Jeff Iorg Blog
Our denomination’s national statistics for 2012 were released a few days ago. The most troubling number was 314,956 – the number of people who were baptized in Southern Baptist Churches in the previous year. While it seems like a lot of people, it was the smallest number of baptisms reported since 1948.
One person lamented, “We are becoming the new Methodists.” What he meant was this. A hundred years ago, Methodists were a leading evangelistic denomination. They were known for convictional preaching and progressive small group “methods” – the source of their name. Now, Methodists are known more for liberal theology and social action than for evangelistic prowess. From my perspective, we are more likely becoming the new Presbyterians. We are now better at debating theology, insisting on church order, and improving political and social status than we are about evangelism.
Southern Baptists have never had more money, more trained leaders, more materials and programs, more technology, more of a national presence, and more of an international reach. Yet, despite all this, we are becoming less and less effective at actually communicating the gospel and baptizing people – the first public step of discipleship. Why is this?
The answers are many and varied. They are theological, methodological, philosophical, and practical. They have been long in developing and are, in some cases, now deeply entrenched in our denominational psyche. Solutions will not be easy and may require fundamental changes in how churches are led, seminaries train leaders, and denominational agencies resource efforts. None of this will be easy. The issues must be confronted, however, if the movement called Southern Baptists will retain its viability. Right now, we are on a slow death march. The pace can intensify more quickly than you might imagine as downward momentum gains force. We must do something now.
Over the next few weeks, I will outline some of these issues and solutions from my point of view. My hope is you will be motivated to think with me about these issues and use your influence, wherever you serve and lead, to reverse the decline in our evangelistic effectiveness.
An Historic Moment
Jun 25 2012
During the recent Southern Baptist Convention, Rev. Fred Luter was elected our president. He is an outstanding pastor who has built a strong church – twice! He did it once before Hurricane Katrina and again after the storm. On his leadership record alone, he deserved to be elected when the convention met in his hometown of New Orleans. As our first African-American, his election was also a profound step forward for our denomination.
My report to the convention was just prior to the presidential election. After concluding my remarks, I slipped to the back of the stage and sat near Rev. Luter, with a sense of awe at history in the making. When the convention elected him – without opposition – it was a powerfully moving moment. Tears streamed down his cheeks, and mine too! There were hugs all around as we celebrated God’s grace and the good will of Southern Baptists.
During the next year, or two if he serves the traditional second term, Rev. Luter will lead our convention to be more diverse, more inclusive, and more effective. My hope is he will appoint more people from our burgeoning ethnic leadership base to trustee boards and committee leadership. Their influence, will in turn, be felt for the next 8-10 years as they serve out their terms. From this group, we also need the leader to emerge who will become the first non-Anglo entity president in the SBC. That will be the final formal step in the long process of transitioning from a southern, white denomination to the pluralistic family we are becoming.
Golden Gate has been on the leading edge of this movement for decades. We have long modeled what it means to work in multicultural community. We have become so accustomed to eating different foods, hearing different music, learning from varying perspectives, and enjoying diversity in our family – it’s hard to imagine many others are just starting on this journey. The Golden Gate family assures you living in multicultural community is invigorating and enriching – worth every effort to overcome the challenges. Our convention has just taken a huge step forward. Now, take the step yourself, and learn to live and love people who just don’t look like you!
At the Southern Baptist Convention
Jun 19 2012
Southern Baptists are having their annual meeting this week in New Orleans, Louisiana. A few years ago, I coined this description of the meeting: A southern tent revival meets a Baptist business meeting at a flea market. If you have ever been, you know just what I mean! There is preaching and praying, singing and shouting, motions and votes, reports and debate – all happening with buying and selling in the display area next door. The mood is generally “family reunion” – a bunch of kinfolk who don’t know each other very well but have a deep connection that makes is it all work somehow.
Why go to all the trouble? At its core, the meeting is about conducting business that legally must be done by this body. But the meeting is more than doing business. It is about rallying the denomination for missions, focusing the denomination on contemporary issues, and connecting rank-and-file Baptists with the
leadership and decision-making of the denomination. This meeting, in which any messenger may be allowed to speak, is the largest deliberative body in the world.
Golden Gate has a part in all this. We give a report to the convention and usually field some questions about our work from the floor. We staff a booth, promoting our programs and recruiting students. We host our national alumni and friends luncheon, giving them a more detailed update than we do in the general report and honoring our distinguished alumni. As with most things related to Golden Gate, our luncheon attendance has been growing and the event has become an annual highlight for those who attend.
If you have never been to the SBC annual meeting, find a way to go at least once in your life. You will be awed by the size and scope of our work, amused by some of the debate, humbled that your vote counts in the decisions, and inspired by the preaching and worship.
If you are in New Orleans for the meeting, come by our booth and pick up a luncheon ticket. We would be delighted to welcome you and celebrate the good work God is doing through Golden Gate Seminary.
Mar 05 2012
For years, pundits have predicted the demise of denominations. In their place, prognosticators have predicted churches will form new alliances to meet needs they perceive can best be accomplished by shared means larger than any one church can manage. After watching this process for about twenty years, I have my doubts. No doubt about the declining allegiance to denominations – just the creating new structures part of the equation.
New churches today are rejecting denominational labels. It’s virtually impossible, for example, to find a new church with a denominational name. A label like “Baptist” is kryptonite to church planters. Churches today have cool names like The River or The Gathering. Most don’t include any denominational label at any place in their website or printed materials.
