This is the last of three posts in response to the GCR Task Force progress report. The other two posts are here and here. In the previous two posts I stated why I will be voting in favor of these proposals, obviously hoping that you will join me in doing so this summer in Orlando.
The name of the task force and of the vision that it represents (The Great Commission Resurgence) obviously hearkens back to the Conservative Resurgence. It seems to me that, whatever similarities exist, there is at least one profound difference between the Conservative Resurgence and the Great Commission Resurgence: The Conservative Resurgence addressed a situation in which the Southern Baptist people, generally not proponents of leftish treatments of the Bible, stood up and used their voice to bring the denominational apparatus back to the position (biblical inerrancy) that they already held on that question. The Conservative Resurgence therefore didn't really require of Southern Baptist individuals (broadly considered) that they change, but merely that they assert themselves. The present situation with regard to the Great Commission, on the other hand, presents a reality completely different from that. Individual Southern Baptist Christians must find the nerve (or whatever it might be that is lacking) to walk across the street and present the gospel to their neighbors, as they presently are generally not doing. Individual Southern Baptist churches must become evangelistically passionate, as they generally are not (sufficiently) now.
We must do more than vote; we must submit to and obey the Lordship of Christ. The Great Commission is, first of all, a command. Obey or disobey—those are our choices.
This is the most important post in this series. It is not that I know for certain that I have all of the right answers that makes this post the most important; this is the most important post because I know for certain that these are the most important questions. I have concluded that, in order for their to be any sort of a real Great Commission Resurgence, I and Southern Baptists like me must do more than vote. Our leaders can do some things to help us, and I will indicate some recommendations, but make no mistake—it is you and I who must resurge.
The progress report seems to acknowledge this concept, referring to last year's vote in Louisville as the beginning of "a grassroots spiritual movement." The report then moves to a call to repentance from Joel. Specifically, the task force identifies pridefulness and cynicism as hinderances to our Great Commission effectiveness. Although the task force has neither the authority nor the ability to address these problems, they obviously wish to motivate the rest of us and to point us in the right direction. They acknowledge in the report that Southern Baptists "expect the leaders in our convention to lead us towards the changes that are needed." So, let's consider how our leaders can lead, and then let's look at what we all can do.
Things Our Leaders Can Do
Ronnie Floyd and his task force are spot-on when they identify a "caustic cynicism" in the Southern Baptist Convention. I'm sure that they speak from experience, having likely been the focus of a great deal of cynicism in our convention. Yes, our cynicism is unhealthy. Also unhealthy would be any sense among our leaders of entitlement to unquestioning, prayerless, mindless submission to whatever they desire or recommend. The replacement for cynicism must not be anything like this. Rather, we should replace both cynicism and entitlement with mutual submission and respect under the Lord.
Let's not be in denial about the cynicism in the Southern Baptist Convention, but let's also not be in denial about the causes of that cynicism. The GCR Task Force has brought forward a very good progress report. I sense that it is building a positive enthusiasm among Southern Baptists. I believe that we will come together in a healthy sense of unity and optimism in Orlando. The Task Force, obviously desiring to accomplish these things, is (in my estimation) succeeding.
As exciting as this moment is, the Task Force still needs to learn a lesson from the story of President Obama: When you cause people to embrace optimism and hope, the higher that you lift people, the further you can cause them to fall if you disillusion them. If, as I hope and pray, the level of cynicism in the Southern Baptist Convention will decrease, then the GCR Task Force must be very careful not to do anything to cause a resurgence of cynicism among Southern Baptists.
I would encourage the members of the Task Force to consider carefully the words of Gary Ledbetter. It is critically important that the members of this GCR Task Force not move from the Task Force into denominational employ. Two facts make this requirement all the more relevant today.
First, consider the similar movement of Bob Reccord from a previous task force to the helm of NAMB. Whatever the realities of this move, very many Southern Baptists were made more cynical by their perception of the move as an instance of inside dealing within our denomination. If the Task Force members wish to inaugurate a new day in Southern Baptist life, then let them show it by demonstrating to us new patterns of behavior. I can think of no better manner for us to show by our actions a break from the past.
Second, this concept is made more relevant by the quantity of high-profile denominational posts that are presently open and by the quality of the candidates who are members of the Task Force. The temptation to the Task Force members could be intense. The fact that some task force members would do an excellent job at some of the presently open positions is somewhat beside the point. The individual members have to decide which is more important, abating ongoing cynicism about their work and preserving a fresh wind in the SBC or securing influential denominational employment.
