Q&A: An interview with Bryant Wright
Baptist Press
January 15, 2011

Q&A: An interview with Bryant Wright

Q&A: An interview with Bryant Wright
Baptist Press
January 15, 2011

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The December/January edition of SBC LIFE

includes an interview with Southern Baptist Convention President Bryant Wright,

who also serves as pastor of Johnson Ferry Baptist Church in Marietta, Ga.

Following is a transcript of the interview, which took place

Sept. 21 following his address to the SBC Executive Committee.

SBC LIFE: What is your vision for your ministry as president

of the SBC?

WRIGHT: As I mentioned today, it’s that we would return to

our first love, Jesus Christ. That is the starting point. I realize that’s not

a measurable goal, but it is the heart of what I would love to see happen — in

individuals, but also in the local church and the denomination. In losing our

first love we have allowed the “isms” — materialism, hedonism, the workaholism

of busyness, and even churchianity versus a true relationship with Christ — to

take precedent over the relationship with Him. When that happens we lose our

spirit, we lose our heart, and we lose a passion for lost people. We’ve let

culture influence us more than we have influenced culture for Christ.

Growing out of that would be a love for the lost. I hope

that Southern Baptists will really get serious about a radical reprioritization

of the Great Commission. That would first be demonstrated in personal giving.

The reality is most who are professing Christians in our churches give little

or nothing to the Lord’s work. That shows they really love their money more

than they love Jesus. That’s a sad reality. And it’s a huge burden to me,

especially when you consider how God has blessed the Christians of America and

the impact that we could have on the world in sharing the gospel by using the

financial resources that have been entrusted to us. We have a window of opportunity

that we need to make the most of and have an urgency about.

SBC LIFE: Do you have any kind of action plan or steps that

you would like to take in order to help Southern Baptist churches recapture

that first love?

WRIGHT: Really, just urging it to happen. It’s why we’re

urging local churches to hold solemn assemblies … in January 2011 as a way we

can call on the Lord to help us return to our first love of Jesus. But also, in

light of what has happened with people going on mission trips at Johnson Ferry,

I’m going to be emphasizing the value of mission trips. And that means having

people really go (and) not just giving and praying. A lot of our people at

Johnson Ferry have returned to their first love because they really become

passionate about the Kingdom enterprise that Christ has us called to. When we

step out in faith and are willing to sacrifice time and financial resources to

go to another culture to share the Good News of Christ, it has a way of getting

our priorities back where they need to be.

SBC LIFE: Earlier this evening you mentioned the role of

spiritual training when people prepare for mission trips. Does discipleship

training become easier when people are training for a specific ministry event

or trip?

WRIGHT: It really does. Going back to that first trip during

spring break in the early ’90s, I asked our student minister just to get away

for a few days of prayer and fasting and to pray about what could be done to

give a new vibrancy to the student ministry. I wanted them to have the chance

to do something sacrificial and to work with the poorest of the poor. Now that

really struck a nerve with them. And we required that they go through eight

weeks of discipleship training; it was intensive discipleship — I mean two

hours every Sunday night. For all of our trips, each person has to learn how to

share his or her faith, we talk about quiet time, and we talk about

cross-cultural issues that they’re going to deal with. That really enriches a

church when so many go through that.

SBC LIFE: That is such an important component. If we suggest

that merely going on mission trips will bring people back to their first love,

it’s not just going on the trip …

WRIGHT: That’s right, it’s also the preparation. In that

discipleship training, you’re developing a Kingdom vision.

SBC LIFE: Do you have any other ideas to help churches

recapture their first love?

WRIGHT: There’s nothing more important than the pastor

preaching the Word and feeding the flock. At Johnson Ferry, one of our core

values is an unchanging message with an ever-changing methodology. With every

generation, even every few years, the methods in doing ministry change; but you

never compromise the message. It’s hard to overestimate the impact of a church

hearing the Word of God from the pulpit in a way that they can apply in their

everyday life. When you do that through Bible study classes, from children all

the way to senior adults, then you’re really building disciples. It means

having Bible teaching as central to who you are. We don’t have any better

discipling tool than the preaching and teaching of the Word of God. My style of

preaching is much more a teaching style. I realize historically in Southern

Baptist life we’ve been very strong on evangelistic decisions, and I think as

you look at what’s happening at Johnson Ferry, you see that. But I think people

would tell you that my style is really more teaching with an evangelistic

dimension to the teaching.

SBC LIFE: Do you have any other strategies for cultivating a

return to the first love?

