A failed evangelism campaign somehow lives on
The history of the "Who's Your One" evangelism campaign, its utter lack of impact on Southern Baptist recruitment rates, and why the SBC focuses so hard on it anyway.
While the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) mega-scandal continues to unfold, SBC-lings continue to rearrange the deck chairs on their sinking land-yacht. Of late, their official SBC news site Baptist Press has been focusing intently on evangelism and sporadic successes in recruitment. And few of those tales quite capture the ethos of the denomination quite like today’s story.
A traveling evangelist has begun upselling a failed 2014 evangelism campaign called “Who’s Your One.” Today, let me show you what this campaign is, who started it, who adopted it and why, how it failed, and what it tells us about the Southern Baptist Convention as a whole.
A short pre-history of “Who’s Your One”
Back in 2018, a megapastor named J.D. Greear decided to run for the presidency of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). He’d tried once before, in 2016, but that run failed. This time, he decided to win by appealing to his denomination’s desire to recover from an entrenched decline.
He called his idea “an evangelism ethos” and promised it’d turn the SBC right around. Through it, he said, he would inspire the flocks to get out and SELL SELL SELL WITHOUT MERCY. They’d yearn to evangelize! They’d ache to score sales for their churches! All they needed was a lil bump of inspiration from their leaders!
The name of this game was “Who’s Your One.” It comes from, I kid you not, a November 2014 sermon from one of Greear’s underling pastors at Summit Church, Jason Gaston. In this sermon, Gaston preaches from Luke 5. In this chapter, Jesus begins to recruit his first disciples. Similarly, Gaston wants his flocks to invite non-members to church for the holidays.
Specifically, Gaston asks his flocks to designate one non-believing person in their lives as their personal conversion project and “go fishing for them.” That one person becomes “their one.” And their single-minded goal would become, in turn, getting that person to join Summit.
That’s where this idea comes from.
How “Who’s Your One” works, or at least is supposed to work
“Who’s Your One” is creepy, invasive, and borderline stalker-y. The participating church member is not ever told to gain consent to turn “their one” into a conversion project. Instead, the church member is supposed to go to work on that one person to manipulate them–and pray constantly for their imaginary friend Jesus to strong-arm that person into accepting the inevitable sales pitch.
The program’s implementation guide makes it sound even more manipulative and sinister. You can read it here. In it, we learn that church leaders encourage participating members to discuss “their one” in church meetings and to gain advice for better manipulating them. Remember, “their one” doesn’t actually know they’re being discussed, much less that they’re the focus of a concerted manipulation campaign.
I’m betting this campaign is a lot more elaborate than whatever Summit did back in 2014. From J.D. Greear’s description on page 2 of that implementation guide, church leaders just informally asked members who “their one” was. In both cases, SBC-lings were assured of success thanks to all the support and coaching they were getting.
This time around, the program has all kinds of prayer guides, fill-in cards, advice guides, and recorded sermons for participants. It is slick. Beyond slick.
In their entire implementation guide, nobody ever advises gaining the consent of the campaign’s targets.
How “Who’s Your One” did in practice
In my 2018 analysis of the 2014 “Who’s Your One” campaign, it didn’t look like it did that well at all. Summit didn’t seem to grow that much after it. Accordingly, they dropped it; I don’t see it mentioned ever again in Summit sermons.
Then, it went dormant until 2018, when J.D. Greear decided to run for the presidency of the SBC that second time. By now, the SBC knew they were in a decided slump–and they blamed the flocks’ lack of desire to recruit as the cause for that slump.
Why goodness, pastors marveled with wide kittenish eyes, if every single SBC-ling made just one sale each for their churches every year, that’d double the size of the denomination every year! Surely, everyone could score at least one sale in a year! Just look at how successful that early church totally and for realsies was!
(NARRATOR: In reality, Christianity didn’t really take off till its leaders could make membership mandatory.)
That’s when J.D. Greear dusted off “Who’s Your One” and repackaged it as the all-singing, all-dancing way to get SBC-lings stoked at last to recruit.
Once he became president, Greear continued to sell his “evangelism ethos” as the way to rescue the SBC from decline, but he didn’t really talk about “Who’s Your One” anymore. It’d done what he’d wanted. It’d gotten him elected. In an October 2018 post he wrote about the “evangelism ethos,” he doesn’t even mention the failed campaign itself.
However, old initiatives never die at the SBC. They just melt away into useless committees, like the “Jabberwocky” initiative did in a 2009 episode of Better Off Ted.
In this case, “Who’s Your One” went to the North American Mission Board (NAMB, and yes, I know: it’s the worst abbreviation ever). NAMB handles evangelism in America, for the most part.
And oh boy, is it ever a hotbed of scandals and problems. Mostly, these are just the usual backbiting and power plays we see in broken systems like the SBC: NAMB possibly trying to stack attendance at Annual Meetings to get their favored candidates elected president; NAMB possibly getting someone in a state-level SBC position fired; at least one leader of NAMB, Bob Reccord, fired for cronyism and misuse of funds; a known firebrand (Randy Adams, the 4th candidate in the 2020 elections) claiming NAMB allows churches into their programs that don’t actually follow SBC rules, etc. A September 2020 blog post simply asks: “What’s going on at the North American Mission Board?”
Some of the complaints I’ve seen over the years even contain elaborate diagrams that lay out serious concerns for how NAMB uses the money given to it by SBC churches. (When the diagrams come out, that’s when you know they’re serious.)