Newer churches, as well as many older ones, are also diminishing denominational involvement and support. They don’t look to the denomination as a primary provider for training or resources. They also don’t feel confined to supporting denominational mission efforts.
These changes are often rooted in a positive motive. Younger leaders are passionate about reaching people and willing to do whatever it takes to do it. Erasing denominational barriers they perceive will prejudice a person from responding to the gospel is a natural outcome of that conviction. If that’s truly necessary for kingdom expansion, it should happen – no argument here.
My concern, however, is this. As traditional denominations decline, what structures will this emerging generation of leaders create to replace them? Many younger leaders operate as if their church is the last one that will be started, their church the last one to send missionaries, and their seminary degree the last one that will be earned. There doesn’t seem to be much commitment to building a network for accomplishing these things that will last longer than a pastor’s tenure, or at most, one generation of church life.
Re-forming our particular denomination is now happening. New, temporary networks are emerging to further the kingdom of God. They are accomplishing much immediate good. My question for emerging leaders is not, “Does our denomination need reforming or even replacing with new forms of working together?” That’s an obvious “yes.” My question is this, “What will you build to replace it – that will last a century – like the current Cooperative Program empowered Southern Baptist denomination has done?”
May God give us prophetic leaders who can both envision the future and inspire their peers to build new networks needed to synergistically propel a community of churches forward in global kingdom expansion.
Fred Luter for President
Feb 08 2012
While the nation is immersed in primaries leading to a national presidential election in the fall, Southern Baptists will also elect a new president this summer in New Orleans. The potential historic significance of our election may overshadow anything that happens next November. Dr. Fred Luter, pastor of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans, LA has announced his willingness to be nominated. This is welcome news for many of us who have privately encouraged Dr. Luter to run and promised him our support if he would.
Dr. Luter deserves to be president of the Southern Baptist Convention because he is one of the most effective pastors in our convention. When his church was devastated by hurricane Katrina, he gathered his dispersed flock in Houston and Ft. Worth and other places for worship and ministry. He was, after all, still their pastor even though their church facility had been destroyed and their membership scattered to the winds. His work was and is a model of servant leadership.
Dr. Luter also deserves to be our president because he is a leading voice for missions, evangelism, church health, and cooperative ministries. He built a large, dynamic church in New Orleans. Then he rebuilt it – both membership and facilities – after wind and water did their damage. Hearing him preach in the new facility to a packed house was an inspiration. Seeing young men come forward during the invitation to give their lives to Jesus Christ was thrilling. God is using this man and his good church to change their city.
And speaking of preaching, another reason Dr. Luter needs to be president is to enlarge his preaching audience and give thousands more Southern Baptists the opportunity to hear him speak in person. He couples biblical exposition with passionate delivery in a way few men in our generation can approximate. We will be a better denomination after hearing this man’s insights and catching his passion in the next two years.
Finally, Dr. Luter should also be elected because it is time for Southern Baptists to drive another nail in the coffin of racism by choosing an African-American as our president. We are an incredibly diverse denomination that has overcome much of our dubious racial past. Electing Dr. Fred Luter as our president – in his hometown of New Orleans – will be another giant step forward for our denomination.
Thanks Fred, for being willing to take on this challenge. Thousands will vote for you in New Orleans and millions of Southern Baptists will stand with you as you lead us forward.
Jan 17 2012
We have just finished our annual meeting with leaders of Southern Baptist-affiliated state conventions across the West. We shared recent progress, deepened our working relationships, and developed join strategies for doing our ministries together. We enjoy strong partnerships in the West – because we have worked on them for more than 20 years.
These days, a growing number of ministry leaders define partnerships as “the people we are working with right now.” While there is some value to changing partners often to meet your current pressing need or ministry interest, there is also something lost when long-time partnerships are not maintained. It’s like the difference between long-term dating and marriage. A long-term romance is fun, but marriage is fulfilling because of the depth of the commitment and what can only be learned and enjoyed in that context.
Southern Baptist church leaders have usually been “the marrying kind.” Leaders and their churches linked up with denominational entities and stayed together – even when a shinier model drove past – because we knew, over the long haul, sticking it out with family would be better for everyone. Those commitments seem to be waning.
Rather than reform current relationships, churches are moving on to other options. Over Christmas, I visited four different SBC-related churches. All four promoted special offerings or projects. All had good intentions and seemed like worthwhile efforts. But in only one of those churches was there any mention of the International Mission Board, the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering, or anything else about denominational mission partners.
Note this – there was plenty of promotion of missions, international projects, meeting human needs, and in one case, even sending a missionary with church support. Various mission organizations, projects, and partners were highlighted. None of these churches seemed to be giving up on the idea of partnerships – just historic denominational mission partners.
Some may read this as a lament that “things are changing” or a call for “blind allegiance” to denominational programs. If so, you don’t know me very well. Kingdom advance matters more to me than maintaining the status quo or preserving the organization. What concerns me is neglecting long-term good for short term flash.
When you establish a “partnership,” think through what you really mean and be sure the positive impact of your decision will last more than your short season of ministry. Think long-term as you make these important choices. Think about generational kingdom advance over the next decades, not just what works this year.
A few days ago, one of the most significant Christian leaders in the Western United States over the past fifty years passed away. Rev. Cecil Sims was a church planter, pastor, missionary, and denominational executive. He was also a visionary leader with a passion for building ministries that could make a prolonged impact. Cecil was a friend and mentor who shaped my understanding of kingdom leadership in profound ways.
