Friday, July 01, 2011
Looking Back, Looking Forward: The 2011 Southern Baptist Convention

imageserverasp-300x200We came. We met. We went home. In one sense, the Southern Baptist Convention is like a large family reunion, complete with colorful cousins. The 2011 meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention made history, but it may take some time to measure the full consequence of the meeting.

Some thoughts:

1. The fact that just over 4,800 messengers registered, the 2011 convention is the lowest-attended in 67 years. That fact might be explained by any number of factors, but it is not good news. Phoenix was a most friendly host city, and it was good for Southern Baptists to be reminded of the work of the denomination and its churches in the West, but the city is not well placed for a large drive-in registration. Furthermore, the 2011 convention was not expected to be a contested presidential election year, nor did any matter of great controversy serve to attract messengers. Still, such a low registration is not an encouraging sign.

2. The presidential leadership of Bryant Wright produced a warm and healthy spirit to the convention sessions, and his focus on unreached and unengaged people groups brought a needed Great Commission vision to the entire convention. Southern Baptists appreciated his demeanor, fairness, and character.

3. The convention welcomed three new leaders to present their first reports — an unprecedented development. Frank Page brought his first report as President of the SBC Executive Committee, stressing the need for unity and selflessness. He invited other SBC leaders to join with him in affirming “Affirmation of Unity and Cooperation,” a statement of common purpose. He called other SBC leaders to stand with him on the platform in a public display of unity. The action was symbolic, of course, but it served as a helpful sign of Page’s leadership style and commitment to unity among SBC leaders. Never disparage a display of honest unity.

4. The mission board reports were truly inspiring. Tom Elliff was in full enthusiasm as the new president of the International Mission Board. Holding a commissioning service as part of the IMB report was really inspiring, as was the call for each Southern Baptist church and entity to “adopt” one of the more than 3,800 unengaged people groups. Kevin Ezell broke all precedents in bringing his first report as president of the North American Mission Board. He spoke with a much-needed honesty about the need to redirect the agency he leads and he spoke with bracing candor about the need for Southern Baptists to plant real Baptist congregations that reproduce. His report was a display of courage and trust in the convention and its churches.

5. The ethnic diversity statement recommended by the Executive Committee was both right and important. The action included ten very specific steps that are “designed to foster conscious awareness of the need to be proactive and intentional in the inclusion of individuals from all ethnic and racial identities within Southern Baptist life.” The points were clear, bold, and necessary. Our Creator takes ethnicity, language, and culture seriously — even describing the assembly of heaven in these terms. Our nation is becoming more ethnically diverse by the day. The Southern Baptist Convention must do the same, lest we become a mere enclave that looks like the America of the past, rather than of the present and the future.

6. The Committee on Resolutions, led by South Carolina pastor Paul Jimenez, brought a brave report that included a resolution on immigration — an issue that was sure to attract discussion. The resolution produced the most intensive and controversial debate of the entire convention. In the end, the resolution was adopted, calling for the nation “to implement, with the borders secured, a just and compassionate path to legal status, with appropriate restitutionary measures, for those undocumented immigrants already living in our country.” More importantly, the resolution emphasized the Great Commission and Gospel priorities of the Southern Baptist Convention’s churches in addressing the millions of immigrants that now represent such a large and growing evangelistic challenge.

7. The convention also adopted–overwhelmingly–a resolution on the New International Version of the Bible [NIV]. This resolution, which “expressed profound disappointment” with the recent revision of the NIV, did not come from the committee, but from a messenger who appealed to the convention for his resolution to be considered. In not bringing the resolution to the convention, the committee was following established precedent, whereby the convention does not repeat previous actions. In 2002, the convention adopted a strongly-worded resolution against a previous revision of the NIV known as the TNIV. The committee did its job well.

The NIV resolution demonstrated both the glory and the risk of our democratic system. The glory was seen in the fact that the resolution clearly expressed the concerns held by the overwhelming majority of messengers present. The SBC sent a clear message of its proper and valid concerns — and a message that will be heard far and wide.

The risk is also evident in the fact that the concerns expressed about the NIV would apply in equal or even greater terms to several other modern translations as well. Russell Moore, a member of the committee, expressed this fact clearly when he told messengers that the NIV is “just one of many Bibles out there [with] similar language.”

The risk involved in adopting a resolution right from the floor of the convention was also revealed in the fact that the statement called for LifeWay to discontinue sales of the NIV in its stores. As a matter of established precedent, convention messengers do not send messages or directives directly to the entities of the SBC. The resolution couched the language in terms of a respectful “request,” but the action represents a very difficult challenge for LifeWay and its leadership. Removing the NIV from LifeWay stores is no easy matter. Just consider that the New American Commentary series, encouraged by direct action of the SBC in the 1980s, is based upon the NIV translation. This series was intended to showcase conservative SBC scholarship. Is LifeWay now to remove its own prize product? There is no way that the series can be shifted to another modern translation without rewriting every volume. The NAC is but one example of the quandary now set before LifeWay, but the larger issue is moral — consistency. How can LifeWay justify removing the NIV and leave even more problematic translations on its shelves? Many of those translations are also deeply invested in the very study and devotional materials that Southern Baptist churches demand and desire.

