to their religion’s ongoing — and worsening — decline. In short, don’t take any evangelical’s claims of evangelism success without a hefty shaker of salt. Today, I’ll decode their victory messages — and we’ll marvel at what it takes nowadays to create just one evangelical recruit.

(Ben Berwers.) Credit: Ben Berwers / Unsplash

Evangelism: 53 At One Blow!

I couldn’t help that subtitle. Today’s story reminds me of the fairy tale “The Little Tailor.” In this Brothers Grimm classic, a poor tailor slaps his hand down on seven flies, killing them all at once. Because he’s that kinda tedious guy, he makes himself a belt, stitching upon it the phrase “Seven at one blow!” Naturally, everyone seeing the belt assumes he killed seven people with one blow. Hilarity ensues.

In similar fashion, evangelicals like to make big evangelism success claims. But the reality behind their claims is often a very different story than the one they actually tell.

That’s really where we find ourselves with this story out of the Deep South. Here, we find big boasts that cloak much more modest evangelism accomplishments.

Everyone, Meet First Baptist Church of Cleveland, Tennessee.

First Baptist Church (FBC) of Cleveland, Tennessee is definitely what I’d call a megachurch. It is huuuuuuge. Its pastor, Jordan Easley, is quite strikingly young-looking (as megapastors tend to be). I’m betting that his church congregation is likewise younger than average (as megachurch members tend to be). More than anything else, though, this church is positioned for success simply because it’s able to command vast resources much more easily than a smaller church could ever dream of doing.

(Here’s a great writeup about megachurches from Hartford Institute.)

So I’m not super-duper surprised to see that this church’s ministry team consists almost entirely of young white dudes, though we do see one white woman there. She leads the preschool program.

(I’m guessing they couldn’t find a white dude to head that department. Childcare is wimmin’s work, amirite? Can I hear an amen?)

Besides the ministers, we see a flotilla of white faces on their support team. That, too, is quite typical of a large megachurch.

As for Cleveland, Tennessee itself, it’s a very small town according to La Wiki, with fewer than 45k people living there. It’s also not very diverse, being 87% white. The Wiki page also indicates that this is a super-duper-mega-religious town. I notice no fewer than five Pentecostal churches based there. JFC, in the 1980s there were only like three Pentecostal churches in the entire Houston area while I was there!

However, despite its inundation with religious groups and its roughly 200 churches, almost 40% of the county’s residents (according to City Data) consider themselves Nones, meaning they claim no religious labels. Meanwhile, half the county’s residents call themselves evangelicals.

So the bolder members of First Baptist Church likely consider themselves in the middle of a target-rich evangelism environment. 

The Evangelism Urges of Jordan Easley.

Speaking of the pastor of this megachurch, Jordan Easley, he himself has quite an interesting backstory. A few years ago, he chaired a Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) committee: the Executive Committee’s Young Leaders Advisory Council.

(Frank Page started this committee in January 2017. About a year later, he left his position in disgrace. Ronnie Floyd replaced him, only to quit very recently under very different but also disgraceful circumstances.)

Jordan Easley, now about 41 years old, appears to have been part of this committee from the get-go. In fact, he only left that position to become FBC’s lead pastor.

While he was there, though, Easley spent a lot of time rousing support from SBC churches for the Cooperative Program (CP). The CP disburses money for seminaries, special projects, and evangelism. Back in 2017, a survey Easley ran was big news in the Christ-o-Sphere.

  • “EC Young Leaders Advisory Council Launches Year-long Study,” May 2017, Baptist Press [Source]
  • “EC Young Leaders Advisory Council Seeks Input,” unknown date, Baptist Convention of Iowa [Source]
  • “Survey of young leaders shows Cooperative Program in positive light,” July 2017, Kentucky Today [Source]

We also see Easley’s name pop up in the SBC’s 2020 Annual Report. On page 61, item 45, Easley gets up in front of the whole group to talk about his committee’s activities. On page 96, he’s listed as a member of J.D. Greear’s EVANGELISM TASK FORCE. (It which operated under Paige Patterson — before he, too, left his cushy position in disgrace). And Easley also gets a listing on page 460 as a member of the International Mission Board (IMB).