Cecil was a vital part of developing the Northwest Baptist Convention, being part of the convention almost from its beginning. His zeal for shaping it into a more professional ministry organization was boundless – and sometimes ruffled feathers of those with less vision. He once told me about serving on the Sunday School Board (now LifeWay), watching how the “big boys” did things, and then insisting on implementing those practices in convention operations.
Cecil also played a vital role in establishing the Canadian Baptist Convention. The work in Canada started through the Northwest Baptist Convention. Cecil was the national director for Canada and facilitated the growth and independence that resulted in a national convention. The Northwest Baptist Convention remains the only SBC-affiliated state/regional convention to give birth to a national denomination. Cecil deserves much of the credit for that accomplishment.
Cecil was well-known for his passion for stewardship development. The churches he led, even fifty years after his tenure ended, are all still economic engines producing Christian stewards and giving generously to the Cooperative Program. A young pastor once asked Cecil, “How do you raise more funds?” Cecil replied, “I don’t know anything about fund-raising. I raise stewards. If you want to talk about that, I’ve got all day!”
It was my pleasure to follow Cecil as Executive Director of the Northwest Baptist Convention. Many people warned me he would not “retire well” and would be a meddlesome irritant to me. The opposite was true. He became my quiet advocate, trusted counselor, and personal support. He handled some “behind the scenes” work for me that only Cecil could have done. His generation of constituents embraced my leadership and gave our generation freedom to move the convention forward largely because Cecil vouched for me.
When I moved to the Northwest, Cecil challenged me to think beyond “church growth” (my singular focus up to that time) and focus on “kingdom growth.” He prophesied the church we planted in 1989 would have influence across the Northwest and implored me to remember that as we made decisions about church organization, worship styles, missions giving, etc. Thinking that way seemed a bit arrogant to me, but Cecil challenged me to do it anyway. He was right again. Many of our church’s practices were copied by other church planters who later came to the Northwest.
Cecil was also the first leader to tell me, “You should be preparing yourself for leadership beyond the local church.” That was definitely not on my agenda, but Cecil saw my future more clearly that I did. Becoming a denominational leader – as a state executive and now seminary president – surprised me, but not Cecil! He saw it coming long before I did and told me to “get ready.” I wish I had listened more carefully to his advice.
Despite all these accomplishments, Cecil was - at heart - a preacher. During our last visit he said, “I can’t believe you would take time to visit a dying preacher.” Communicating the gospel – and its implications personally and corporately – was his driving mission. May that also be ours as we remember and grieve the loss of our friend and colleague.
Oct 10 2011
One type of troubling email that comes my way is a frustrated or disgruntled church member asking me to intervene and correct behaviors by one of our graduates currently serving in pastoral leadership. Many church members assume the Southern Baptist denomination (association, convention, or seminary) has some means to hold pastors accountable for their behavior. They assume seminaries have authority to pronounce who is fit for pastoral leadership and to supervise their graduates. Not so in Baptist life!
Baptist churches are autonomous which means they are self-determining and self-governing. We rightly resist any denominational hierarchy that threatens that core conviction about church life. Most Christians are very quick to defend their church’s autonomy – until they don’t like something being done by the leaders. Then, they want someone to step in and do something about it. Churches can’t have it both ways. Freedom comes with the corresponding responsibility to be self-governing in the truest sense – meaning a church takes responsibility for evaluating its leader’s behavior, holding them accountable for it, and rewarding/correcting them as needed.
A healthy pastor/church relationship includes a defined structure for accountability – both for the pastor’s leadership and behavior, as well as for the church’s relationship to the pastor. While the pastor is called and employed by the church, no person can be supervised by an entire congregation. Congregational authority doesn’t mean the entire church has to be involved in every decision. A self-governing church can limit the scope of decision-making responsibility by delegating certain tasks to small, church approved groups. This is an essential step in healthy pastoral accountability.
Every pastor should be supervised by an appropriately empowered small group. This can take several forms depending on the church’s overall governing structure. My recommendation is a group of men (usually a subset of the deacons or elders), so the group can be quite specific in investigating and supporting the pastor in maintaining moral purity. This kind of group isn’t about criticizing the pastor or only evaluating negative behavior. It’s also a means for the church to affirm good leadership, solve minor issues before they become problematic, and discover ways to strengthen the pastor’s leadership.
This kind of group also lessens the pressure many pastors feel to please everyone. When criticized, a pastor can take the issue to the accountability group and discover its legitimacy. Sometimes, cranky people need to be ignored. Other times, they are pointing out an issue that needs correction. A routine, healthy process for supervision can help sort out the difference.
In most churches that lack this structure, the pastor will need to initiate its creation. Doing so demonstrates maturity, humility, and willingness to learn from others. Failure to create (and then submit to) an adequate supervision structure invites long-term conflict.
When a pastor misbehaves, his church (not the denomination) has the responsibility for correction. When a pastor is doing a good job, his church is also responsible to affirm him, support him, and facilitate further effective service. The time to put this process in place is when relationships are strong. Don’t wait for the crisis – it will be too late. Pastoral supervision doesn’t diminish pastoral authority or freedom to follow God’s leadership. It simply insures local church accountability – both in correcting harmful behavior and rewarding healthy leadership.
If you need help working through this in your church, the denomination (particularly your associational director of missions or state convention staff) is a good resource. They can’t replace the church’s autonomous role in supervision, but they specialize in training, coaching, and guiding churches to fulfill their role more effectively.