Our leaders can also covenant with us that "Great Commission Giving" will not be promoted at all in denominational publications, media, or events. In my mind the differentiation between Cooperative Program and "Great Commission Giving" is clear—we encourage people to give through the Cooperative Program; we thankfully acknowledge that people sometimes designate their giving.
It isn't that it is morally wrong to promote another giving plan; it's just foolish. A church survives on undesignated gifts. All we pastors know this. So does the SBC. We need increased promotion of the Cooperative Program (not diverted one iota to the new category of giving) or the heyday of the SBC is in our past. Anybody who promotes "Great Commission Giving" is hurting the future of the SBC to help the image of someone else.
These reasons have been enough for some people to oppose the Task Force recommendations, but I do not believe it is necessary to do so. We track, report, and celebrate designated gifts already. I have in my office awards reflective of designated gifts that FBC Farmersville has given to the IMB (Lottie Moon), NAMB (Annie Armstrong), and SWBTS. The only difference that I can see inaugurated here is that a new name has been given to this collective category of giving that we've had all along.
Our leaders on the task force tell us that the Cooperative Program is still the giving plan that we will promote as Southern Baptists. This cannot be a "wink is as good as a nod" situation. They must keep firmly to that promise. I believe that they will, and so long as that remains the case, I see nothing unprecedented here. Perhaps I've missed something. I'm open to enlightenment.
Things We Can Do as Individual Southern Baptists and as SBC Churches
Help Your State Convention and Association Figure Out Their Roles: We're going to have to help to sort out the implications of these changes at every level of SBC life. In the long run, it may prove to be more important that you attend your state convention's annual meeting this year than that you go to Orlando. Don't get me wrong—you should be in Orlando. But the state convention meetings for the next few years will be the place where difficult decisions will be made in the aftermath of these changes. We will all need to pull together and work hard to make those decisions.
It will be helpful, as more of the details emerge about the Task Force's work, if the Task Force were to provide their specific ideas about how state conventions should adapt to the changes that they have proposed at the national SBC level. I'm confident that they have given full consideration to these questions before making those recommendations. It would be far less helpful to tell the state conventions, "We've made our decision, now you adapt to it," than to join the state conventions as brothers and say, "Let's work this out together as brothers—we've had some ideas about how to make this work. . ."
One or two of the state conventions will probably leap at the justification to reduce further their already paltry support of national and international causes, but I'm really speaking only of those few conventions that are really bad-faith participants in the SBC system already. Some other state conventions that really do have their hearts in the right place may have no choice but to make difficult decisions with regard to their own budgets and their CP allocations, particularly if they are located in pioneer areas where the changing role of NAMB may have the most profound effect.
I'm involved in the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention—the leading state convention in terms of the percentage of funds forwarded to the SBC. I hope to help our convention to look for ways, if it is possible, that we can move forward after the NAMB cooperative agreement reductions without reducing at all the percentage (55%) that we forward to national and international missions. Each of us needs to be involved at the state convention level to help to determine state policies that will maximize Great Commission effectiveness by keeping the SBC base strong while sending all of the resources that we can send to the areas of greatest need.
It is your right as a member church of your state convention to send messengers to state convention meetings and to make those decisions. No matter who else in the structure of your denomination makes statements about the GCR Task Force, they do not have the authority to decide how any state convention will react to changes at the SBC level. Your church and churches like yours will make this decision.
The bright hope of this moment is really not found in any of the specific recommendations from the Task Force, but in the thought that individual members of individual Southern Baptist Churches will take a moment to re-think how each tier of Southern Baptist life contributes to the work of your church in carrying forward the Great Commission. I call for us to "re-think" this not because I believe that the old answers are wrong, but because I believe that they are largely forgotten. Cooperative Program giving has become, for some of us, as reflexive as paying the Electric bill. What we greatly need is for every local church to have clearly in its collective mind:
- We have a church because Jesus Christ founded the church.
- We have a local association because?
- We have a state convention because?
- We have a Southern Baptist Convention because?
I believe that there are good answers for every one of those questions. I also believe that the existence of those good answers is a reason to ask the questions and to ask them forcefully, not a reason to refuse to ask them. The questions further need to be asked of every entity supported by these conventions and every line item of their budgets. Are there any cases in which we will conclude that the answers are not good enough? I think so. For example, I believe that there are universities historically affiliated with Southern Baptist life that are no longer good investments of Cooperative Program funds—that really no longer essentially see or conduct themselves as Great Commission entities. On the whole, however, I believe that the value of asking the questions is not found in the rooting out of such entities (although that would be a virtue), but is rather found in each of us clarifying in the strategies of our churches what is the purpose and vision for each of these institutions as it relates to Christ's mandate upon our churches.
