In 1989 my wife, Michelle, and our infant son embarked on a journey from Texas to Indiana, from living in the Bible Belt all our lives to the Midwest. We had been called to Indiana to serve as missionaries for the Home Mission Board (now North American Mission Board/NAMB) for the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). We served there for three wonderful years.
I was pretty much ignorance on fire. From then until now God has graciously allowed me an active role [with NAMB]. I love NAMB. So many who have and still do work there I count as dear friends. So much good has been done through the ministry of our domestic mission board. But like many others, I have believed for some time fundamental changes had to be made to share the timeless gospel in a timely manner.
This week NAMB hosted their first SEND North America Conference. I have been to more conferences and conventions at the SBC than I can remember. What I don’t remember often is the buzz I sensed at this one. Of course I am a little bit prejudiced because Southeastern was more than represented both by speakers there and attendees. I counted no less than 9 current or former doctoral students, for instance.
In the early 1970s the Jesus Movement touched the younger generation. In the SBC, we baptized more people, and far more youth, from 1971-75 than we have ever reached before or since. In the middle of that movement an event called Explo 72 happened in Dallas, Texas. Some 80,000 youth came together with the focus of reaching their generation for the gospel, gathering for five days of training. On that Saturday, 180,000 gathered for a massive rally. At that rally the new music of the Jesus movement — which has influenced more recent contemporary worship changes to this day — had a coming out party.
On a smaller scale but not insignificantly, I believe the gathering this week of leaders, almost double the original expected, served as a coming out party for the new NAMB. And I celebrate this as a former home missionary and a servant of Christ in the SBC. Why am I excited about the future of the SBC in general and NAMB in particular? Here are a few reasons.
I love the strategy called “Send North America.” I love the leadership more than the strategy, for strategy works in relation to the leaders who implement it. I count Aaron Coe [NAMB vice president for mobilization] as a dear friend from his Manhattan days at Gallery Church. I took our daughter Hannah to New York City for her 16th birthday. While there we met with Aaron and key leaders. Our son Josh has been on a mission trip with Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary to partner with Aaron and with Gallery Church pastor, Freddy Wyatt. When I spoke at the Pastors Conference in Louisville in 2009 I invited Aaron and Freddy to join me on the platform as examples of the future leaders of our time. I love the focus on “evangelistic” church planting. I like the respect for local churches to become involved in planting. In 1900 there were 27 churches per 10,000 people in the U.S., but only 11 per 10,000 in 2000. We need more evangelistic churches.
NAMB President Kevin Ezell wisely noted he is tying vital ministries like disaster relief more closely to church planting. The local church is God’s plan. From Acts through historic awakenings we see the church involved in gospel witness and social justice. NAMB can do some things individual churches cannot, like disaster relief. This has been and can be a fantastic way not only to provide immediate relief in times of crisis but also to display the gospel well in so doing. True mercy ministry involves relief, rehabilitation and development. But the local churches in a given area (and new plants) can step in to lead the vital rehab and development that should follow.
As for evangelism, I rejoice in Larry Wynn’s call to lead that area of NAMB [vice president of evangelism]. Larry is a man I have respected for decades. My close friend and colleague George Robinson came from Larry’s pastoral ministry. Aaron Coe is the young gun ready to push us forward, while Larry Wynn is the seasoned veteran bringing wisdom to the field. Larry will oversee the evangelistic revitalization of established churches, a desperate need given that so many of our churches range from unhealthy to being on life support. Renewal and replanting of existing churches and the planting of new churches remains the need of the hour. I love the focus on cities. Reach the cities, reach the nation, and reach all the nations for that matter. I rejoice at the focus on reaching urban areas. The U.S. was 80 percent rural in 1870 but is over 80 percent urban now. I love the starfish-like shift from a more centralized Atlanta-based NAMB (read the book The Starfish and the Spider for more on this).
While SBC founders envisioned wisely a decentralized convention with autonomy given to churches, associations, states and the SBC, we have been functioning in a far more centralized manner in recent decades (go read the books The Starfish and the Spider or Orbiting the Giant Hairball to see what I mean). From Southeastern’s desire to partner with local churches in ministry training to NAMB’s move to be more field-based, I am personally pleased at the move to get more local in ministry.
It will take a while to get our convention refocused on the gospel and God’s Word and less focused on ourselves and our opinions. But in the short term there are good signs:
• New church plants were 27 percent ahead of projections in 2011;
• The Send North America Conference July 30-31 this year has greatly exceeded projections and has been moved to a larger venue;
• Annie Armstrong was 3 percent ahead of budget in 2011, encouraging in a season of recession;
• NAMB will lead a massive scripture distribution in 2013 to help get the Word to the unchurched.
It is just one man’s opinion, but I believe we have a greater collection of leaders across our agencies, boards, and seminaries than ever in my lifetime. I commend leaders who get that change must happen but who also understand our great heritage. There are many today who realize things must change. They also recognize that if you are one step ahead you are a leader, but if you are 10 steps ahead you are an idiot. Lead on men, and I for one, will follow.
Note: this was adapted from the article “NAMB Making Good Choices for Leadership, Ministry Choices” in the Biblical Recorder, July 16, 2012. Used by permission.