"I went to Jerusalem to become acquainted (Gk. istoria) with Cephas" - Paul's words from Galatians 1:18.

The Real Problem in the SBC is Formulaic Evangelism that is Cultish and Not Christian

When the woman with the issue of blood reached out and touched the garment of Jesus, "power" (KJV: 'virtue') flowed from the Christ to the woman and she was instantly healed. When the blind man needed sight, Jesus put spittle in His eyes and the man saw "men as trees walking." Jesus then put additional spit in his eyes, and the blind man was progressive healing was completed. When Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead he shouted an imperative and the dead man's name -- "Lazarus come forth." But when Jesus raised the little girl from death He gently took her by the hand and quietly commanded, "Little girl, arise." When Christ fed the five thousand His disciples reached into the baskets and perpetually pulled out the meat and bread. However, when Jesus turned the water into wine, unknown and unnamed servants drew the newly fashioned wine from ceremonial water barrels. When the lame man was lowered through the roof, Jesus forgave the man his sins, and only then healed the man of his lameness to correct the misconceptions of the Pharisees and to prove the lame man's sins were actually forgiven. On the other hand, when the crippled man at the Pool of Siloam found himself laboring under the mistaken belief that angels stirred the waters of the pool and the first person into the pool after the stirring would be miraculously healed, Jesus neither corrected the misconceptions nor used the healing to proclaim His power to forgive sins. When Jesus Christ transformed the lives of sinners during His earthly ministry He sometimes spoke during the healings. At other times Jesus healed silently.  Jesus would sometimes bring healing immediately and instantaneously, but at other times He would heal progressively. Jesus sometimes allowed people to publicly rejoice over His power, but at other times Jesus demanded that those He healed remain silent about Him. 

The power of Jesus Christ to transform broken lives cannot be boxed and bowed in any religious ritual that looks the same every single time.

There are some independent, fundamental Southern Baptists who have left the gospel. They have, for some reason, concluded that the only way Jesus can transform a life is through 'raising a hand' to express a willingness to be saved, to pray a 'sinner's prayer' as a testimony of that willingness, and then 'walking an aisle' during a worship service to 'publicly declare your private prayer.'  The notion that people who struggle with sin in their lives and are in need of a Savior are somehow cured by following this peculiar ritual borders on cultic. There is a 'common language,' a 'common experience,' a 'common ritual,' etc... Check out the definition of the word 'cult' and you will see that it is the root word of 'culture.' Southern Baptists have developed a 'culture' of ritual that is ultimately anti-Scriptural and anti-Christ. It makes no difference that there are good motives in the leaders who continue to enforce the ritual upon unsuspecting men and women. Good intentions don't count. When you replace the Person of Jesus Christ with a process, you have lost the gospel. When you cause a sinner to trust in a ritualistic service and not the Risen Savior, you have made the religious convert twice the citizen of hell.

Massive damage has been done in the Southern Baptist Convention through both children and adults being led to believe that their salvations are tied up in something they do rather than in Person and performance of Jesus Christ on their behalf. It is the righteous life of Christ, the substitutionary death of Christ at Calvary, and the resurrection of Christ from the grave that is to be believed. There is power in the cross. "Asking Jesus into your heart" in a formulatic prayer emphasises a prayer ritual. Believing in what Jesus Christ has done for you as your Savior is transforming faith. Faith in Christ saves, not faith in a ritual. Ritualism in Southern Baptist circles is more damaging than ritualists can ever perceive. Dishonor is given to the name of Christ when our evangelism short cuts the work of the Holy Spirit in conviction, illumination and conversion. Southern Baptist ritualistic evangelism is more damning than an open denial of the gospel. To seek to convince any sinner that a religious ritual magically conveys salvation,  instead of patiently and lovingly explaining the message of the good news in Jesus Christ and urging the hearer to simply believe on Christ, is turning the gospel of Christ's kingdom into a carnival sideshow at best or a spiritualized death chamber at worst.

We have more than a few independent, fundamentalists within the Southern Baptist Convention who are attempting to identify problems we have in the SBC in terms of evangelism.  Until these highly formulaic evangelists turn from their destructive ritualistic methods, their words are empty and powerless.


Anonymous said...

Is there anything in the SBC that you like? And what is your description of how someone is saved? I know multitudes of people that were saved under this "ritual" and are fruit-producing, God-loving believers today. I am one of them.

Just wondering how someone actually gets saved in your church or are you just looking for something to be different about in Oklahoma?

wadeburleson.org said...

There is a great deal that I admire about the SBC and have said so on many occasions. For the past decade we have seen over one hundred individuals each year profess their faith in Christ through baptism. Their personal testimonies, given by them at their respective baptisms, reveal that each of them came to faith in Christ in unique ways, much like those transformed by Christ in the New Testament.

wadeburleson.org said...