WRIGHT: Well, I would hope that in all of our teaching of

the Word, the major focus is Jesus. The danger is, the longer we’re in the

church, if we are not careful, we can become like the elder brother in Jesus’

parable of the Prodigal Son. The longer you’re in the church, the more you tend

to become like the elder brother. That’s as true of Baptists as any

denomination. I’m just haunted by Jesus’ story — not just what happened to the

younger brother, but what happened to that lost sheep — Jesus taught about

leaving the 99 sheep and going out to get the one. That’s the heart of God. And

I just hope that’s the heart of people in our churches._ÑŒ_ÑŒ

SBC LIFE: In some churches it’s almost as though Jesus has

been reduced to merely being the way to enter into heaven, but after you get

your “heaven pass” we focus on all these other things in the church. The

ongoing significance and centrality of Jesus can be overlooked.

WRIGHT: That’s right. Jesus must be central to our message.

He must be central to our Bible studies. We must always be reminded of how He

dealt with sinners. One of the things I love about Jesus is that there is

obviously nobody more devoted to the Father’s will than Jesus, but He was

totally loved by lost sinners, and they loved Him. The religious people didn’t

like Him, but He was so loved by sinners. If we can have that kind of spirit —

the spirit of Jesus, that spirit and character of Jesus and the mission of

Jesus — then that’s where we need to be.

SBC LIFE: For more than a year, the Executive Committee has

been working in response to a motion made at the 2009 Convention encouraging

the SBC to have a broader ethnic representation in its leadership. What steps

can you take as president to increase visibility and participation of

individuals in convention leadership that would reflect the reality of our

convention’s multi-ethnic makeup?

WRIGHT: I’m asking the folks on the Committee on Committees

to seek to have dedicated Christians who love the Lord, love the Word, but look

more like the Christians who make up our convention — not just the Christians

who make up the leadership of the convention. And it’s not just black and white

— there are also Hispanic and Asian — we’re a very diverse lot. But when you

look at the leadership out front in the convention, you don’t really see an

accurate reflection of the ethnic diversity in our convention as a whole. We’ve

got to be very intentional at this point in reaching out, and I hope that will

be the case.

SBC LIFE: I don’t think most Southern Baptists know how

ethnically diverse our convention is.

WRIGHT: Some of our African-American pastors feel like they

are on the fringe. That is very unhealthy; it’s not good for us and it makes us

a poorer people spiritually. We want to get a taste of heaven to see what it’s

going to be like when every ethnos (ethnic group) and tribe gather around


SBC LIFE: Currently, almost 95 percent of Cooperative

Program funds received by the Executive Committee go to fund the International

Mission Board, North American Mission Board and the six seminaries. You are on

record saying that your church divides its support for SBC ministries at 5

percent to CP and 5 percent directly to IMB. If Southern Baptists across the

land follow the example of Johnson Ferry, some are concerned that funding for

these other ministries could be dramatically impacted. Given what you have led

your church to do, what would you say to pastors concerning the priority of

funding IMB, NAMB, and seminary training through the Cooperative Program?

WRIGHT: Well, the reason Johnson Ferry has chosen to give

equally through the Cooperative Program and directly to the IMB is so we can

give more to international missions. But we definitely know the seminaries need

more money. They are training the future leadership of our churches for

carrying out the Great Commission in our churches and on the mission field.

Certainly we want to be a part of that. Our burden is how much is staying in

the states, especially in the Bible Belt states where there are so many SBC

churches. But we certainly don’t want to leave the seminaries and NAMB out of

the equation.

SBC LIFE: So, with that in mind, what do you say to pastors

as far as encouraging them to support the ministries of IMB and NAMB and


WRIGHT: Obviously, the Cooperative Program is our flagship

of overall mission support. That is the genius that started in 1925, and we

certainly want to continue to support it. I just think there needs to be a

radical reprioritization of the Cooperative Program funding so that more winds

up going out of the states.

SBC LIFE: If the CP is restructured this way, state

conventions obviously are going to have to reduce some of their ministries.

Currently, some of the key ministries in state conventions include disaster

relief, evangelism training, language missions, Christian higher education,

collegiate ministries, children’s homes ministry, and ethnic church planting.

What state convention ministries would you see as expendable so more money

could be sent out of the states?

WRIGHT: I do not think it is my place to tell the state

conventions where they should make their cuts. That is going to be a matter of

prayerful consideration the state convention leadership will go through in

deciding how to prioritize their funds. Let me explain it this way. Over the

last two years, for the first time in our history, we have seen a decrease in

our budget at Johnson Ferry. We have really had to consider what we needed to

focus on and what we could cut out. We put it back on the staff. We didn’t have

someone go to the children’s minister and tell him what things needed to be

cut. That’s very poor management. We simply said, here’s how much money you

will have. Now you decide how you are going to prioritize the use of the funds.