In the end, Southern Baptists will have to trust that LifeWay will be faithful to its charge and stewardship from the Southern Baptist Convention. We should all pray that LifeWay president Thom Rainer and the LifeWay board will be granted wisdom to know how best to serve the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention in light of this resolution.

In the end, I think it is healthy and good that the SBC sent such a strong signal through this resolution. I only wish that the resolution would have avoided some of the difficulties it now creates on the way to making its main point.

8. There were the moments of unpredictability, proving that Southern Baptists bring some colorful relatives to the family reunion. Wiley Drake nominated himself as President of the SBC, receiving 122 votes (presumably one of them his own). This recalled the self-nomination offered by evangelist Anis Shorrosh at the 1988 SBC in San Antonio. Shorrosh nominated “our dear friend” … himself. Questions and responses during entity reports (including my own report for Southern Seminary) offered moments of unpredictable energy.

9. In the end, the Phoenix convention reminded Southern Baptists that we are facing a huge season of generational transition. This will almost surely be the greatest test the SBC will face in coming years. Will we handle this well? The road from Phoenix to the future will answer that question.


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Photo credit: Baptist Press, 2011.

Monday, September 06, 2010
Why Southern Baptists Need Kevin Ezell as President of NAMB

The news that the search committee looking for the next president of the North American Mission Board had unanimously chosen Dr. Kevin Ezell as their nominee is great news for the Southern Baptist Convention. I have known Kevin Ezell for the last 15 years, and I know why Southern Baptists need him in this crucial role.

FIRST, because Kevin is a man of such stellar character. This comes first, of course, and it is paramount in any leadership position. I have seen Kevin in situations of trial, stress, challenge, and turmoil, and he demonstrates the most genuine Christian character throughout. He is a man who has been tested and tried, and his experience has revealed a strength of character that we all will need and depend upon at the helm of the North American Mission Board. Given my experience with Kevin, I would entrust him with anything — including my wife and family.

SECOND, because Kevin is a truly gifted pastor. The Mohler family joined Highview Baptist Church in Louisville in 1994, soon after our arrival in the city. Those were very troubled times, given the stature of the Seminary in the Louisville community. Highview was a warm congregation that welcomed us generously and graciously. It was really a large neighborhood church in the Fegenbush area of Louisville, and it was well-known for its conservative biblical convictions and passion for evangelism.

In 1996, Kevin came to Highview as pastor in a time of great and unexpected trial for the church. He was very young, but he already had a well-established reputation as pastor of First Baptist Church, Marion, Illinois. Kevin and Lynette and their young family moved to Louisville and quickly became a part of our lives.

Very quickly, we learned that Kevin Ezell is a gifted pastor who gives everything he has to his role and office. He has a wonderful sense of humor, a keen pastoral touch, and a real feel for the congregation. He feeds, leads, and encourages with skill and dedication. I have also seen him do the hard work of ministry, confronting sin and dealing with it biblically.

THIRD, because Kevin is a born leader. Where you find Kevin, you rarely find him alone. He mentors, leads, and energizes constantly. He has tremendous leadership skills that are desperately needed in the Southern Baptist Convention and at the North American Mission Board. A host of younger men all over this denomination will tell you of the impact Kevin has made on their lives and ministries. The evidence of his leadership is not only evident in the remarkable growth of Highview Baptist Church, but also in the growth of the leaders within and beyond the church. Just ask men like Dr. Jimmy Scroggins, senior pastor at First Baptist Church, West Palm Beach, Florida. We need his leadership at the North American Mission Board.

FOURTH, because Kevin is a true visionary. When he came to Highview Baptist Church, Kevin found a large neighborhood church. Within a matter of just a few years, Highview was a large regional church with a ministry to the entire city and beyond. The successful establishment of additional campuses and an entire range of ministries is testimony to his strategic vision — and his ability to turn a vision into a reality. Nothing stays the same for long around Kevin.

FIFTH, Kevin is a man of tremendous Great Commission passion and commitment. He is a personal evangelist, a leader of evangelism, and a pastor of a church that models evangelism. He is a man of world mission vision, having led Highview to see itself as a world congregation. He has led mission trips around the world, and Highview now points with pride to a large number of former members who are now serving around the world with the International Mission Board — with more in the pipeline. Highview has worked with the North American Mission Board in establishing new churches around the United States. A sense of Great Commission zeal permeates Highview as a church.