By the way, I would imagine that you would tell people your faith is in Christ, and not your prayer, or your ritual, or your walk-the-aisle profession.

We are believing in the same thing.

Anonymous said...


One anon to another..

Without speaking FOR Wade who can do that for himself__but as one who knows him personally and has watched his ministry from another city and church__someone ACTUALLY gets saved in his church the same way someone gets saved in your church__by the power of the gospel, work of the Spirit, which is all the Grace of God. [If ANYONE does ACTUALLY get saved.]

The way all that comes together may be in a unique fashion with a lost person to be sure__which was the point of the post it__ seems to me.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Burleson,

I certainly agree that salvation is not in any ritualistic act. However, rituals that accompany salvation are not necessarily bad, are they? Jesus could have chosen to heal the blind man without the saliva and mud but he chose to use it anyway. A person can be saved without praying the sinners prayer or walking the isle but isn't it a good idea to honor these cultural rituals? Do they not help support our affirmation of that which has taken place in our spirit?

wadeburleson.org said...


Thank you for your question and your spirit. First, I am not a doctor of anything. Second, "ritual" is defined as "a religious or solemn ceremony consisting of a series of actions performed according to a prescribed order (emphasis mine)."

Nowhere in the New Testament do you find rituals--anywhere.

There is no problem with ANY method-per se-in how a person comes to faith in Christ, including walking an aisle, or praying a prayer, or hearing a donkey speak, or sitting in a jail when an earthquake occurs, or any other number of methods the Holy Spirit uses to awaken a slumbering sinner...

The problem is when the anyones PRESCRIBES a "series of actions" as THE means through which a sinner is converted to faith in Christ.

wadeburleson.org said...

To all:

I am spending the day with my wife in OKC, and will be unable to respond to comments or questions. Thank you for your understanding.

Anonymous said...

This article is awesome! I prayed that prayer and walked down the isle and was baptized 14 years ago. I was given a book and was informed that I had been saved. However, from that point on, I was never held accountable for my sinful nature. No one ever called out my behavior. It wasnt until this summer that I was truely convicted by my sinful nature and realized what it meant to be a Christ follower. This summer, i was baptized, and I can honestly say that I felt my sins had been washed away.

Christiane said...

Psalm 147:3

"He heals the brokenhearted
and binds up their wounds "

Bob Cleveland said...

Excellent article. And certainly needed.

I once heard a preacher tell a F.A.I.T.H. team, after the visit, that they'd left out an important part of the presentation and they should remember that, next time. And that, despite the fact that the person to whom they'd witnessed had prayed to be saved.

This thought even invades "giving testimony". Even the folks who promote just telling your story to people, say "Here's the pattern to follow".

Perhaps the "invite Jesus into your heart" system explains why such a huge percentage of high schoolers leave the church when they get to college. They discover that all the "formulas" in the world come up empty when you're out there in the world.

The world is the only place we have to live, in this life. Perhaps if more education went into teaching people to live out there, rather than how to get along inside the church, things would change for the better.

Anonymous: the vast, VAST majority of folks who've walked the aisle in SBC churches are nowhere to be found. For every one like you who were "saved under this ritual", there are three or four that are simply gone.

Randy said...

"Southern Baptist ritualistic evangelism is more damning than an open denial of the gospel."

I understand your passionate stance on this issue but this is a patently false statement. You are saying that the atheist that is actively telling people that Jesus is a myth and a waste of time is more dangerous than a baptist who uses the sinner's prayer in a gospel presentation. I am afraid I have to label that an over-exaggeration.

I was an atheist from the age of 16 until 32. A gospel presentation including the sinner's prayer was a component in my salvation. The Holy Spirit used that as part of the work he was doing in my life. I have no doubt about my salvation - it was as real and powerful as anything that has ever happened to me.

I do believe that some have turned this into a "salvation formula" and that is dangerous. However, I believe there are those who believe this has no validity at all on the other extreme and I disagree with those as well.

I do not believe this is the "real problem in the SBC" at all. Perhaps the greatest problem is we are too focused on conversion and have abandoned any real effort of discipleship. Perhaps the real problem is divisiveness over issues. If we spent as much time battling the devil as we do each other, perhaps we'd see a real turn around in the SBC.

wadeburleson.org said...


Valid point. However, if a guide leads you over a cliff all the while proclaiming you are on a path home you are dead. In fact, you are just as much dead if you follow another guide who points out the cliff and urges you to jump off. Atheism and leading people to trusting in a religious ritual lead you to the same death.

Anonymous said...

The power is the GOSPEL, not the "invitation". Coming to Christ is not a determination we make it is an act of God alone, through faith alone. Repentance leads to life, not walking the aisle.