I think it would be a wonderful, healthy exercise for the state conventions to

ask themselves, “How can we best carry out Christ’s Great Commission through

the states that we are representing with less funds?” And they will have the

expertise about where to make those decisions.

SBC LIFE: The situation with our state conventions is a

little different than that. They receive the first portion of CP funds. Their

messengers instruct them what percentage to send to the national Convention.

Plus, many of the states routinely conduct reviews of their ministries. Since

the states determine what percentage is forwarded, how would you encourage

them, other than just saying that they need to do a very careful study?

WRIGHT: I would hope their priority would be on what is more

intentionally Great Commission oriented, in the sense of truly

mission-oriented, versus ministry-oriented. I realize sometimes that’s very

difficult to differentiate.

SBC LIFE: We’ve mentioned such things as disaster relief,

evangelism training, and language missions. So far, I think we’re in agreement

that these are probably primarily Kingdom-oriented missional enterprises. We

can add Christian higher education, collegiate ministries, children’s homes

ministries, ethnic church plantings, and a litany of others things. Our

colleges and universities take a pretty good chunk of CP money at the state

level._ÑŒIn terms of your distinction between mission-oriented and

ministry-oriented ministries, would you consider Christian higher education as

worthy of support?

WRIGHT: I think it is. I’m on the Truett-McConnell board,

and the way those kids are coming to Christ and really being discipled at

Truett-McConnell, that’s very exciting to me. But I think that Baptist

institutions of higher learning can no longer be dependent just on the

denomination. They’re going to have to increase their fundraising. I just

really believe that Southern Baptist churches, and especially these younger

pastors with the new church plants, would be much more willing to give

generously if they saw that more and more of their dollars are really going to

unreached people groups and if they saw that the state conventions were keeping

less percentage of the dollars. I really believe that, and then you would see

more giving to the Cooperative Program for the states if there was more passion

about it.

SBC LIFE: What you’re saying here is if younger pastors see

value added to Cooperative Program contributions — and not just younger

pastors, but pastors in general — they would be more inclined to give through

the CP. If so, how do we communicate value-added that would cause them to then

believe that their contributions are meeting Kingdom purposes?

WRIGHT: I really believe if they saw CP dollars focusing on

largely unreached areas where there are few SBC or evangelical churches, they

would be more excited about giving to the CP.

SBC LIFE: We hear some churches saying that we need to get

everything overseas. The problem is you don’t see that in their own budgets. They

say we need to send more Cooperative Program money overseas, but they are

keeping 95 percent of their budget in their own communities.

WRIGHT: I don’t agree with that approach — and that is what

I was trying to share today in the challenge, for local churches to give


SBC LIFE: There seems to be a growing movement to encourage

state conventions to go to at least a 50-50 model, 50 percent in the state and

50 percent outside the state. If the churches are keeping the bulk of their

money for local mission and ministry, wouldn’t it be consistent for the states

to follow that same strategy?

WRIGHT: I don’t think so. I just think the church is a

missional agency for that local mission field where God has planted them. The

amount of money that is given to denominational missions is a different matter.

I just don’t think that 55 to 65 percent of denominational missions should stay

within the state. I think the majority should go to international missions.

SBC LIFE: We are commanded to reach Jerusalem and Judea and

Samaria and the uttermost. Where do the Judea and Samaria components come in?

WRIGHT: The witness you have for Christ in the southern

United States, with so many Southern Baptist churches and so many evangelical

churches, versus the witness for Christ in Portland, Ore., or New York City,

San Francisco, Bombay — there’s just no comparison. And that’s what our burden

is at Johnson Ferry. I realize everybody can be different, every local church

has to decide if they want to give more to Judea, but where we are in the

United States, especially in the southern United States, I feel like there are

just so many existing resources for a witness of Christ that we need to focus

where there’s less witness. I don’t look at the local church the same as

denominational missions. I think they’re two different entities there.

SBC LIFE: Thank you, Bryant for your time tonight — we pray

the Lord will richly bless you and your ministry in the months ahead.

WRIGHT: Thank you. I want to keep putting that word out

there encouraging our churches to recapture their first love for the Lord and

the lost and to give sacrificially and go to reach the peoples of our world. If

the local church becomes passionate about that, that’s what really matters.

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