Overall, I’m getting a good sense of who this guy is: a very ambitious up-and-coming made man who emphasizes evangelism. He’s thick as thieves with the SBC’s Old Guard leaders and is probably already entrenched as a junior member of their informal crony network

How This Particular Evangelism Drive Worked.

While working on that council for the EC, Jordan Easley also pastored a church. In that May 2017 Baptist Press story about that council (relink), we learn he led Englewood Baptist Church in Jackson, Tennessee. I guess he quit that gig as well when he became the pastor of FBC.

But he seems to have brought all the same ideas forward with him. Looking at the May 2017 article, we learn how he thinks he’s going to totally recruit Millennials (who are now somewhere between 25-40, according to this site). Easley gave a sermon to his fellow council members about “Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi.”

It is a “beautiful place” that “looks like a national park,” Easley, who chairs the diverse twenty-two-member council, said. [. . .]

In this place where false deities such as Pan and Nymph were worshiped, Easley said Jesus was asking His disciples, “Are you going to be loyal to Me, just Me? Or are you going to be seduced by the world?”

Various members echoed that this passion for absolute loyalty to Christ—living holy lives fully committed to the Lord in the midst of a morally crumbling society—is what excites and attracts millennial believers.

Cuz yes, obviously, that’s totally what draws in middle-aged recruits these days.

Counting the Evangelism Wins.

On October 24, FBC ran a “Gameday Men’s Conference.” During this superspreader event, hundreds of unmasked plague rats huddled close together at FBC to listen to hard-sales pitches. And the church recorded “53 salvations” during the festivities.

53 is a big huge number these days for any evangelical church. A few years ago, before Christianity’s decline had even really gotten going, we noted an SBC report about their “baptism drought.” In this 2014 report, linked here, the SBC’s own officers told us that smaller churches tended not to baptize a single person all year long — and those that did usually dunked children under the age of five (which was, they noted, their “only consistently growing age group”). I can’t imagine how much worse things are for most SBC churches now, now that their brand has become indelibly tainted.

But what of their actual wins?

Well, Jordan Easley lets slip the truth about those wins:

To some, the 53 salvations recorded at First Baptist Church’s Gameday Men’s Conference Oct. 24 could be attributed to a “big church” event, something that is within the reach of only those with ample facilities and resources. However, Senior Pastor Jordan Easley says the harvest was set well in advance and occurred in ratios of 1 to 1.

And that’s quite an admission. I don’t think he even realizes what he’s saying here.

53 At One Blow: Translating the Little Pastor’s Evangelism Claim.

Now, let us unpack that paragraph quoted above.

To some, the 53 salvations recorded at First Baptist Church’s Gameday Men’s Conference Oct. 24 could be attributed to a “big church” event, something that is within the reach of only those with ample facilities and resources. [Source]

To whom, exactly? Because I’d definitely only consider this many “salvations” a megachurch situation. Smaller churches aren’t recording these kinds of wins. And they’re not recording them precisely because they don’t have megachurch resources.

In that same news article, Jordan Easley himself tells us about the huge manpower resources his church mustered:

“In men’s ministry we have a huge emphasis on biblical community and small groups. At the conference, we challenged the men to consider leading a huddle with four to six of their friends or co-workers. Another 138 sent a text message indicating they were wanting to do it,” he said.

(“Biblical” is simply evangelicals’ codeword for something done the way they like it.)

According to the SBC’s own 2015 Annual Church Profile (ACP), which we find condensed here, 88.2% of all reporting churches were smaller than 250 members. Average attendance for all reporting churches was 145. The median church had 70 attending members.

So if Easley’s church rousted 138 men saying they were willing to lead small group huddles for 4-6 of their friends, that’s a bigger group than most SBC congregations are! And if all 138 men do that and get 6 friends to go along, then this church would need facilities to host over 800 men!

So yes, absolutely. I’d definitely attribute those 53 recruitments to a “big church” event.

A Harvest Set Well In Advance.