Ray Earley

blogitch said...

A new book that speaks directly to this issue is entitled, The King Jesus Gospel by Scot McKnight. I encourage anyone troubled by Wade's post to check it out.

Steven Stark said...

I think the problem is more deep. It's believing in a God who creates people in order to damn them. It's believing in a God who cares more for His own honor than for the sake of His creation. It's believing in a God that is called "love", but who does not act in a way consistent with how we usually use that term.

It's a belief in a God who is willing to realize a world in which there is infinite suffering simply to achieve His own glory. That is not that action of love.

Steven Stark said...

I meant to write "That is not the action of love".

But I applaud the realization that there is little difference between many religious rituals and magic spells. This is not to say that there cannot be a more nuanced understanding of things, such as prayer, but trying to convince a higher power to act in accordance with our will is superstition.

William James' description of religion seems better - "the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto."

wadeburleson.org said...


I sympathise with what you are saying. I do believe, however, your conception of God's justice, His righteous character, and the meting out of His judicial punishment for sinners are the result of an anti-biblical viewpoint of hell--perhaps Dante's Inferno--and not the teachings of Jesus Christ Himself.

For example. Are you arguing there should be no judges on earth? Should there be no justice in terms of prison terms for lawbreakers? Can a rapist argue that "It was your *#$*# laws that put me here judge, let ME go!! How dare you sentence me to jail when you and your kind put the laws out there that I broke!" Are you advocating this kind of justice on earth?

I think not.

There is within every human being an innate knowledge of what is right and wrong. The ancients called this "natural law." And, regardless of any knowledge of the 10 Commandments or any other revealed laws (including "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you"), human beings violate those laws of their own accord.

I find the argument "I can't believe in a God who created human beings to damn them" quite shallow. God created man upright. Man rebelled against God. God is not a sado-masochist as you seem to think, but will rightly and judicially punish the lawbreaker with a prison term of isolation.

It's the same principle you advocate on earth, but for the life of me, I have no idea why you find it difficult to accept as a principle in the next realm.

Steven Stark said...


Of course I believe in justice. (the penal substitution of Christ's death for sinners' does not satisfy any coherent system of justice anyway but that's another subject, I suppose!)

"Man rebelled against God"

And yet God is the cause of all action. I thought the Calvinist position is that God is in charge of all things. If so, why would he create people to reject Him? So that He could demonstrate His own justice on them, right? In other words, He purposefully created violators of His law in order to demonstrate His power and justice. He purposefully created beings to suffer for all eternity.

" will rightly and judicially punish the lawbreaker with a prison term of isolation. "

But isn't this "prison term" in your view an everlasting one without hope of reprieve? The universalists believe in a corrective hell, but I thought the Calvinist view was that hell served no purpose of correction and was forever. This is not a just punishment for any person's earthly sin. No one believes that a person deserves an everlasting sentence of isolation for an earthly sin. That extreme punishment violates our sense of natural law.

"Can a rapist argue that "It was your *#$*# laws that put me here judge, let ME go!!"

Of course, the rapist should be in jail. But there is such a thing as unjust laws, right? A 10 year prison sentence would be wrong for someone who stole a candy bar. So I agree with your description of natural law, but we must recognize that it is possibly different from laws on the books. I believe an infinite hell is an unjust punishment. It's not the action that perfect love would take. Love has the best interest of the sinner, and all, in mind. This could certainly entail some punishment, but surely it would be corrective in nature. And if correction is not possible, then why create this sinner in the first place? Or if God isn't sure HImself, why shut the door forever? Surely Perfect Love would never give up.

Steven Stark said...

I enjoy these theological discussions a lot, obviously. And I realize that many people reading this simply believe these things are true, whether they are good or not.

But it does seem that in the theology of conservative Christianity, Jesus' role is more to save us from God than from our sins!

Wishing everyone the best, Steven

Anonymous said...

Several years ago the whole empty membership & church discipline picked up when Tom Ellif was elected Convention president and his first article in SBC Life was on his belief that 50% of SBC members attending on Sunday morning were uncoverted. Much since has been written, but few have tried to explain how such a thing can occur. This post explains how. "Asking Jesus into your heart" and assorted such things which become substitutes for believing the promises of God in Christ have actually become
Baptist sacraments.


Christiane said...

Jesus invites us into HIS Heart . .

He shelters us within His Wounds

Anonymous said...

Quick question: if someone walks into your office and tells you they want to become a believer, what do you do? Pray with them? Read scripture?

Rex Ray said...

Your quoting what Tom Elliff believed as truth does not go well for those “parasites and barnacles” he said had been scraped from the ship of Zion.

One lady wrote in the Baptist Standard she hoped he fell overboard.