What the GCR Task Force has attempted to do with regard to the national Southern Baptist Convention, we need to do with regard to our churches and with regard to every other tier of Southern Baptist life. Let me be perfectly clear—you need to attend your state and associational meetings and assist in the work of determining how to redouble our efforts and our effectiveness right now.
Lead Your Church to Pick Up the Slack. Commit as a church to give more through the Cooperative Program. Commit to be more interactive and supportive with your sister churches. Our historical myopia leads us to forget that, for quite some time, Baptist churches had robust associations on shoestring budgets with virtually no employees. How did they manage that? The churches pitched in and made it work. The churches WERE the associations and conventions, and they did not regard "the denomination" as consisting of an executive and a headquarters building. The work that needed to be done for the denomination? They just did it.
Just do it.
Don't just pick up the slack in your own back yard. Help to plant a church far, far away from yours. Go to Montana or Massachusetts. This goes just as well for those of you who do not favor the NAMB church planting proposal. Do you believe that local churches ought to be planting churches in pioneer areas and major cities? Go plant one, then. I promise you, no NAMB church planting missionary is going to firebomb your church plant in an effort to drive you out. The church that you plant will be one that no NAMB missionary will have to plant, and there will be plenty of work left to go around.
The more that our local churches focus on what we can do, the more that the NAMB will be able to focus on what we cannot do. My church cannot afford to plant a new church in Manhattan. Yours probably can't either. Meeting space is prohibitively expensive. Cost-of-living for church planters in the area is ridiculous. We simply don't have the budget to swing that kind of a plant.
But the Southern Baptist Convention does have the budget. We have the access to budgetary funds that exceed what most religious groups could dedicate to such projects. I firmly believe that the NAMB's best role is to dedicate coordinated strategies toward making bold moves in those high-cost, high-population-density areas—to do the things that few individual churches have the resources to do alone, but that we can all do together through the SBC. They'll be better able to do the things that we can't do if we will take up the yoke of the things that we can do.
Pray for Spiritual Awakening.
Samuel Morris was a farmer, not a preacher. I'm not merely asserting that Morris was not a particular good preacher; he was no preacher at all and did not attempt to be one. Perhaps, precisely because he was not a preacher, he easily deduced that neither was the minister at St. Paul's Anglican Church (Rev. Patrick Henry, uncle of the famous patriot named after him). Morris and a number of his fellow parishioners at St. Paul's decided to shirk Henry's ministrations and seek better spiritual sustenance on their own.
There being no preacher among them, Morris determined to build a little shack on his farm and invite people therein to listen to him as he read aloud from religious works. The first item on the menu at Morris's Reading House was Martin Luther's Galaterbrief, followed by such works as John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress and the sermons of George Whitefield.
Morris is the father of the First Great Awakening in Virginia. Other people began to build reading houses, and they clamored to invite Morris to come and to read at their reading houses. No other person in all of Christian History comes to my mind who had built a ministry not of itinerant preaching but of itinerant reading!
If God can birth revival among disgruntled Anglicans by the means of an "itinerant reader" offering up selections of German Bible commentaries, then God certainly can move through you, no matter what size your church is or how good your preacher (who might be you!) is at preaching. Why not ask Him to do so? Like Samuel Morris, why not find whatever you can do to carry forward the Great Commission, jump in and do it, and then see how God might bless your obedience? We were not too small for God to work through us in the past; we are not presently too big for Him to do so today.
Perhaps one good thing you could do to facilitate a renewed prayer life as regards spiritual awakening here in our own backyard and to assist in your own evaluation of our Southern Baptist efforts to pursue the Great Commission would be to reacquaint yourself with the text of the Great Commission itself. Jerry Rankin has asserted that "[Great Commission] is not a biblical term" and therefore that it needs to be defined for us. With all due respect, every fifth grader in my church could tell Dr. Rankin what the Great Commission is. It is not some theological abstraction open to various definitions; it is the name we use to refer to Jesus' instructions recorded in Matthew 28:18-20.
Open that text once again. Meditate upon it. Pray about it. Do you remember that it is about teaching ALL of Christ's commandments? Do you remember that it is about baptism? Yes, the Great Commission includes a great deal that needs to be done in the People's Republic of China, but it also includes a great deal that needs to be done in the pulpit of FBC Farmersville. Listen for the Commissioner's voice. Embrace the Commission. Pray. Obey. God blesses such things.