Prevailing in an Unwinnable War

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A couple of days ago a thought rooted in my brain: “We are in an unwinnable war.” That morning I read in Deuteronomy: “When you go out to war against your enemies and see horses, chariots, and an enemy larger than yours, do not be afraid of them, for the Lord your God, who brought you of the land of Egypt, is with you” (Deut. 20:1).

Israel won many unwinnable wars. God planned it that way. Pinned between the Red Sea and Pharaoh’s army, they were like a spider caught between the pavement and the soul of my shoe – pulverized! But then, God stepped in.

When Gideon’s 300 men attacked the Midianite army numbering over 100,000, they entered an unwinnable war, but for God. When Peter told those who shouted “Crucify Him!” that “God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ!” he could have been ripped to pieces, but God had a plan.

God’s people have fought many unwinnable wars, prevailing against impossible odds. Who would have guessed that persecution of Christians in China would be used by God to grow His Church 5,000 percent in 50 years? God sent David Livingstone to Africa at a time when most Europeans died within a year of entering the malarial jungles and unknown dangers there. Livingstone, and many others, died in Africa. But today African Christians outnumber those in Europe and North America combined, boasting 400 million souls! Through the darkness Livingstone saw a brighter day would come. He wrote:

“Future missionaries will see conversions follow every sermon. We prepare the way for them. May they not forget the pioneers who worked in the thick gloom, with few cheering rays to cheer except such as flow from faith in God’s promises. We work for a glorious future which we are not destined to see, the golden age which has not been but will yet be. We are only morning stars shining in the dark, but the glorious morn will break – the good time coming yet” (David Livingston in Mackenzie, 150f).

God’s people have prevailed in many unwinnable wars, or should I say, “God has prevailed.” Often God’s people have bled and died in protracted wars that lasted generations beyond the lives of the initial combatants.

Churches in America find themselves in an unwinnable war, as does the nation itself. Battle lines are drawn on many fronts, and these lines don’t simply exist between the Church and the world. Battle lines exist inside the Church. There are matters of sexuality, with ongoing skirmishes involving the LGBTQ agenda. The “right to life” of the unborn, the elderly, the disabled and the handicapped, has raged for 50 years or more.

Then, just when it seemed Covid-19 was the greatest threat of 2020, the world witnessed the life of a black man crushed under the knee of a police officer, with other officers failing to intervene, setting off protests and riots and untold suffering in the hearts and minds of every American and people far beyond our shores. Racial problems and division have existed since the early days of our nation, and throughout human history, but we are in a unique moment. This is different. There is hope, but there is also the danger that listening, learning and reconciling get overtaken by destructive forces. Parsing words with the precision of a butcher doing surgery with a hatchet destroys the opportunity to grow understanding and influence thinking. Some seem to think they can read minds, and spot malicious intent, as easily as spotting a fly in a glass of milk. Reasonable discussion, questions and context are hard to come by. “Silence is violence,” some say, but utter the wrong word and you’ll get “cancelled” before the day ends. It is an unwinnable war.

And lest you don’t yet see how unwinnable this multi-front war is, consider that we don’t agree on the meaning of history, or even what history is. Facts are our friends, but whom do we trust to give us the facts? The media? Which media? Most media outlets aren’t helping.

What about truth? Where do we find the truth told? From politicians? Are you kidding!? Preachers? Unfortunately, much of the world doesn’t trust us preachers to tell the truth without taint. Preachers can get political too, especially if we don’t stick to the Truth we know best and start spouting and spinning about that which we know little.

Add to these battle lines the fight for the family – fatherless homes, babies without parents, teens left to wander. It’s an unwinnable war.

