Jeff Iorg Blog

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 and engagement 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.