SIXTH, Kevin is deeply committed to the Southern Baptist Convention and its work. When I first met him, he was serving as President of the Illinois Baptist Pastor’s Conference. Just this last year, he served as President of the SBC Pastor’s Conference. He has served as a trustee at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and he is a graduate of both Southwestern [M.Div.] and Southern [D.Min.]. He and his wife Lynette are also graduates of a state Baptist institution, Union University, where two of their daughters are now students. He has mentored many into deeper involvement in the SBC, and his leadership is truly needed now. He has taught many young ministers through his role on the Southern Seminary teaching faculty. You find great loyalty to the SBC in his wake.

SEVENTH, Kevin is a man of great conviction. He has taken stands for the full authority, truthfulness, and inerrancy of the Bible. He has defended the faith, and he holds fast to biblical truth. He can be trusted to do the same at the helm of NAMB.

FINALLY, Kevin and Lynette Ezell are a team. Their marriage glorifies God and encourages all. Lynette is a gifted woman who has committed her life to Christ, her husband, and her family. Their family, rounded out with children Anna, Shelly, Taylor, John Michael, Libby, and Micah Lyn, is a testimony to the redemptive love of God and the example of a family fully devoted to Christ. Southern Baptists will find great pride in them.

I am losing a pastor, but gaining a tremendous SBC colleague. I can’t wait to see what God does through the leadership of Dr. Kevin Ezell as President of the North American Mission Board.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010
A Moment of Decision: Will Southern Baptists Face the Future, or Will We Flinch?

A great sense of historical importance looms as the 2010 meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention fast approaches. The messengers to the SBC meeting in Orlando will cast many important votes, but one exceeds all others in significance, and that is the vote on the report of the Great Commission Resurgence Task Force.

Southern Baptists have faced such moments before. In 1845, those messengers who founded the SBC took a great step of faith as they created a convention of Baptist churches called by and committed to a Great Commission vision. Southern Baptists faced another moment when they revolutionized the denomination in 1925 by adopting the Cooperative Program as the unified means of supporting our Great Commission efforts, established the Executive Committee, and adopted our first confession of faith, the Baptist Faith & Message.

Throughout the years from 1979 to 1990, Southern Baptists showed up in force to reclaim the denomination for the full authority and integrity of the Bible and the faith once for all delivered to the saints. Each of those conventions was a moment of historical consequence. The same was true in 1995, when Southern Baptists adopted the Covenant for a New Century, streamlining the convention as it celebrated its 150th anniversary.

Now, once again, Southern Baptists will convene for a meeting that will make history. Messengers to the 2009 convention in Louisville overwhelmingly adopted a motion calling for a task force to report this year concerning how Southern Baptists may work more faithfully and effectively together in service to the Great Commission. A generation of younger Southern Baptists is gripped by a vision for a Great Commission Resurgence, and Southern Baptists of every generation are reminded again of the reality of a lost world and of Christ’s commission to His church — the command to make disciples of all the nations.

The Southern Baptist Convention is a massive denomination. No task force or committee can review the totality of the convention’s work and reach. Nevertheless, the Great Commission Resurgence Task Force dedicated itself to making the greatest Great Commission impact as Southern Baptists face the future.

The Task Force’s report will be presented to the Convention on Tuesday, June 15, and that day will go down as a turning point in this denomination’s life and work. This is true, not only in light of the report and recommendations presented by the Task Force, but in light of the attitude and passions that will be revealed in the deliberation and vote.

I am convinced that the recommendations we are presenting are both right and reasonable. They are not a revolution in themselves, but they point to the future with a statement that we are determined to be far more serious about reaching the nations and our own continent with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The report is honest in setting the reality of lostness before us, and calling us to a renewed commitment to make disciples of all the nations. The report respects our Baptist polity and is based in gratitude for all that Southern Baptists have done in generations past. The recommendations are constructed with care to preserve the bonds that hold us together, and also to propel us into the future determined to do more, not less, in faithfulness to Christ.

Change is never easy, and change merely for the sake of change is a charade. Nevertheless, God’s people are called to make whatever changes are necessary in order to obey the commands of Christ. Southern Baptists are a people committed to the Great Commission. That commitment will be shared by every messenger who arrives in Orlando ready to do the Convention’s business. The future of the Southern Baptist Convention will not rest on this vote alone, but who can calculate what it will mean as a watching world and a rising generation watch to see if we are serious about emboldened Great Commission faithfulness in the future?

The looming question in Orlando is this — will Southern Baptists face the future with boldness, eagerness, and faithfulness, or will we choose business as usual? In other words, the real question is whether Southern Baptists will face the future, or flinch. So much rests on the answer to that question.