Dr. Bryant Wright, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, has appointed a task force to advise him (and report to the SBC Executive Committee) about the possibility of changing the name of the Southern Baptist Convention. Because of so many other changes taking place in the denomination, the timing may be challenging. But the issue deserves careful consideration and Dr. Wright has initiated a process to help that happen.
My perspective is this: the name should be changed to better reflect our identity and mission for the 21st century. While that’s the outcome that seems best to me (based on the information available), my perspective is simply that – a perspective, not a conviction. Additional information could change my mind. Here are some issues the task force will address that are important for a final decision to be made.
First, mission. As a church planter, the Southern part of being a Southern Baptist was an impediment to my work. Being a Baptist wasn’t much of a problem, but being a Southern Baptist was a problem. Caricatures about the South are prevalent among many on the West Coast and, at least in our case, perceptions colored reality in ways adverse to our efforts.
Second, cost. It will be expensive to change the SBC’s name. There will be the direct cost for convention entities, plus the indirect costs for every church, association, and state convention. It might be a good time to have a church sign-painting business! While it will be expensive to change the name, when will it ever be less expensive? Not likely.
Third, identity. Southern Baptist Convention is a prominent brand. The name means something. For many, that’s a good thing. It means biblical fidelity and missionary zeal. But for others, the brand carries too many negative connotations – legalism, narrowness, regional bias, along with residual taints of racism and cultural elitism. Changing the name is an opportunity to redefine the brand – keeping the positive qualities, and creating distance from the negative ones. It’s also risks losing well-earned brand loyalty, which must be weighed carefully as part of the process.
Fourth, legalities. The Southern Baptist Convention is a Georgia corporation, chartered in 1845. The convention has certain legal rights and protections in its original charter based on laws in place at the time. Changing our name might mean the loss of certain legal privileges. Part of the task force’s responsibility will be analyzing those details.
Perhaps the most troubling part of the process is people rushing to judgment on the motives of those involved, the process for selecting the task force, or the presumed outcomes. Dr. Wright has just done the most Southern Baptist thing possible – formed a committee! Let’s give them time to work, hear their report, and trust the convention to make the best decision. If you want to speak into the process, you can do so at www.pray4sbc.com.
The Chinese Century
Aug 25 2008
The Olympics have been billed by some as the coming out party for a new China. Without a doubt, the Chinese government put on a great show with beautiful venues, tight security, and home-country athletes primed to win gold in many events. Apart from the continuing question about the age of some Chinese gymnasts, the entire show was a resounding success – from the 2008 drummers who opened the games to the British accepting the challenge for the London Games in 2012.
China is a world power, to be sure, and the Olympics have reminded the world of that reality. China’s population is four to five times that of the Unites States. China is geographically huge and diverse, loaded with natural resources to fuel its continued growth. Many Chinese live in burgeoning cities – more than 50 Chinese cities have a population greater than 1 million. China is becoming more educated as university enrollment grows and exchange students come to the United States to earn degrees. The country is also booming economically as more and more global companies (like Walmart) establish a presence there.
Let’s hope the “new” China is different, however, in several specific ways from the old China. Let’s hope China develops a better way to manage its population than forcibly enforcing the one-child policy. Let’s hope China changes international policies in places like the Sudan. Let’s hope China recognizes human rights, among its own people, and allows freedom of the press and thought to flourish. Let’s hope China becomes more of an ally in the worldwide war on terror. Let’s hope, most of all, for a new freedom of religion that allows Christianity to grow rapidly without persecution or the threat of persecution.
Southern Baptists have longed considered China vital in the process of world evangelization. Our most revered Southern Baptist missionary, Lottie Moon, worked in China. Many others have followed in her footsteps. In the future, let’s hope China openly embraces missionaries who come to share the gospel and meet human needs in the name of Jesus. Until they are as welcoming of our missionaries, as we are of their students and scholars, real freedom of religion will not exist in China.
China will be a major force in the twenty-first century. The United States government must recognize this and act accordingly. Southern Baptists, and all evangelicals, must also recognize this and make praying for, going to, and working with China a major priority.
I am an unabashed supporter of the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. I support their leadership, their strategies, their passion, and their personnel. I give through my church to the Cooperative Program and a special gift every Christmas to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering. When asked, I go around the world to speak to missionaries to encourage them in their work. On our campuses, we host IMB personnel and send our graduates to work with them. I do all I can, and our seminary does what it can, to support the IMB.
The IMB has many shortcomings others like to point out. I see some of those problems, but I am still on their team. Why? Here are several reasons:
Their strategy is sound.
They operate with a sound missiology and with a profound sense of global awareness. In short, they have learned many things over the years and simply know what they are doing. So many people with a passion for missions have no clue what it really takes to effectively work cross-culturally. The IMB has the expertise.
Their personnel are competent.
They have high standards for appointment. Yes, a person can go to the mission field faster if they go independently. But can they stay as long? Will they be as effective? To whom will they be accountable? The IMB requires a thorough process before appointment. This insures a high quality missionary force more likely to make a long-term impact. And, they have a way to involve almost every Southern Baptist – from short-term volunteer church groups to full-time career appointed personnel.
Their personnel serve sacrificially.