As I was pondering this unsavory thought, I remembered a speech I’d read years ago. It was delivered by a 28 year-old Abraham Lincoln on January 27, 1838 to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois. The speech was occasioned by a racial problem in which St. Louis was burned. Slavery was still legal and America was tearing apart. It was ripping the Church apart too. Speaking of the possible death of the United States, Lincoln reads like a prophet these 182 years later. The full quote is posted at the end of this article for those who’d like to read it and marvel at the rhetorical brilliance of the man who freed the slaves and restored the Union. Here is the most pertinent passage:

“At what point shall we expect the approach of danger? By what means shall we fortify against it?– Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant, to step the Ocean, and crush us at a blow? Never!–All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest; with a Buonaparte for a commander, could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years.

“At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”

Twenty-three years after this speech the nation divided and war took 620,000 lives in 10,500 skirmishes and 50 major battles. The record states that the North won the war, and they did, but in a very real sense the war continued throughout succeeding generations and up to the present day.

This war will continue in some form until the end of time, because it’s a war that started in Eden. It was there that man divided from God, and began dividing from each other. In Genesis 3 we see the beginning of a distancing between humans, a covering up of sin, followed by brother murdering brother in Genesis 4.

Our leaders are not smart enough, or good enough, or strong enough, to lead us to victory in the war that is raging in America. And our churches aren’t that strong, either. All our unwinnable wars are rooted in human sin, and that root runs deep in the human heart, too deep to kill.

Depressed yet? Don’t be, because God shows Himself most visibly, gloriously and powerfully during unwinnable wars. No person turns to God until they are at rope’s end and realize they need God if they hope to survive. No nation experiences awakening when the people think they are the answer to their problems. Revival comes when the church is desperate, when it doesn’t know what to do or where to turn, and it falls to its knees, and buries its face in the floor’s dirt, and wets the dirt with tears, calling out to God for mercy, begging Him to show compassion and forgive sins, that’s when God shows up and wins the war … for a time. Not forever, until Jesus returns, will the war be finally and completely won because the war proceeds from the human heart. The war surfaces within families. It erupts between neighbors. The war is with those near and far away. God doesn’t give us the capacity to win the war without Him. Without Him we’re helpless. Without Him, we wrestle in vain against principalities and powers that kill, steal and destroy. Without Him, there is no peace, no life, no hope, and no future.

And remember, Israel didn’t win all their wars. Sometimes they were felled by tiny towns like Ai. Other times they suffered near annihilation and total humiliation. Their corpses were strewn in the wilderness and eaten by birds. Some were swallowed up by the earth itself. I apologize for the sad reminder, but not really, because if we think we can win the war, I mean really win, we’re doomed. Only God can win this war. We need Him. He’s a God of righteousness and justice. He didn’t let the tower of Babel stand when the people stood apart from Him, and He never will let us prevail in this war apart from Him.

The struggles that we face are mostly within ourselves. Racism is a heart problem, as is hate and bitterness and pride and lust and lovelessness of all kinds. It’s in the heart that the battle rages most fiercely. It’s the heart of every single person, of every color and hue, under heaven. Only God can win that war. Only the blood of Jesus can quell those flames. Only the Holy Spirit can spread the balm of peace that produces love one for another, sufficient to pursue righteousness and justice for all.
Without Jesus we have laws, courts, negotiations, punishments, coercion, threats, intimidation … and war. We need a system of justice, the best that we can build. But in the end, apart from Jesus, the war is unwinnable. Until He comes, His people must live as salt and light, loving sacrificially, seeking justice and preaching the Truth, even when the world does not understand.

Come, Lord Jesus. You are our only real hope. But You are enough.

Randy Adams
Executive Director-Treasurer
Northwest Baptist Convention

Text of Lincoln’s speech quoted above:

“In the great journal of things happening under the sun, we, the American People, find our account running…. We find ourselves in the peaceful possession, of the fairest portion of the earth…. We find ourselves under the government of a system of political institutions, conducing more essentially to the ends of civil and religious liberty, than any of which the history of former times tells us. We, when mounting the stage of existence, found ourselves the legal inheritors of these fundamental blessings. We toiled not in the acquirement or establishment of them–they are a legacy bequeathed us, by a once hardy, brave, and patriotic, but now lamented and departed race of ancestors. Their’s was the task (and nobly they performed it) to possess themselves, and through themselves, us, of this goodly land; and to uprear upon its hills and its valleys, a political edifice of liberty and equal rights; ’tis ours only, to transmit these, the former, unprofaned by the foot of an invader; the latter, undecayed by the lapse of time and untorn by usurpation, to the latest generation that fate shall permit the world to know. This task of gratitude to our fathers, justice to ourselves, duty to posterity, and love for our species in general, all imperatively require us faithfully to perform.

