What’s Right With the Southern Baptist Convention

Several years ago I gave my parents a gift that I think they enjoyed as much or more than anything I ever gave them. I wrote each of them a letter thanking them for what they did right as my Mom and Dad. In a world where it is commonplace for people to talk about everything their parents did wrong, I wanted my parents to know how much they got right. I recall how very much they appreciated those letters. In fact, shortly after my father passed away last year, I found that letter among my Dad’s possessions in the briefcase where he had placed all his significant documents we were to need upon his death. Of all the things he possessed, most of the things he treasured were in that briefcase, and among them was a simply letter of thanksgiving from a grateful son.

There continues to be considerable talk about what is wrong with the Southern Baptist Convention. I think that is the case for the simple reason that there are many things wrong with the SBC. I know that some would like to attribute blame for this state of affairs to one group or another, suggesting that there really are no serious problems with the Convention, except that there are critical people who keep stirring the proverbial pot with their critical attitudes. But there are many of us who talk seriously these days about the difficulties facing our beloved Convention, precisely because we love the SBC and we care deeply about her future.

I am not alone in thinking this. In fact, one of my most vivid memories is the last occasion that I spoke to Adrian Rogers, a man whose love for the SBC is unquestioned, and a man for whom I have the deepest respect. On that occasion he and Mrs. Rogers asked me and my wife Kathleen to join them at their breakfast table. We were not far into conversation when he looked at me across the table and said, “David, you spend all your time with our seminarians. Is the Southern Baptist Convention really going to be okay in the future? Are there going to be good leaders in the generation to come?”

His question was born not out of criticism, but out of love for the convention. I think that most who ask such questions today do so with the same motivation. And I think we are foolish not to ask and seek honest answers to such questions. In two future blogs I plan to do just that – to reflect on what I think are two serious matters facing the SBC. But before I do that, I want to reflect on the answer I gave to Dr. and Mrs. Rogers that morning. I offer the same answer today that I gave then, and I am even more convinced today than I was on that Spring morning that there is much about which to be hopeful in the SBC. In a way, this blog is like the letter I sent to my Dad. It isn’t that there aren’t concerns to be raised about the SBC. There are, and I will consider those at a later date. But for now, I want to remember what is right with the SBC.

It is my great joy to serve at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, one of the six seminaries of the Southern Baptist Convention. In my role at Southeastern I have the unique opportunity to meet the men and women sent by our SBC churches for training to serve our Lord in ministry around the globe. These men and women come to Southeastern from varied backgrounds, they are from diverse age groups, and they are preparing for many different kinds of ministry. What gives me such hope for our convention is the consistent quality of these people. They are committed to Christ, they are humble and teachable, and they understand the realities of God’s mission in His world, His Kingdom, and His desire to see the nations worship Him.

These disciples of Jesus who study at Southeastern are willing to go anywhere, to go at any time, and to do anything for the sake of the gospel. When I speak in these terms I am not saying that we have a few or even some students of this caliber. I am saying that this is typical of the students who come to us. Over the past decade I have watched these students study, learn, and mature, and I have been at this long enough to see many of them enter fields of service in many different places.

I think of men like Dan Main and Jerry Lewis who faithfully pastor Great Commission churches that take seriously the call to make disciples in their fields of service. I think of a young lady like Bethany Hadaway who invests her life in making disciples through her gifts in counseling. These young leaders are helping to grow healthy Southern Baptist churches, and for this we should give thanks.

There are church planters leading Great Commission churches in places like New England, Montana, and the great cities of our nation. These men, and many others throughout North America, are committed to leading churches to reach not only more people, but to reach more people by forming churches that produce reproducing churches. We see more and more students who are interested in pursuing this kind of work, and for this we should give thanks as well.

Then there are those who serve in international fields. Their names cannot be mentioned, but their faithfulness must not go unnoticed. They serve in hard fields, some in places where until now there has been no gospel witness. These families labor in difficult circumstances, not only due to the underdeveloped places in which they live, but often due to the open hostility to the gospel itself. And yet they carry on day after day, faithfully serving Christ. We should also be grateful for these faithful servants.

I am under no illusion that this phenomena is occurring only at Southeastern. It is because I know of similar movements at other institutions, including our Baptist colleges, that I am so optimistic about the SBC. Likewise, I see movements among Southern Baptist students on public university campuses, where our young people are answering the call to bring the gospel to their campuses and display a passion for the mission of God around the world that is inspiring. I am encouraged also by Southern Baptists who in their later years of life take seriously the call to spend whatever days God gives them in ministry literally around the globe.

In reply to Dr. Rogers’ question at breakfast that morning, I said I didn’t think the SBC would be just okay in the future; I stated that I was completely optimistic about the future of the SBC for the simple fact that God is raising up so many men and women who are faithfully committed to Christ and His Kingdom. I believe I was right to give that answer at that time, and I remain convinced that the future of the SBC is bright. This is not to say that there are not clear and present dangers facing our convention. But it is to say that I believe we can avoid those dangers, and watch God work powerfully through the laborers He is sending to fields of harvest.