Missionaries work in challenging, even dangerous places, for meager compensation with limited resources. Some of the most heart-rending moments for me are visiting missionary families – a father, mother, and multiple children living overseas and serving together. If they are urban missionaries, they are cramped in a small apartment. If they are in remote areas, they may live in a modest home. Schooling is a major issue. Health care is another problem. Personal safety is a growing concern. Missionaries sacrifice to serve.
Their organization is comprehensive.
Just one example is their commitment to Member Care. Each region of the world has a missionary couple who are assigned to serve the interpersonal and family needs of missionaries, confidentially without administrative intrusion. These include marital counseling, crises with children, medical issues, problems with extended family back home, and other challenges. This is a wise investment in keeping missionaries emotionally and spiritually healthy and able to serve. And yes, with more than 5,000 people serving, these kind of problems should be expected and addressed!
Their organization is accountable.
The SBC elects trustees to manage each of its entities. The IMB has trustees work with the administrative team to insure a well-run organization. Sure, like every large, international conglomerate, the IMB has occasional lapses and problems with employees, procedures, and fiscal management. But, on the whole, it is a model of Christian fiscal responsibility.
These are a few of my reasons for supporting the IMB. No organization, certainly no Christian organization is perfect, but this one deserves our support as the largest mission sending agency in the world. Pray for them and join me in doing all you can to support their work!
The Finest People
Jul 07 2008
It was my privilege this summer (for the second time) to be the guest speaker at the annual general meeting for missionaries from the International Mission Board in South America. The meeting is a combination family reunion, training seminar, spiritual revival, and eating contest! These missionaries are prolific reproducers, so there are about as many children and teenagers as there are adults. At this particular meeting, a church in Florida sent a mission team to lead Vacation Bible School for children and a separate youth camp for teenagers, while the adults had separate sessions. All in all, the week was one of the highlights of my recent ministry.
Missionaries are some of the finest people to be met anywhere. They are passionate, selfless, committed, and sold out for getting the gospel to as many people as possible. They are not, however, perfect people. They need structure, training, spiritual motivation, and inspiration just like the rest of us. Thus, they need this meeting and it is a priority of the IMB.
One of the common problems of missionary life is loneliness. While more and more missionaries work in urban areas around millions of people, some still work in very remote places. Either way, loneliness can be more a state of mind than the result of the proximity of people. On my prior trip, my insensitivity on this issue was painful to confront and confess. After flying all night, we had to wait at the airport for missionaries to arrive on other planes before we could be bused together to the retreat hotel. Needless to say, after flying all night, waiting for a few hours, and then riding a bus for another hour – I was tired and cranky!
When we got on the bus, a woman missionary across the aisle turned around, kneeled in her seat, and started conversing with the missionary in the seat behind her (directly across the aisle from me). She talked non-stop for an hour! My patience was thin and more than once I thought, “Why doesn’t she just shut up for a while?”
The next night, over dinner, I learned about this missionary. She was serving with her husband and young children in a remote jungle location. Basically, to arrive at her village, a person would take a boat up the Amazon as far as possible and then hike into the jungle. The annual general meeting was her once-a-year opportunity to speak English and see other missionary women. When she arrived, she planned to spend every waking moment enjoying her friends and talking their ears off!
Hearing her story humbled and humiliated me. How soft my life is! As if her willingness to raise a family, to educate her children, and support her husband weren’t enough – she was also willing to do it alone in the Amazon jungle. My anger the previous day at being inconvenienced by her chatter revealed my arrogance and shallowness. Needless to say, confession and repentance were in order.
This incident reminded me how difficult life is for international missionaries and how much they deserve our support. So, pray and give to make it possible for them to have the resources (spiritual and financial) to do their work. Whatever you have done in the past, do more! A woman who will give her life for a jungle tribe to know Jesus deserves our best.
Great Commission Resurgence – Part 4
Jun 30 2008
This week is the final installment in my excerpts from my chapter in a book calling for a Great Commission Resurgence in North America. This small book was distributed at the Southern Baptist Convention in Indianapolis to encourage a fresh commitment to sharing the gospel in our denomination.
My chapter is built around four strategic decisions we must make to facilitate this movement. Here is the final excerpt:
We must affirm methodological pluralism.
There was a time, in the not too distant past, when there was a generally recognized “Southern Baptist way of doing church.” Sunday School format and literature, missions promotion and offerings, worship services and revival meetings all had a comfortable feel to them. There was an easy familiarity about “what it means to be a Southern Baptist.” That day is gone.
The loss of methodological unity has been a difficult experience for many. Their comfort level with church form and function has been lost. Some now fear a loss of Southern Baptist identity as churches have names, schedules, worship styles, organizational structures, and dress codes unknown a generation ago. It would have been easier to assimilate this paradigm shift if the older forms had simply been exchanged for a new normal. But that did not happen. Instead, new forms of church have proliferated, mutated, and morphed into an ever-changing kaleidoscope of methodological pluralism.
New forms of Southern Baptist churches have emerged for several reasons including generational changes among leaders, expansion of Southern Baptists outside the South, the emergence of rapidly growing churches in dozens of ethnic cultures, and the influence of successful, non-Baptist churches on Southern Baptist church methodology. All of these, and more, are shaping the form of Southern Baptist churches today.
This has been particularly challenging for state conventions and associations who attempt to resource churches. In past generations, denominational bodies worked with churches on the “common denominators” of similar church programs and approaches. Seminaries also struggle with this problem as students come from a variety of churches and expect to be prepared for the new milieu, not for operating the programs of the old. Effective denominational bodies in the future will transform their work to consulting and coaching church leaders (and churches) toward common outcomes rather than promoting one particular set of church programs.