“How then shall we perform it?–At what point shall we expect the approach of danger? By what means shall we fortify against it?– Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant, to step the Ocean, and crush us at a blow? Never!–All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest; with a Buonaparte for a commander, could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years.

“At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.

“I hope I am over wary; but if I am not, there is, even now, something of ill-omen, amongst us. I mean the increasing disregard for law which pervades the country; the growing disposition to substitute the wild and furious passions, in lieu of the sober judgment of Courts.” (to read the full speech of go to http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/lyceum.htm).

Thoughts on Race and Justice in America

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Grief. Outrage. Fear. Disgust. Dismay. And struggling to see what good might come from this. These emotions and responses have been swinging back and forth in my heart and mind since witnessing the video of the gruesome killing of George Floyd. In the days since that horrible day on May 25, our nation has witnessed peaceful protests, violent rioting, additional murders and maimings, and now, as I write, the largest city in the Northwest is partly under the control of protesters. Seattle, WA has succumbed to an “occupying protest.” Neither Seattle’s Mayor Durkan, nor Governor Inslee, have revealed a plan as to how to deal with the occupation of six city blocks in the Capital Hill neighborhood, which includes a police precinct building. It’s an embarrassing display of lawlessness, fraught with danger, and filled with irony.

There are many concerns churning within each of us. My primary concern is for the church of the Lord Jesus Christ and the message of truth and justice and love and hope and forgiveness that we proclaim and live as we are enabled by the Holy Spirit. About one third of the churches of the Northwest Baptist Convention are led by non-Anglo pastors. Most of these pastors and churches worship in a language other than English, but we do have African-American pastors, and other ethnic minority pastors, whose congregations worship in English.

When I think of our diversity, I primarily think of language since that’s the biggest barrier to communication and understanding each other. Beyond language there are cultural differences. And then we get to differences in appearance, personal experience, age, etc. Several of our pastors have survived wars, genocides and severe persecution. Nearly two dozen came to our country as refugees from Burma, Cambodia, Bhutan, Vietnam, El Salvador and other countries. Many of our pastors grew up in the southern part of the United States, and the older pastors among us grew up with forced segregation of blacks and whites. I grew up in a small Montana town and never met a black person until I was in college. My first experience with someone of a different skin color were two Vietnamese boys whose family came to Whitefish, MT when I was 14. I got to know these boys by helping them learn English. By the time we graduated from high school they not only knew English, they drove two of the coolest cars in school because their family started a highly successful restaurant and they worked very hard to achieve aspirations made possible by coming to America.

We all have our own unique experiences, but what I want each of our pastors to know is that I love you. Even as I write, I know I say it out of ignorance as to who many of you really are, and love is not generic; it’s personal. This week I spoke with a pastor on the phone whom I met seven years ago but haven’t seen since. That’s the nature of our work and of our relationship. And yet, I love you because I trust that you have a love for Jesus and His people, as do I. I love you if for no other reason than the God who is in you, and who has laid claim to your life, is also in me and owns me. Whatever our particular views on issues and the things that are part of our human distinctions, I trust that we make Jesus and His Kingdom our primary concern.
This doesn’t negate varied viewpoints on how to remedy the injustices and disparities that exist in our world, but I do believe that our unity in Jesus is primary. If this is true, what does it mean for our cooperative mission work? God’s Word is the truth that must guide our thinking and behavior. From His Word, I would offer a couple things that I trust will be helpful. I do not intend this to be comprehensive, but I do believe it identifies key biblical truths.