That we have faithful leaders serving in established churches to mature them and see them carry on faithful gospel ministry is part of what’s right with the SBC. That there are faithful leaders pursuing the work of church planting throughout North America to produce reproducing churches is part of what’s right with the SBC. That there are faithful leaders going to the ends of the earth with the gospel so that the nations can worship the Lamb of God is part of what’s right with the SBC. In this we see the beginning of what some have called a “Great Commission Resurgence” in our midst, and that is part of what is right with the SBC.

Our Convention has its share of problems, and we must not fail to address those matters wisely. At the same time, we will do well to remember what is right, and to thank God for what He has done in our past and what He is doing today. That He is calling out so many faithful laborers is an occasion for praise, and it is fitting for us to have a genuine, reasoned optimism about our future. Whatever concerns we have about our Convention must be set within the context of the reality of what is right with the SBC.

Answering the Call to a Great Commission Resurgence

In June 1985, Southern Baptists gathered in Dallas, Texas for their annual Convention. It would be the largest gathering of a Protestant denomination in history. It was a critical moment.

On Monday night prior to the Convention’s two day meeting, Dr. W.A. Criswell closed out the annual Pastors Conference. The title of his address: “Whether We Live Or Die.” He knew our denomination was at a crossroads and that the decisions we would make in the coming years would chart our course and impact the health of our Convention. He was convinced that we had before us two options: one road would lead to life and usefulness for the Kingdom of God. The other would lead to decline and eventually death.

I believe Southern Baptists are facing a similar scenario a little more than 20 years later. The context is different, but once again we are confronted with important issues that cannot be ignored or papered over. And, they must not be caricatured or misrepresented. We must face them squarely, honestly and most of all biblically and theologically. Only then will we discover if we can truly walk together as a unified denomination.

The death of Adrian Rogers is, in my judgment, the symbolic moment that signaled a new day in terms of leadership in the Southern Baptist Convention. Things are now different.

I am convinced in this new day and context we need men with a vision for what can be called “A Great Commission Resurgence.” Building on the “Conservative Resurgence,” we need a new passion and commitment to the final marching orders of the Lord Jesus.

There is no question in my mind that a true and genuine Great Commission Resurgence will of necessity be wed to a strong and healthy theology. The two must go together and remain partners for life!

I want to raise and attempt to answer two questions: 1) Why should we come together in a Great Commission Resurgence? 2) How can we come together in a Great Commission Resurgence?

I. Why Should We Come Together In A Great Commission Resurgence?

1) We are in agreement as to a common Confession of Faith to guide us, The Baptist Faith and Message 2000.

2) We are in agreement on the inerrancy, infallibility and sufficiency of the Bible. Some would say the battle for the Bible has been won and it is time to move on. I would sound a word of warning. The battle over the Word of God did not begin in 1979, it started in the Garden of Eden. The battle for biblical authority will never be completely and finally won until Christ returns in power and glory.

3) We are in agreement on the necessity of a regenerate church.

4) We are in agreement on the exclusivity of the gospel.

5) We are in agreement on the sinfulness and lostness of humanity apart from Christ.

6) We are in agreement that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Salvation is a free gift in which human works plays no part.

7) We are in agreement that the Great Commission is a divinely mandated assignment given to the Church by the Lord Jesus and that it is a task we are to give ourselves until the end of the age.

I have never met a Southern Baptist who says I am a non-Great Commission Christian. They would never say this is who they are. They just live like this is who they are. This must change at every level of personal and denominational life.

II. How Can We Come Together In A Great Commission Resurgence?

1) We need a sound theology, not a soft theology or a straight-jacket theology. Our Confession is a solid foundation for a sound theology that avoids the pitfalls of a soft theology as well as the quicksand of a straight-jacket theology.

2) We need to let a biblical theology drive and determine our systematic theology. I believe the safeguard that will keep us from falling into a theological trap of a sloppy or narrow system is to let a biblical theology drive, determine and dictate our systematic theology. We must have a text-driven theological system. This will enable us to avoid those theological ghettos that may espouse a nice, neat theological system, but that do so at the expense of a wholesome, well-rounded and comprehensive theology.

3) We need a revival of authentic expository preaching that will lead us to be genuine people of the book. In the days ahead we must aggressively pursue a pulpit agenda of what I would call “engaging theological exposition.” We must wed substance and style, content and delivery. We must teach the whole counsel of Scripture book by book, chapter by chapter, verse by verse and word by word. Authentic exposition will also help us recapture the truth of Luke 24 that all of the Bible testifies to Christ. It will pursue its holy assignment in light of the Grand Redemptive Story of Scripture. Moralistic and self-help preaching will be set aside as weak and wholly inadequate in building healthy churches and healthy doctrine.