More recently, a watchdog group called Reform NAMB Now (RNN) has demanded more transparency regarding NAMB’s use of funds.
And now, NAMB administers the official “Who’s Your One” website and campaign.
(The international version of NAMB, the International Mission Board, suffers from its own problems, of course.)
The “Who’s Your One” campaign is everything we ever expected out of the SBC
Looking over the official website, I see the same age-old question: OMG y’all, what if we all recruited just one person each and did that every year! Here’s how the site phrases their version:
Imagine the impact if every Christian had one person they prayed for and shared the gospel with. Who are you committing to pray for?Who’s Your One?
Alas, evangelicals have been saying this sort of thing ever since I was evangelical myself, about 30 years ago. It still hasn’t come true yet.
Then, we learn that (as of this writing) 66,095 people have signed up to participate in this program.
With just a whisker above 14 million members as of the 2021 Annual Report, that means that about 0.47% of SBC-lings are participating. If all 66,095 manage to recruit “their one” this year, which is a hilarious notion in and of itself, that means the denomination might only be on track lose about 450k people next year instead of 500k like they did in 2020.
But NAMB is, as is SBC custom, declaring flawless victory for Team Jesus with this one. And a few ministers have jumped on that bandwagon to capitalize on it.
Shocking news: NAMB director pushes failed NAMB initiative
A recent Baptist Press article details the evangelism efforts of one NAMB employee, the Next Gen director Shane Pruitt. He’s a real fan of “Who’s Your One,” which he pushes at his young audiences during his speaking tours. The tour this time is part of a Christian concert series; at two points during the concert, ministers are allowed to give sermons to the audience.
These audiences will be young adults who are already interested in evangelical music. Pruitt clearly hopes they will simply be too inexperienced and too indoctrinated to realize just how fact-free these sales pitches are. So they might not be able to resist the usual recruitment lines used by divine pickup artists, like the tired old chestnut about people having a Jesus-shaped hole in their hearts, or the one about people needing his flavor of Christianity to feel complete or at peace. After I converted in my teens to evangelicalism, it took me years to realize these weren’t true at all–and that these false claims actually did me damage while I believed them.
As for the “Who’s Your One” program, Pruitt describes it extensively during his speaking engagements, according to that article:
During the first [of his two speaking slots], he spends time challenging students with NAMB’s Who’s Your One? evangelism initiative. He implores the students and leaders to find one lost person they can be praying for and sharing the Gospel with. NAMB serves as one of the sponsors of this year’s tour.Baptist Press
If you’re wondering, Pruitt devotes his second time slot to a pure sales pitch for joining his group. He claims enormous success.
So, a NAMB employee hangs around with a traveling concert series that is partially sponsored by NAMB, and at these concerts he talks about the newest NAMB initiative to audiences who already have at least one foot in his group.
And Baptist Press is calling this a major win for evangelism, just like NAMB is.
Flawless victory for “Who’s Your One”—apparently
Pruitt himself thinks that NAMB’s comically failed “Who’s Your One” campaign is behind the vast numbers of conversions he says he’s experienced in the past two years.
“I think it’s a great opportunity right now, and I think I’ve seen more young people get saved in the last two years than I have in 15 years of ministry combined,” he said.Baptist Press
And that’s very interesting to me. See, I maintain a large private database of the SBC’s Annual Report statistics. They don’t provide all their numbers, but it’s certainly enough to know three essential things. For this illustration, I’ll go back about 18 years, just to prove a point:
- Since 2003, Sunday School enrollment has fallen from 817k to 287k.
- Also since 2003, total SBC membership has fallen from 16.2M to 14M. It’s not even keeping up with population growth.
- Baptisms fell from 394k in 2003’s report to 235k in 2020’s (and to 123k in 2021’s, but most folks think, as I do, that that’s kind of a weird pandemic fluke). The SBC’s ratio of baptisms per number of existing SBC-lings, their big ride-or-die statistic, fell from 1:41 in 2003 to 1:62 in 2020 (and 1:114 in 2021; again, probably a fluke).
My point: Nothing about 2007 represents any major improvement in any of these numbers. Things only grow worse from there. If he is seeing better results in the past two years than in his 15 years’ ministry “combined,” then where are all these young adults in the numbers?
Either Pruitt is not seeing the success he claims, or whatever he’s seeing reflects something else going on entirely (like temporary euphoria). Whatever he’s seeing, it is definitely not resulting in more butts in pews (BIPs; an important measure of evangelical dominance). If it were, I’d already have seen evidence of it in the reports. I read every one of them, and I haven’t seen any signs at all that the SBC is enjoying sudden success in converting and retaining Gen Z.
What I see instead looks a lot more like the dead opposite of success.
The real winners of “Who’s Your One”
It seems to me that the real beneficiaries of “Who’s Your One” is, as it is with all of these evangelism initiatives, the SBC sub-group getting money to put them into motion.
Hey, a whole lot of money is flying around here. And almost none of it comes with any real strings or accountability procedures. Nobody even really tracks it.
SBC presidents cycle in and out every couple-to-four years. Each one appoints endless committees to study problems and design solution packages. And then, the next president memory-holes the results. This way, nothing ever needs to change. Since nobody in top SBC leadership wants anything to change, they can all declare victory then.
The only real losers here are any SBC-lings who want genuine reform of the denomination, meaningful tracking of funds, transparent operations, and genuine accountability.