First, the most fundamental truth about every human being is that he or she is created in the image of God. The Bible states this in Genesis 1:27 and it is repeated throughout the Scriptures. The dignity and value of every individual is tied to this fact. From this comes the Christian belief that individuals are precious and valued, not simply groups of people or nations of people or people of a certain color, but every individual person has equal value and dignity and the God-given right to be treated justly. It is correct to say that while individuals and groups have certain physical characteristics, we are fundamentally one race, the human race, distinct from all other created beings. God breathed life into human beings. We are His image bearers in a way no other living thing is. Acts 17:26 says that every nationality throughout the whole earth has descended from one man. The genetic variations required to produce the beautiful diversity in the appearance of individual human beings were present in Adam.

One reason human beings sometimes devalue or despise people of a different skin color (though skin color is not the only, or even the greatest difference between individual human beings) is because most people do not believe every single human being is created in God’s image and that we are all descendants of one man. Most people believe in some form of biological evolution of the origin of life. Although hatred of the other “tribe” has existed for thousands of years, for the past 150 years evolution has been used to support theories of racial differences and racial superiority. For example, in the early 20th Century an African pygmy was kept in the Bronx Zoo as an example of evolution (https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/the-tragic-tale-of-the-pygmy-in-the-zoo-2787905/).

This was horrific, and clearly racist, but many historical examples and arguments have used the theory of evolution to argue that some humans are more advanced than others. About 75 million people died in WWII, three percent of the world’s population, because Hitler believed some humans had no value and weren’t fully human. The Armenian, Cambodian and Rwandan genocides, all happening within the past century, were predicated on the idea that some humans have more worth than others. Soviet and Chinese Communism led to the death of at least 60 million people because atheistic communism denies the image of God in each human being, and thus the worth of an individual. These cannot all be necessarily be linked directly to evolutionary theory. Scholars have specifically argued that Hitler did not believe Germanic peoples descended from apes, for example. But any theory of humanity that falls short of what the Scripture teaches, which includes all forms of racism and racist theories, ultimately leads to devaluing human beings. Christians must argue from Scripture the fundamental truths that there is one humanity, descended from one man, and each person is created in God’s image with equal value and worth.
Second, while every person has descended from the first Adam, the Second Adam, Jesus Christ, has made peace between humanity and God, and between individual humans, through His death on the cross. Jesus Christ is our peace. God sent His son to reconcile humanity to Himself and to each other (Ephesians 2). Peace in the human heart, love in the human heart, love of neighbor and love of enemy is only possible in Jesus Christ. He is the only cure for hatred and bigotry because sin produces wrong and wicked thinking that only Christ can heal. Racism and all other sin will only be put to death when we are crucified with Christ and He comes to live in us. Even then, we are subject to acting in sinful ways. Solomon wrote, “The hearts of people are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts while they live” (Eccl. 9:3). But as Christians we have the objective truth of God’s Word, the power of the Gospel, and the indwelling of God Himself, which gives us the ability to resist and overcome sin.

I want to briefly add that Christians have sometimes used the Bible to promote racism, slavery, and various forms of bigotry. Whenever and wherever that occurs it is to our shame, embarrassment, and humiliation. The biblical truth I have shared above should guide our exegesis of Scripture whenever we are tempted to think certain Bible texts support any form of bias against others for characteristics intrinsic to them.
So, what should Christians do in the aftermath of the brutal, public killing of George Floyd and all that has happened since? We should advocate that justice be done. We should work for justice, knowing that we are moving toward the Day when God will render judgement and right all wrongs. The biblical perspective on justice is that we can’t achieve it perfectly here, but God can and He will. We should love God and love our neighbor. We should do acts of love for people who look similar to us and different than us. This requires intentionality in crossing barriers of color and economics and education and language, among others. And don’t forget our law enforcement personnel. These men and women come from peoples of every color and are serving under incredible pressure, even as they wrestle with their own deep emotions and pain.

