Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Doing Our Part for a Great Commission Resurgence

Over the past several weeks, much noise has been made about the Great Commission Resurgence, a statement drafted by Dr. Danny Akin of Southeastern Seminary, and given wholehearted approval by a host of seminary presidents, former denominational workers, and the current and many former SBC Presidents.

Of course, any manifesto-type document will also draw the ire of contrarians, and the GCR document is no exception to this fact. In particular, it is Article IX that has drawn the greatest amount of criticism, particularly from many who are employed by the denominational system that this article originally described as "bloated." The tone of the article has since been changed, but the essence of its contention remains. Specifically, Article IX calls for the following:

"taking steps toward simplifying our convention structures in an effort to streamline our structure, clarify our institutional identity, and maximize our resources for Great Commission priorities. We should ask hard questions about every aspect of our Convention structure and priorities and pray for God’s wisdom and blessing as we pursue wise answers to those questions. We must be willing to make needed changes for the good of our churches and the spread of the gospel. We believe that North American church planting, pioneer missions around the globe, and theological education are three priorities around which Southern Baptists will unite. Our Convention must be examined at every level to facilitate a more effective pursuit of these priorities."

The specifics of how this will be done are not included in the article, nor have there yet been specific suggestions from anyone in Southern Baptist life on how this can be accomplished. Behind the scenes, most of the "streamlining" conversation has been aimed at state conventions and associations, which in turn has probably caused a few night-sweats on the part of some state executives and Directors of Missions
The most recent offering from California Baptist University professor Don Dunavant sends an ominous warning of an SBC in the same fiscal and directional shape as General Motors if we don't execute our future mission in concert with Article IX. But still, there are no specific actions called for and thus, no satisfying clear picture around which Southern Baptists can unite.

As I thought about the monumental task of defining these specifics, it occurred to me that if I started with my own association, I'd be doing my part. After all, as an employee of the system now under scrutiny I should, as a steward of the resources that churches send my association, be willing to take a fresh look at how we operate. After spending some time observing the lay of the land I agree that hard questions should be asked of our current structure on every level. Its one of the many reasons that mine is among the signatures added to the GCR document. But since I’m not in charge of the International Mission Board, the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware, or one of our seminaries, I should probably refrain from seeking to reform or restructure them before I've looked closer to home. In fact, I believe one of the reasons Article IX has drawn so much opposition is because there is the perception (whether legitimate or not) that various SBC entities are looking at one another, each making judgments about what the other ought to do in order to “be a good steward.” If all of us were honest, we’d admit that there are plenty of places in our own budgets where the belt could be tightened. As such, it would behoove each denominational leader—at every level—to take a good, hard look in his own backyard, and that is what I plan to do.

Additionally, some general guiding principles should direct discussion of the future. Otherwise, we are likely to end up merely re-arranging deck chairs on the fiscal Titanic! In the next few paragraphs, my hope is to suggest what some of these principles might be, as well as provide a few examples of how one Baptist association in the mid-Atlantic might choose to address the coming realities. Again, I’m not issuing a subsequent manifesto-type document, nor for that matter am I stating definitively where this association is going. Although my Executive Board is privy to this article, we have yet to discuss it in detail, and they are the ones who must make the ultimate decisions in all of this. Most of what follows is the result of a lot of introspection regarding how the association I serve can be more effective. Nevertheless, it is introspection that I think can have practical and beneficial application.

Principle Number One: Start with your own ministry. I’ve hinted at this in the above paragraph. One of the things I appreciate about Danny Akin is that he understands that the seminaries, including Southeastern, are not exempt from the scrutiny that those who drafted the GCR are calling for. My hope is that other seminary presidents hold the same sentiment, as well as the Presidents of both mission boards, and every state convention executive and Director of Missions throughout the Convention. From my perspective, for example, I should be willing to look at my own organization before attempting to critique neighboring associations, or my state convention. In fact, as I write this post, I've just finished a monthly meeting where our leadership commissioned a Futuring Team for just this purpose, and they gave me permission when building this team to stack the deck with those who will lead us into the future. Namely, young pastors.

If every denominational entity would take a good, long, hard and honest look at itself, being proactive instead of waiting around for another entity to streamline (or worse, waiting on CP dollars to continue to dwindle), the streamlining process might not take as long, or be as hard, as some fear. I shouldn’t wait on the state convention or national convention to make decisions that can be made right now. I shouldn’t wait 5-7 years for the state or national SBC to change structures that my organization can change—if needed—in a year or two. The truth is that its much easier to criticize someone else's structure than it is your own. It is also the truth that all of us are likely to find at least a little extra fat that needs trimming in our own back yards.

Principle Number Two: Denominational structures should encourage, and model, Kingdom expansion rather than perpetual dependency. For example, roughly half of my salary is generously supplied through a cooperative agreement our state convention has with NAMB. Additionally, my family’s health care is generously provided by Southern Baptists to do the catalytic work of a missionary who wins converts, raises up leaders, and helps to plant multiplying churches in my area. Such arrangements are fairly standard among Baptist associations and state conventions in regions of the country outside the south, and I am grateful for the support Southern Baptists have given me.

