By Will Hall
MEMPHIS, TN — While Christmas means a lot of things to a lot of people, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention sees it as an opportunity to put the exclamation point in “Jesus is the reason for the season!” by soul-winning, and this year that means 400 new believers are professing “Jesus is Lord!” because of a Christmas program.
Steve Gaines, pastor of the historic Bellevue Baptist Church in the Cordova area of Memphis, TN, is quick to credit others, with special praise for the tradition of soul-winning at his congregation to the leadership of former long-time pastor Adrian Rogers, as well as the vision for the presentation of the “Singing Christmas Tree” to former music minister James Whitmire.
Still, under Gaines’ leadership this flagship congregation continues to use every opportunity, especially Christmas, to reach others for Christ, and the evidence is in the results.
During 2015, the church averaged more than 7,000 in worship attendance and witnessed almost 600 baptisms – that is a per capita average of one baptism resulting for every 12 people who are active attenders (or 12:1). For the Southern Baptist Convention, the ratio is about 19:1 for established churches and even SBC church plants only achieve a 14:1 relationship (The smaller the proportion, the better. It means it takes fewer members to reach more lost people).
Moreover, Gaines is adamant about engaging the new believer for discipleship.
“We really try to ‘conserve the fruit,’” Gaines told the Baptist Message.
He used the “Singing Christmas Tree” outreach as an example.
“I share the Gospel at the end and lead them in a time of prayer and decision making. Then I tell them we have two gifts for them, a new Bible and a booklet, ‘Now That You’re Saved.’”
“It tells them the main things they need to do, now that they’ve given their hearts to Christ,” Gaines said, describing the resource as an outline of the basic spiritual disciplines of prayer, Bible study, worship, and such.
The gifts are distributed at several tents where spiritual counselors engage the new believers and begin the process of involving them in discipleship, which results in many of the converts being baptized.
Mark Blair, the minister of music who now directs the “Singing Christmas Tree” evangelism event, said the effort is very thorough.
“We have a team of people who follow up with every person who made any kind of decision,” he said. “The information is shared with Life Group leaders and ministers, and every contact is followed up on in the next week.”
Gaines said they now use this same system at Easter with great results, saying the unusual circumstances of these special services drives the process.
He said in both cases “most lost people come with family or with friends. So they don’t really have the ability or the luxury of staying behind and talking a long time that particular time.”
“We’ll have 200 or 300 people get saved every Easter,” he continued, “where before we were seeing three or four, maybe 10 at the most get saved.”
Blair said one of the special aspects of the “Singing Christmas Tree” effort is that it involves nearly 500 students from 4th grade through college – a signature feature of Whitmire’s former leadership.
Blair said what is special about these young people is the spiritual focus they embrace, starting with rehearsals which begin as early as August.
“We talk about it every rehearsal,” Blair said. “In some way, in every rehearsal from Labor Day forward, we’re talking about the ‘why’ and not the ‘what.’ We talk about inviting unchurched people.”
Gaines said that is the DNA of Bellevue Baptist.
“I don’t care what it is – funeral or wedding – we are reaching out to the lost,” he said. “We don’t do anything without sharing the Gospel. It is just part of who we are.
He wants the same thing for the Southern Baptist Convention.
“I can’t make anybody do anything,” he said. “But, I can lead by example and inspire people.
“People are going to Hell and we don’t have time not to make sharing the Gospel the main thing.”
Gaines closed his conversation with the Baptist Message by giving an example of the results of Bellevue’s emphasis on soul-winning at Christmas.
“A family came up to me this year and shared they were from somewhere in New Jersey,” he recalled.
“The wife told me, ‘We came down here two years ago and my husband prayed and asked Christ to come into his life, and I want you to know he’s a brand new man.’”
The best part, Gaines said is that now the wife is saved, too.
“‘We both were baptized,’ she told me, ‘and now we are in church.’”
‘Tis the season for soul-winning!