Our corporate effectiveness in accelerating the fulfillment of the Great Commission will be largely determined by our capacity to embrace methodological pluralism. We must stop criticizing Southern Baptists who do their ministry differently than we think it should be done simply because we don’t like their methods. We must develop the spiritual maturity to celebrate innovators who are breaking new ground by attempting new approaches. Our failure at this point has already pushed many young leaders to the edge of our convention, unsure if there is a place for them in our work. We can and must stop this trend.
We must also do more to embrace ethnic churches in our denomination. We accept these churches, and their leaders, as long as they support our existing programs and processes. The next important step will be encouraging these churches and leaders to participate in reshaping the definition of church life and the form and structure of Southern Baptist denominational entities. If we are unsuccessful at this point, ethnic churches will continue to flourish but we will lose the contribution they could have made to Southern Baptist identity and structure.
Part of embracing methodological pluralism is accepting the inevitability and the desirability of the denominational change this will produce. One of the enemies of future effectiveness is past success. Our denomination has had significant evangelistic success in the past. We can experience renewed evangelistic success, but not by doing better what we have always done. The coming generation of leaders needs the blessing of the waning generation to explore and develop new models of evangelism. Young leaders will find ways to fulfill the Great Commission. They are too passionate not to do this. The real question is will we be flexible enough to assimilate the changes they introduce and enjoy the benefits of their efforts.
Methodological pluralism creates significant theological concern for some. They correctly observe some current methods compromise sound doctrine. Tension on this point is inevitable as new methods are pioneered. Some innovations can lead to theological compromise. But many do not. The problem is not careful evaluation of new methods, which is desirable. The problem is broad-brushing innovation as inherently theologically suspect. Many young leaders are passionately committed to sound doctrine and make more mistakes of omission than commission in creating new ministry methods. Wise veteran leaders must coach and counsel rather than critique and condemn. But even then, the tension between doctrinal soundness and methodological innovation will be ever-present. Our task is to manage this tension for the advance of the gospel. The stakes are high. God’s grace is sufficient. We must embrace healthy methodological pluralism and we must do it now.
Great Commission Resurgence – Part 3
Jun 23 2008
For the past two weeks, I have shared an excerpt from my chapter in a book calling for a Great Commission Resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention. This book was distributed at the annual convention in Indianapolis as an encouragement to refocus our energy on sharing the gospel throughout our culture.
My chapter contained four strategic decisions to facilitate this process. Here is the third excerpt from my chapter.
We must learn to communicate with secular people.
Christians, particularly Southern Baptists, speak in Christian code not easily understood by the typical unbeliever in North America. We assume unbelievers have at least some biblical or ecclesiological frame of reference. When we use terms like saved, born-again, or Christian – we think people know what we mean. When we speak of hearing from God, being convicted, or feeling the Lord’s presence – we think we are communicating clear spiritual realities. Increasingly, these are faulty, if not arrogant assumptions on our part. We make them to our peril.
Consider two friends of mine – both coincidentally named Steve. The first Steve was the first convert in our church plant in Oregon. He was a mid-30’s businessman, wife, two children – typical guy in our community. After he had been a Christian for a few months (our church met in a public school), he accompanied me to speak at a conference in a nearby Baptist church. When we entered the auditorium, he stopped and slowly gazed around the room. I said, “Steve, everything okay?” He replied, “So, this is what a church looks like.” “It’s nice,” I replied, somewhat confused by his behavior. His next comment explained everything, “This is the first time I have ever been in an actual church building.”
Do you grasp the implications of that statement? Steve had never, not once in his life, been inside a church building. Not for Vacation Bible School, Sunday School, or a Christmas musical. Not even for a wedding or funeral. His entire Christian frame of reference was what he had learned since conversion and experienced in our portable church. Dozens of people like Steve were part of our ministry in Oregon and, across North America, more and more people are like him – living with little concept of the gospel or church.
The other Steve (along with his wife Michelle) was among the last people I baptized as a pastor. The second Steve was also a successful business owner, two kids, with a wife who also had her own business. After they attended our church a few times, they invited me to their home to answer some questions about their experience.
During the visit, Michelle said, “When you get up to give the talk (note the absence of Christian jargon) on Sunday, you say ‘Open your Bible to the New Testament.’ My first question is ‘What’s a testament?’” I answered by saying, “Before I answer, can I ask you one question? Before you came to our church had you ever read or studied the Bible?”
Steve and Michelle smiled sheepishly. Steve said, “No. But we know you like to use the Bible. So I went to bookstore today and bought three.” He pulled them out from under a shelf on his coffee table and continued, “Did you know there are lots of different kinds of Bibles? I hope one of these will work.” Steve and Michelle had never, prior to coming to our church, owned a Bible, read the Bible, or ever remember the Bible being opened in their presence.
Communicating with people who have little or no concept of the gospel, the church, or the Bible requires a skill-set many believers have lost because of their immersion in the Christian subculture. Our vocabulary becomes over-spiritualized and we communicate arrogance by our unwillingness to patiently help unbelievers understand what we are trying to communicate. Nothing ends a relationship quicker than communicating subtle disdain when a person asks a question or doesn’t understand a concept.
