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
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
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
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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