Those recruitments also happened after a considerable amount of volunteer effort. Jordan Easley claims that the event had “very little promotion or marketing.” That’s possible. But it definitely had a lot of preparation ahead of time.

Volunteers scoured their neighbors and friends lists for men to invite to the shindig. Men involved in various area churches paid money to join small groups that taught them how to approach others. One of those area churches pushes very hard for men to become active in their group — an effort which includes a men’s retreat that gets members all jazzed up for Team Jesus.

At a guess, this evangelism event took several months’ preparation and involved many hundreds of volunteers spending many thousands of dollars and labor hours. It was not as simple as Christian folklore likes to paint evangelism: that simple, pious servant of Jesus who walks on foot into a strange new town and walks out again with thousands of recruits cheering his name.

No. As I mentioned earlier, FBC exists in a small town in a small county in the Deep South. There are only so many people there that their evangelists can influence with the Southern Baptist message of toxic masculinity, fearmongering, white rage, and divinely-approved misogyny.

At another guess, then, this evangelism event’s success isn’t particularly duplicable even within this megachurch’s area of influence.

Defining Evangelism Terms: Salvation.

And for that matter, who are these 53 recruits?

As we saw in that 2014 “baptism drought” report (relink), all too often a child under the age of 5 gets dunked and considered a win for Team Jesus — even if those kids can barely verbalize (much less understand) the Sinner’s Prayer. We’ve also talked before about how megachurches’ new recruits are almost always poached from other Christian groups — which are usually smaller churches in the megachurch’s area of influence. And, too, Christians will often stray into laxness for many years, then return and get re-dunked to prove their renewed commitment to the group.

If churches actually track exactly who’s getting baptized and claiming salvation, they sure aren’t telling anybody their results. That 2014 baptism report is one of the very, very few times the SBC has actually broken down its baptism numbers by age. For obvious reasons, they don’t offer us that much data very often.

So we don’t know how many of FBC’s 53 new recruits are actually brand-new, never-believed-before Christians who only just now achieved safety from Hell through “salvation.”

In fact, we learn about only one of them: a police officer. In America, way too many Southern police forces are extremely right-wing and evangelical. (That trend is only intensifying.) Thus, how likely is it that this guy was never a Christian until now? How likely is it that the other 52 had never been Christians until October 24?

Not bloody likely. That’s how likely.

An SBC Golden Child Arises.

Still, 53 recruits is 53 recruits. Who else is having this kind of success in the SBC right now? Almost nobody, that’s who. J.D. Greear coasted on similar success straight to the SBC’s presidency. I can well imagine Jordan Easley doing the same thing in a few years.

The denomination is absolutely scrabbling right now. Make no mistake about it. Southern Baptists have been in decline for many decades already. They judge decline according to their most important statistic: how many existing SBC-lings it takes to generate 1 new SBC-ling (defined as that person being baptized).

Southern Baptists call this number their baptism ratio. It represents the SBC resources required to capture one new recruit. In the 1920s, the baptism ratio stood at around 1 baptism per 25-ish existing SBC members. In the 1980s and 1990s, it hovered around 1:40-ish. But by the mid-2000s, it began trending solidly worse. In 2018, it flopped to 1:60. Then, it dropped further to 1:62.

Last year, the pandemic helped bring about a drop to 1:114.

So here comes Jordan Easley boasting about 53 at one blow.

Basking in the Glow.

Sure, Jordan Easley got those 53 wins after many hundreds of SBC-lings worked their butts off.

Sure, FBC’s baptism ratio sounds as badly skewed as that of the SBC itself.

And sure, chances are extremely good that most of those 53 people will have drifted out of FBC again within a year or two, along with a bunch of other FBC members.

Nobody in the SBC will care. 

All they will care about is that someone, somewhere achieved success somehow and then attributed it to SBC teachings.

The person responsible for that success inevitably becomes their new golden child. And he will stay so until some scandal runs him right out of office — like all those other leaders I’ve named here today and more besides.

NEXT UP: Two kinds of evangelicals, and two different quadrilaterals at the heart of their current squabbles. We’ll define them both next time — see you then!

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...