One implication of increased biblical illiteracy is communicating the gospel often takes more time today than it did in previous generations. Sure, God still works dramatically and some persons are converted the first time they hear the gospel. We should share as much of the gospel as possible with as many people as possible and expect immediate results. What happens, though, when a person isn’t ready to immediately commit to Jesus? Often people – particularly adults – need to be taught the gospel, have their questions answered, consider its implications over time, and come to the moment of conversion through a process of gradual insight and understanding. This requires patient, loving, time-consuming work.
Another implication is the need for believers to develop better listening skills and dialogical approaches to sharing the gospel. Much of our witness training has been about speaking a memorized presentation and getting an immediate response. Sometimes this works, but when it doesn’t what happens next? Some of my most significant witnessing relationships have been going on for years, sustained by friendship based on common interests or community activities. Sharing the gospel in these relationships is more than a one-time, read a tract and hope they get saved event. It is a patient process of living the gospel, sharing it, openly discussing it, and patiently praying and working toward conversion.
No Southern Baptist would require an international missionary to go to the field without adequate language training. We need the same passion for learning effective communication skills for our domestic witness. We may think we speak the same language as unbelievers in our midst. We don’t. We need improved communication skills about the gospel and we need them
A Great Commission Resurgence-Part 2
Jun 16 2008
During the Southern Baptist Convention in Indianapolis, a small book was distributed calling for Great Commission Resurgence in our convention. It was my privilege to contribute a chapter to this work. My chapter identifies four strategic decisions we must make to refocus our passion on sharing the gospel in North America. This is the second excerpt in the series.
The second decision we must make is:
We must deploy believers through infiltration strategies.
North American churches today largely focus on attraction
strategies to communicate the gospel. An attraction strategy is a Christian event or program designed to accommodate unbelievers and introduce them to Jesus Christ. An engagement strategy is an event or program designed to involve unbelievers and introduce them to Jesus Christ. Both of these types of strategies have their place and should not be abandoned.
But they are inadequate for gospel-penetration of a post-Christian or never-Christian culture across North America. An infiltration
strategy must be developed through and celebrated by local churches.
An infiltration strategy is the deployment of believers throughout the culture to introduce unbelievers to Jesus Christ in their context. For example, starting a church-sponsored softball league for the community is an attraction strategy. Creating a church-sponsored softball team and playing in a community-sponsored league is an engagement strategy. Joining your company’s softball team – practicing, playing, and staying for the after game refreshments – is an infiltration strategy. Inviting a friend to Sunday School is another example of an attraction strategy. Organizing a Bible study at your workplace and inviting friends is an engagement strategy. Volunteering as a corporate chaplain and seeking out opportunities to share the gospel is an infiltration strategy. Another attraction strategy is starting a children’s home. An engagement strategy would be developing a church-sponsored mentoring program for at-risk children. An infiltration strategy would be Christians becoming foster parents through the state controlled children’s services division.
Infiltration strategies are more difficult than attraction or engagement strategies for several reasons. First, Christians can’t control the venue or the conversation. This is a problem because secularization intimidates many Christians. Second, Christians are afraid of being tainted by the culture. We are uncomfortable hearing profanity, sharing meals where alcohol is served, sitting in the smoking section, hearing off-color humor, or socializing with secular people. We prefer insulation from the culture, rather than infiltration of it. Third, Christians have poor spiritual-esteem. In essence, we aren’t really sure about the gospel. We feel threatened when unbelievers share gut-honest, critical opinions of the church or Christianity. Fourth, Christians lack a robust faith capable of standing up in the marketplace. What passes for “discipleship” today has too often produced pathetic, insipid, weak-willed believers without the spiritual stamina to make a difference in their communities and work places. Our faith is a “greenhouse” faith – only capable of thriving in controlled environments. Finally, church and denominational leaders don’t celebrate Christians who adopt an infiltration lifestyle. We celebrate what happens in church buildings – attendance, baptisms, and offerings received – not church members who devote significant time to infiltrating the community with the gospel.
We must send Christians with a robust faith to infiltrate schools, sports programs, Chambers of Commerce, country clubs, foster care systems, and countless other venues with the gospel. Believers who choose this path must be celebrated, not criticized, by church leaders and viewed as missionaries with an apostolic mandate. These believers are not social workers or spiritual do-gooders. They are gospel-tellers who seek intentional ways to introduce Jesus to every person. They are more than a spiritual presence. They talk about Jesus, win converts, and make disciples.
Will mobilizing large numbers of believers for these type strategies hurt local churches? Not likely. One study by PLACE Ministries estimated if every choir, committee, class, and program leadership role in the typical church were fully staffed, it would only require about 20% of the membership. We have the human resources available to infiltrate our culture with the gospel. We also have the money. The current institutional church model in North America is too expensive for rapid replication in many areas. Land costs alone make traditional church planting in major cities virtually impossible. Infiltration strategies require limited funding since they are not building-dependent, program-centered, or personnel-intensive.
The obvious reality is believers are already dispersed throughout the culture –embedded in schools, companies, and communities where they study, work, and live. They are dispersed, but they are not deployed. We must intensify discipleship efforts to produce believers with a robust faith, a passion for God’s mission, and a genuine love for sinners that prompts them to live and share the gospel. God has embedded believers in almost every cultural milieu in North America. We must take advantage of these networks as opportunities for the gospel.
Once again, attraction and engagement strategies are not wrong and should not be abandoned. But they will, by themselves, be more and more inadequate in an increasingly secularized culture giving less and less credence to church activities and programs. We need an infiltration strategy deploying millions of Southern Baptists and we need it now.