Now that he’s president of the IMB, do you think he will apologized to those missionaries that were fired or give them the retirement they deserve?

I believe some ‘Baptist sacraments’ are choking Baptists to death.

Christiane said...


you wrote:

"Now that he’s president of the IMB, do you think he will apologized to those missionaries that were fired or give them the retirement they deserve?"

oh my goodness, are you saying that the SBC never properly compensated them for the time that they had served the Church ?

. . . are you sure, Rex ?
That sounds so harsh not to stand by those people in good faith for the time they had served

very harsh . . . very wrong of them

Anonymous said...


I could have cited Paige Patterson who agreed with Ellif's assessment. My concern was only to show what I believed to be the relevance of Wade's post to what is acknowledged in the Convention as a problem. That was my point. Yours is obviously somewhere else.


Rex Ray said...



states that Southern Baptists lost 43 missionaries in one day.

“The 13 missionaries who were fired were all long-tenured personnel and represent a combined total of 273 years of service to the IMB.”

Can or will you answer Christiane’s question if they were properly compensated?

Scotty, you claim you were only replying to Wade’s post, but my point is:

What did you mean by “church discipline picked up…”?

Years ago, church discipline was being burned at the stake.

Missionaries had done nothing different in their 20 plus years of service, so why were they disciplined?

In my opinion, the C/R bosses accomplished what the devil couldn’t do.

Or maybe he didn’t lose due to more souls to his kingdom caused by enlarged egos demanding “discipline”.

Anonymous said...


What I meant by "church discipline ..." was the discussion which culminated in a change in the way churches report members. The problem was obvious, but what caused the problem was the elephant in the room -- so the relevance of Wade's post to that. As to all the other stuff - not sure why you seem to see me as an apologist for Ellif or IMB etc. but my post has nothing to do with any of it. Not sure what yours has to do with Wade's either.


Rex Ray said...


Let’s see…definition of an apologist:

A person who argues in defense or justification of
something, such as a doctrine, policy…

Did you not say, “I could have cited Paige Patterson who agreed with Ellif’s assessment”?

To me, using Patterson and Ellif to prove anything is like proving ‘God is love’ by quoting Hitler.

My advice:

Waving a red flag is OK but not in front of a hurt bull.

Anonymous said...


Sorry for your pain. Only cited those because their statements were well known and they are prominent people and the end of the discussion was action in the convention. Not trying to "prove" anything with it at all. I think you have read past what this thread was about.


wadeburleson.org said...

Quick question: if someone walks into your office and tells you they want to become a believer, what do you do? Pray with them? Read scripture?

I tell them the gospel. I patiently answer their questions. I give them additional things to read, and I follow up to see if they are growing in their understanding of who Christ is and what He has done for sinners.

If they come to personal trust in Christ, we work with them to confess their faith in Christ to the world that knows them at their public baptism.

Timothy Snider said...

Wade -
Nice, thought-provoking post.

To add my 2 cents, the first thing I thought when seeing 'formulaic evangelism' was the 'Where's Your Spot?' campaign that was in vogue at Falls Creek and other BGCO circles a few years ago.

On the one hand, the 'WYS' campaign had good intentions, was a good 'branding' idea, and was a nice entry point for sharing the Gospel. On the other hand, it emphasized the very points you bemoan in your post - the decisionism, the spot, the time.

I (speculate to) understand that you couched your concerns of 'formalaic evangelism' within the broader Cal/Arm debate, but there are even non-Calvinists (such as me) who bemoan these methods of walk, pray, fill out card, be presented.

To elaborate further....I am often genuinely perplexed at the numbers of salvation decisions amongst youth returning from FC or other church camp, when the majority of such decisions are a 'RE'-Salvation. On the one hand, I'm hopeful that their 2nd, 3rd, etc decision gives them peace and assurance. BUT, on the other hand more importantly, I interpret the entire array of such decisions to incriminate our Baptist way of doing things with a formula - further that there is very often a very superficial follow-up and discipleship with the young converts.

Finally, the varied emphases our modern day evangelist/pastor places on 'Were you ever really a Christian?' doubts (ala Bailey Smith Wheat and Tares sermon) is misplaced at best, and dangerous at worst.

Richard Knaak said...

Decision theology was the brain child of Charles Grandison Finney. http://www.spurgeon.org/~phil/articles/finney.htm An acolyte of Finney's is none other that Billy Graham, whose ministry coincides with the exponential growth of the SBC.

Anonymous said...

With this post being about evangelism, I am constantly reminded of the vast majority of churches being in decline. Yes, conversion is found in the Person of Christ alone... He is the source and sustainer of salvation. And while I'm mentioning declining churches, I came across this plateauedpastor.blogspot.com
Don't know if it's legit or not, but may be something interesting to watch.