At the same time, this arrangement sometimes troubles me. While I love our partnership with our state convention, NAMB, and thus with Southern Baptists across the nation, my association has been in existence for 11 years now, and still continues to receive financial salary subsidies from Alpharetta. Were we a new church, this arrangement would be considered unhealthy. New churches are--rightly so--expected to eventually reach a place of being "non-dependent" on outside sources of support. Why should denominational agencies be any different? I don’t bring this up to say that all state conventions and/or associations should stop taking cooperative program dollars. I am aware of many places in the country where Baptist work would cease outright if this were the case. What I am suggesting is this; if non-dependency is possible, it should be expected. Being totally self-funded is a reachable goal for my association. And if this is the case, why should we continue to take dollars from the outside that we should be able to generate ourselves within the next five years through planting new, multiplying, and contributing Southern Baptist churches?

Prnciple Number Three: Structure According to Vision, not Money. In short, laying off staff, or closing certain ministries, or absorbing smaller denominational entities into larger ones simply to "save money" is to operate in a mode of survival. At some point, our futuring team will be given our operating documents, policy manuals, and budget statements. But the first meeting will have none of these things. I won't hold these documents back because I'm trying to hide something in the old structure, but rather, because I'm trying to focus them on creating a new one. Those who make decisions about the future should start with a vision from God, not a current budget statement produced by men. To be sure, budgetary considerations can’t be ignored. Still, the question we need to answer is how Southern Baptists can best cooperate and work together in the 21st century, and its hard to answer that question with clarity and focus with documents in front of you that were drafted in the 20th.

Principle Number Four: Visionary Local church pastors should lead the effort, not Denominational leadership. At the end of the day, the Southern Baptist Convention isn't just a two-day business meeting. It isn't mission boards and seminaries, Conventions and Associations. In the end, the Convention is the churches! It is the churches therefore, that must determine how they will cooperate best as they move into the future together. This is exactly why the Cooperative Program was established in 1925--to foster cooperation, not to maintain a bureaucracy.

I've heard the hearts of many local church pastors, including those who have distanced themselves recently from the SBC. None have expressed a desire to isolate themselves, and all have a desire to cooperate with others for more effective Kingdom expansion. Many simply aren't doing it through the SBC because they feel the current bureaucracy inhibits the cooperation to which they aspire. What would happen if these men were allowed--in a very direct way--to inform how cooperation will take place in the future, as well as transform the SBC at all levels in a way that would facilitate this kind of cooperation? When it comes to discussions of restructuring at any level, local pastors shouldn't just be "in the room." They should be leading the discussion.

Principle Number Five: Structure with the recognition that the mission field is everywhere. Since 2007, our association has more than doubled its international mission budget. In addition, we are scheduled to increase this line item by another 13% for 2010. These monies are used to seed and undergird the work of our churches abroad as they work in cooperation with our IMB missionaries in the field. We do this because I firmly believe that each local church has a unique calling to be personally involved in evangelism to the "uttermost,” and believe the local association should be a point of networking and empowerment for them to reach this goal. Over the past four years we have responded to the burdens our churches have developed for different parts of the world by extending our collective efforts from Mexico, into the Caribbean, north into Canada, across the Atlantic to India and East Asia, and Japan. There is more to come because our missionaries need the help, and our churches need to fulfill their responsibilities to the nations.

At the same time, we have also sought to keep attention--and funding--on community ministries, local evangelism, and the planting of new churches in our own area. By the end of the year, four new church planters will be on the field that were not in the field last year, and two of these planters will have launched public worship services, bringing the total number of churches affiliated with Mid-Maryland Association to 56. Our intentions here are motivated by evangelistic urgency and missiological neccesity. Within the geographic proximity of our member churches are roughly 1 million people who do not know Jesus. These souls are no less precious to the Father than those across the ocean who live in a different culture and speak a different language. And speaking of language, more than 60 of them are spoken in our area, but only 6 are represented in our local churches. In other words, we have work to do in Maryland! And because we have much work to do here, our task will be to structure ourselves more efficiently, not sacrifice local cooperation for international cooperation.

However we structure in the future, it must adequately service the new global realities that we face. The mission field is everywhere! We will continue to focus on the uttermost, but never at the exclusion of Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria.

Don Dunavant is probably right, at least in some ways, when comparing the state of our Convention with that of General Motors. But I'd like to close with what I believe to be a better parallel; one that has a much more positive outlook. I'm speaking of course about the Ford Motor Company. Today, they are the only one of the Big Three not wading through bankruptcy court or living off the American taxpayer via a government bailout. Though they certainly haven't been totally "recession-proof," they continue to perform well relative to the current market, and in fact have plans--when others are downsizing--to open a new plant in Detroit.

But this success wasn't due to a lucky reaction to the recession. Ford's current condition of fiscal health is due in many ways to actions taken more than a year prior to the beginning of our country's current financial woes. In September 2006, after five years as CEO of the company his great-grandfather started, Bill Ford voluntarily stepped aside, and the Board hired Allan Mulally as Chief Executive Officer. Mulally, formerly a top executive at Boeing, was charged with restructuring the company in a way that would maximize its performance in the future, and he was praised by his predecessor as being "ideally suited" for the job. It was a good call by the automaker, and to a large extent, Ford's willingness to do what was neccesary almost three years ago probably saved his great-grandfather’s company from facing the same fate as its counterparts at General Motors and Chrysler.

The point? At the heart of any turnaround is a willingness to face reality, coupled with God-given humility. For those of us who seek to serve the purposes of the church, we must add to this humility the capacity to ultimately look beyond ourselves and the sacred cows of our current structure, and look instead to the coming King and His Kingdom. Such humility won't come easy, not for the largest Protestant denomination in North America. But the humble are those to whom God grants grace. And when dealing with the specifics of trying to turn this denominational battleship, we all need His grace more than ever! By His grace, I pledge to do my part in our association. I hope you will do the same.