A Great Commission Resurgence-Part 1
Jun 09 2008
A few months ago I was asked to contribute a chapter to a small book that will be distributed at this year’s Southern Baptist Convention meeting in Indianapolis, Indiana. The book is a call for a Great Commission Resurgence in Southern Baptist life. My friend, Dr. Danny Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary was the first person I heard use the phrase “Great Commission Resurgence.” While he may or may not have coined the phrase, it certainly captures in three short words our need.
We have experienced a theological resurgence. Now we need a spiritual resurgence of Great Commission focus and passion. In my chapter, entitled “A Perspective on a Great Commission Resurgence in North America,” I outline four key strategic decisions to facilitate this process. In the next few weeks, I will excerpt each of these four decisions. I encourage you to obtain a copy of the book and let it shape your renewed focus on getting the gospel to our world.
The first strategic decision we must make:
We must humble ourselves and seek God’s power.
The Southern Baptist denomination is large, powerful, and rich. We have significant, influential institutions. We have capable leaders and proven programs. We speak often of our successes, our growth, and our leadership in the evangelical world.
Our triumphal rhetoric sometimes sounds like God is obligated to use us because of our size or influence. He is not. God resists the proud and gives grace to the humble (1 Peter 5:5). We normally begin any discussion of improved evangelistic effectiveness by analyzing data, debating methods, proposing programs, and challenging Southern Baptists to greater effort. It seems another starting place is more appropriate.
Our declining effectiveness in evangelism is, at the root, a spiritual problem. It calls for a spiritual solution. We must begin with a collective admission to God we are powerless. We begin by acknowledging not how much we have to offer God, but how desperate we are for him to work through us. We must humble ourselves and ask God to work through us to bring the gospel to others.
A new evangelistic effectiveness will coincide with intensification of two specific spiritual realities - an increased intercession for people to be saved and fresh dependence on the power of the Holy Spirit for witnessing. Both of these are lagging in Southern Baptist life.
When was the last time you were in a Baptist prayer meeting and the primary and most frequent
prayer requests related to the salvation of specific individuals? My suspicion – not lately. Our prayer meetings tend to focus on health concerns, financial provision, missionary support, and church needs. To be sure, any subject is worthy of prayer. But we seem to have lost our passion, our focus, on praying for the most important thing – the salvation of friends and family members.
God delights to answers prayers related to the conversion of others (Rom. 10:1). Whether you are praying for divine appointments to happen, a gospel presentation to be well received, or friends to be converted – God delights in answering these prayers (1 John 5:14-15). Southern Baptists will increase evangelistic effectiveness when we consistently, humbly cry out for the salvation of friends and family.
Southern Baptists must also rediscover dependence on the power of the Holy Spirit. Again, when is the last time you heard someone cry out in prayer for the filling, anointing, or unction of the Holy Spirit for witnessing? Charismatic excesses have made us fearful of seeking the Holy Spirit’s power. The Holy Spirit is the power for Christian witness (Acts 1:8). His work is essential for evangelistic success - in both empowering witnesses and converting unbelievers (Rom. 8:14-17).
We must humble ourselves and pray for evangelistic effectiveness. We must seek the filling of the Holy Spirit for personal witnessing. We must cry out to God for the salvation of sinners and the empowerment of believers. To trust any
method is futile. To presume on past success is arrogant. To repent and ask God for spiritual power is essential. We need God’s power for evangelistic effectiveness and we need it now.
The Recovery in New Orleans
Jan 22 2008
My travels sometimes take me to interesting places – like New Orleans last week for a meeting related to our accreditation process. This was my first opportunity to visit the city since Katrina hit a few years ago.
My first impression was the recovery evident at the airport and tourist areas. Much work has been done to restore essentials services in areas related to reinvigorating tourism as an essential economic resource. If you only traveled in these areas, you would not realize the devastation that occurred.
A second perspective came from my two cab drivers – both women and New Orleans natives. The first told me about five feet of water in her house and the scattering of her family to shelters in other cities. The second had a more tragic story. While she and “her man for 20 years” survived the storm and its aftermath, the recovery stress was too much. Her partner took his own life a few weeks later, unable to cope with the financial and emotional pressure of losing so much. Both of these women personalized the human suffering and helped put it in perspective for me.
A friend took me on a driving tour to give me another view of what happened and some of the recovery. We drove through the Ninth Ward, a particularly hard hit area. House after house still sits empty, with the painted code on the front indicating they have been searched, how high the water was, and how many bodies were found inside. It was sobering.
But even in these neighborhoods, it was exciting to see churches open. On one street, the empty houses and FEMA trailers lined both sides of a street with buckled pavement. But on the corner was a refurbished church – with a lighted sign that said, “Open for business.” That made me smile!
Another interesting impression came from a fellow conference attendee from New York. He said, “You know, people in New Orleans say Southern Baptists were the first ones in and provided the best relief services.” One New Orleans native told me about a letter to the editor that said, “Let the Southern Baptists run the recovery. They know what to do!” God has used our disaster relief efforts to create favor for our witness in New Orleans.
Finally, I toured our sister school – New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. Their recovery is amazing. Their campus is beautiful with most of the damage repaired. They still need to build some replacement housing and it will be underway soon. They are one of the strongest schools in the city, making a much more rapid recovery than other colleges and universities. Why? God’s grace, the Cooperative Program, good fiscal planning on their part, and the “can do” attitude of Baptists.