4) We need the balance of a Great Commission Theology. In 1 Corinthians 11:1 the apostle Paul makes a remarkable statement: “imitate me as I imitate Christ.” I would submit to all of us that is exactly what we need to do as we join in an unbreakable and permanent union the twin disciplines of theology and missions. I am convinced that the greatest missionary and theologian who ever lived was Jesus. I believe the greatest Christian missionary and theologian who ever lived was Paul. He was a missionary who wrote wonderful theology along the way! Here are the models for our emulation.

5) We need to love and respect each other as brothers and sisters in Christ even though we are not in complete agreement on every point of theology. One of our problems in recent days has been semi-Arminians with an attitude and Calvinists with a chip on their shoulder. The shrill rhetoric, sloppy history and theology, and unchristian words and actions on both sides of this issue have resulted in a number of unnecessary misfortunes. Many of you have seen this up close and personal. Could it be that the real problem is a lack of love for Christ, an inadequate theology that is robust, and agendas for church life that push to the back row the reaching of the lost both at home and across the globe? Could it be that our lack of demonstrable and evidential love for one another on numerous levels has compromised and wounded our witness? Dear brothers and sisters let us not forget that it is not by a perfect theology that the world will know we are Christians. It is by the way we love one another. We need to move from face to face confrontation to shoulder to shoulder companionship for the cause of Christ and His gospel.

Conclusion:

Wedding a healthy, well-informed and robust theology to a consuming passion for the evangelization of the nations, we must come together, as never before, to carry out the final command given by King Jesus. We may not agree on everything, but we agree on more than enough to work together for our Lord Jesus in fulfilling the Great Commission. So, will we live or will we die? Will we come together for life or fracture apart in death? I make my choice for life. It is my hope and my prayer that you will join me.

Toward a Great Commission Resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention: Part Two

This evening, I am signing on again from Central Asia, where I am drinking a coffee at a small café in the middle of the city. Inside the café are tourists, mostly from America and Europe. It is a scene to behold. Directly in front of me, at the table that is rammed right up next to mine, is what appears to be an alternative rock band of some sort, thirty-somethings, complete with pierced pre-frontal cortexes and little dust bunnies on their chins.

To my left is a long table surrounded by mid-50s women, wielding their cell phones and Louis Vuitton purses, and laughing loudly enough to be heard over a cement mixer. There is another group of Americans outside on the street. Surely they are on a church trip-they’re wearing matching, neon green backpacks, and walking around grinning like its their birthday. And then there is the author of this blogpost, sitting at the booth in blue jeans and a Gap® shirt, sipping my hot brew and trying to write this post.

Here in front of me are three different groups of Americans, with some things in common such as the English language and a shared national history; however, from another angle, they likely have many things at variance, such as their views of the world and of cosmic history, or their convictions about the end goal of human life, or their preferences in music and TV and literature. They share a civilizational and national context, but probably not a cultural or existential context. Communication across these three groups would very likely be cross-cultural communication.

And all of this reminds me that Danny Akin and Paige Patterson, and Ed Stetzer and Bob Roberts, are right. We must treat the United States as a mission field. We must proclaim and embody the gospel across boundaries, we must plant churches, we must live missionally, as if our lives depended upon it.

While it is true, as I wrote in an earlier post, that there are places in the world where people have little or no access to the gospel, and that we should unite as a convention to focus our attention on those places, it is also true that we should unite as a convention to focus our attention also on North America, including especially the USA.

Living missionally in North America?

We most often use the term “missions” to denote the cross-cultural and cross-linguistic outworking of the church’s mission. It is for this reason that missions has most often been used to refer to international evangelism, discipleship and church planting. International missionaries cross vast cultural divides and overcome daunting linguistic barriers in order to share the gospel.

The point of this post, however, is that those who minister in the United States now must often cross subcultures and overcome linguistic barriers in their efforts to advance the kingdom.

A missional Christian in an American context is the same as one in the international context. He is first and foremost a theologian, but also is a student of other disciplines such as world religions, contemporary cultures and sub-cultures, and current affairs. In studying world religions, he learns to understand the core beliefs and religious practices of those to whom he will minister. In becoming a student of other cultures and sub-cultures, he learns to pay careful attention to the people group he is working amongst. He seeks to understand their beliefs, feelings, and values, as well as their patterns of behavior and material trappings. From current affairs, he gains an understanding of the broader regional, national, and international context within which he ministers.

What, then, is the task of the SBC, in relation to North America?

Given the present situation, the focus of North American missions should be to create and implement a missiology for North American cultures. One of the challenges facing Southern Baptists is how to reach our own country. The United States is not monolingual or monocultural. Multiple cultures and languages have been introduced within our borders by immigrants.

In addition, there is a dizzying array of sub-cultures, each with their own distinctive beliefs and ways of life. Many of these sub-cultures are post-Christian, in that they do not have even a basic understanding of a Christian worldview or Christian vocabulary.

We have got to learn how to take our own cultural contexts as seriously as IMB workers take their contexts. This means that we would take care to learn the cultures and sub-cultures around us so that we can communicate the gospel faithfully and meaningfully, and plant churches faithfully and meaningfully, within the framework of our neighbors’ cultural and existential contexts.