$48.00 soul salvation scrutinized

Bailey Smith’s claim that he can get one soul saved for every $48.00 he receives has set me to thinking. He touts his “Save-a-soul-a-month ministry” as something that everyone–at least everyone who is concerned for souls–should support. He claims to make a convert for every $48.00 you send him. But how does Bailey Smith’s evangelism work? Others have already commented on his (in)famous “Wheat or Tares” sermon that gets church members “saved” and resaved all over the nation. So I will refrain from addressing the harmful results fostered by that message.

Instead, I want to focus on the fruit of his evangelism. After all, if he is encouraging folks to get in on the work of salvation at what he suggests is the bargain-basement price of only $48.00 a soul, people should know what kind of salvation is actually being promoted. Is it a salvation that lasts? Is it a salvation that builds churches? Is it a salvation that results in disciples? It would be helpful if Bailey Smith Ministries would make the statistics of his evangelistic efforts public. Such statistics obviously exist because he is able to calculate how much income is required to save one soul. But if those statistics are available to the public, I do not know how to access them. They could be compared to the number of lasting church members that resulted from his crusades and then we could at least have some indication of the quality of the converts that he claims to produce.

While those statistics are not available, what is available are the statistics from his years as pastor of what his website touts as the “second largest church in the [Southern Baptist] denomination,” which he began to serve when he was 34 years old. His website further notes that “Bailey Smith is the only man in Convention history to baptize 2,000 people in a local church in one year” and “He is the only man of any denomination to leave a 20,000 member church to enter evangelism.”

The church in reference is First Southern Baptist of Del City (FSBC) in Oklahoma. He served there from 1973 to 1985. Following are some statistics (compiled from the Annual Church Profile) from the last part of his ministry in that church. They put the above quotes from his website in a little different light, and provide a basis for gauging the value of his $48.00 converts.

In 1980, FSBC baptized 2028 people. The church added another 583 new members and reported a total membership that year of 15,539. This included 10,821 resident members and 4,718 nonresident members. As an aside, he was elected President of the SBC that year and his church gave 1.1% ($41,344) of its $3,488,130 reported tithes and offerings to the Cooperative Program.

In 1981, FSBC baptized 1164 people and had 501 other additions. Their total membership rose to 16,204, a gain of 665. The resident membership, however, decreased to 10,687 (a loss of 134) while the nonresident members increased to 5517 (an increase of 799). A charitable assessment might suggest that few, if any, of those 1164 converts stayed around long enough to become “resident.” Other assessments, of course, would suggest something far more serious. Another aside, Smith was elected to a second term as SBC president in 1981 and the church increased its Cooperative Program giving to 3.1%

In 1982, 1060 people were baptized and 512 others were added as members. Total membership rose to 17,240, a 1036 gain. The number of resident members rose to 11,642 (an increase of 955) and nonresident members increased to 5598 (an increase of 81).

In 1983, 1025 were baptized. An additional 463 were added in other ways. Total membership went to 17,803 (a 563 increase) and nonresident membership rose to 6073 (a 475 increase). Resident membership went to 11,730 (an increase of 88).

In 1984, 1006 were baptized and 426 others were added. Total membership went to 18,417 (an increase of 614) but the number of resident members dropped to 9868 (a decrease of 1862) and nonresident increase rose to 8549 (a 2476 increase). A total of 1432 new members were added, including over 1000 who were presumably the results of Bailey Smith-style evangelism, and yet the resident membership decreased by 1862.

In 1985, another 1014 were baptized with 426 other additions reported. Total membership rose to 19,487 (a 1070 increase). Resident membership rose to 11,291 (an increase of 1423) and nonresident membership dropped to 8196 (a decrease of 353). This is the year that Bailey Smith resigned and Tom Elliff became the pastor. This year’s total membership is what the quote above refers to, when Smith claims to be the only man anywhere who has ever left a church of 20,000 members to go into full time evangelism.

The statistics from 1986 are rather revealing, however, and cast a different light on the evangelistic legacy of Bailey Smith at FSBC. In that year, 732 were baptized. Another 406 members were added in other ways. Total membership dropped to 12,498–a decrease of 6989. Resident membership went to 11,010, a decrease of 281. The nonresident membership drastically dropped to 1488, a decrease of 6708. Tom Elliff evidently cleaned the bloated membership rolls that he had inherited.

Now, let me again make very clear that statistics do not tell the whole, or in some cases perhaps even the most important part, of a church’s story. I am employing them because they are so often cited by people like Bailey Smith to tout their own success and the failure of those who do not measure up to their numbers. After all, Smith claims to be able to get a soul saved for every $48.00 he is sent. The implication is that his evangelism is not only effective, it is efficient. But how does it bear up under statistical scrutiny?

From 1980 to 1985 Bailey Smith baptized 7297 people. We can suppose that most of these are the fruit of the kind of evangelism that promises to save a soul a month for every $48.00 given to his ministry. At the very least we can assume that he would call all of these 7297 people converted or else he would never have baptized them. Yet, during this same period the church he pastored increased in resident membership by a total of 470 people (from 10,821 to 11,291).

It took 7297 of Bailey Smith’s converts to produce a church growth of 470 over a 5 year period. In other words, it takes 15 and a half converts over a 5 year period to gain one new church member. Actually, it is much worse than that because this does not even take into account the other 2956 people who were added to the membership without baptism during the same period. Presumably, at least some of them stuck around.

So just what does your $48.00 buy, when you send it to Bailey Smith Ministries? If the last half of his pastoral ministry is any indication, it buys more false converts than we could possibly calculate. It finances the kind of shallow evangelism that has filled our churches with unregenerate members and sent countless numbers to hell with a decision card in their pocket. Those who truly love souls and love the only gospel that genuinely saves souls will have nothing to do with this kind of evangelism.

How long will this kind of shameless spiritual abuse be allowed to go on? How long will those who know better be willing to stand by silently while the honor of our Lord Jesus Christ is dragged through the mud by the proclamation of a false gospel which is no gospel at all? Spurgeon’s challenge is as pertinent in our day as it was in his: “Here is the day for the man. Where is the man for the day!”

Tom Ascol has served as a Pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Cape Coral, FL since 1986. Prior to moving to Florida he served as pastor and associate pastor of churches in Texas. He has a BS degree in sociology from Texas A&M University (1979) and has also earned the MDiv and PhD degrees from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Ft. Worth, Texas. He has served as an adjunct professor of theology for various colleges and seminaries, including Reformed Theological Seminary, the Covenant Baptist Theological Seminary, African Christian University, Copperbelt Ministerial College, and Reformed Baptist Seminary. He has also served as Visiting Professor at the Nicole Institute for Baptist Studies at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida. Tom serves as the President of Founders Ministries and The Institute of Public Theology. He has edited the Founders Journal, a quarterly theological publication of Founders Ministries, and has written hundreds of articles for various journals and magazines. He has been a regular contributor to TableTalk, the monthly magazine of Ligonier Ministries. He has also edited and contributed to several books, including Dear Timothy: Letters on Pastoral Ministry, The Truth and Grace Memory Books for children and  Recovering the Gospel and Reformation of Churches. He is also the author of From the Protestant Reformation to the Southern Baptist ConventionTraditional Theology and the SBC and Strong and Courageous. Tom regularly preaches and lectures at various conferences throughout the United States and other countries. In addition he regularly contributes articles to the Founders website and hosts a weekly podcast called The Sword & The Trowel. He and his wife Donna have six children along with four sons-in-law and a daughter-in-law. They have sixteen grandchildren.
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