Do we have a vital role to play in the politics of our nation? Yes. We must select leaders who believe in the worth and dignity of every human being, and we must hold them accountable, regardless of whether they’re in our favored political party. Regarding the election of leaders, Christians need to get more involved in local elections and primary elections because that’s where we have the greatest opportunity to choose leaders who adhere to the biblical truth of the worth and dignity of each person, and who lead with the conviction that they will one day stand before God to be judged by Him. Most of the political issues that affect our daily lives concern school boards, city councils, and state government. Do you know your local representatives? Do they know you? That’s where a pastor and church can have the greatest influence on things affecting daily life in our communities. By the time we get to national, general elections we mostly have a choice between two candidates. Often neither provide a satisfying choice, though one will typically represent biblical concerns better than the other. That said, quality candidates are best sorted out earlier in the process.

The bottom line for the believer is that we must make disciples of Jesus Christ and teach those disciples to think biblically about all of life. It begins with loving God. It continues with loving our neighbor. It’s easy to say. It takes a lifetime to learn how to do. I, for one, am still learning, and I want to be an eager learner. I want to learn by listening to others, with the heart and mind of a missionary, but mostly I need to hear from God, and learn from Him, how best I can love others and share Christ in meaningful ways.

Are We There Yet?

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“Are we there yet? Why is it taking so long?” Every parent on a road trip with their kids has endured whining questions. Little children don’t understand the relationship between time and distance, so a long, boring car ride seems endless. And what happens when there are two or three kids in the backseat? Trouble! Squabbling and poking and crying.

For almost three months America has been on a journey. It seems like a trip to nowhere. Will it be over by the end of summer? Who knows? No one does, but it won’t be over soon enough! We simply don’t know when it will end. And like kids in the backseat on a cross-country trip, that spells trouble.

For political leaders Covid-19 is both a difficultly and an opportunity because politicians can use the virus like a ballistic missile to blow up their opposition by destroying confidence in their leadership. Politicians, by design, exploit problems to gain control. It may sound cynical, but it’s mostly true. And it’s not just politicians who use crises this way. Recently I heard a Christian leader say that crises provide “smoke cover” for leaders to do things they want to do, but can’t without the covering of “smoke.” He was speaking of the current Covid-19 crisis.

For pastors, the leadership challenge is different. Pastors shepherd people they know by name and by sight. Churches are bodies of believers whose head is Christ, bound together by love for Christ and His love for them. So the pastoral challenge isn’t like that of the politician leading opposing factions. It’s more like that of the parent with kids squabbling in the backseat. Now, don’t run too far with this analogy. Pastors aren’t our parents and the congregation isn’t a gathering of whining children, though there are different levels of spiritual maturity and understanding in the membership of any church.

The church is a family. We live together, young and old, mature and immature. We see things differently, but we each have an interest in the health of the family. We may whine, and we might even squabble about how to drive the car down the long and winding road, but we love our church and want it healthy and living in obedience to Christ.

So, are there some principles or guidelines that can help pastors and churches as we travel together on a difficult, unfamiliar road? Yes, there are a few:

First, now and always, we must fear God and love God above all others. Honoring God and seeking what He wants us to be, say, and do is always the most important thing. When we get this right, everything is right. Every day the challenge is the same. What is God saying? What does He want from me? How can I obey Him? Much of the trouble we face happens because we fear others more than God. We love God, but we love something/someone else, more. This is a problem. It is a bigger problem than Covid-19. Pastors, church members, love God first. Fear God most. Everything else becomes clearer when we get this right.

Second, love your neighbor. Bless your community. This requires intention, not mere sentiment. Loving is something we do, not something we say or feel. Every crisis or problem provides us the opportunity to love someone, bless someone. How does God want me to love my neighbor today? How does God want us to bless our community today? Yesterday my wife gave each of the 13 kids on our cul-de-sac a set of marbles with instructions on different games to play. She also wrote them a poem. She’s been introducing our neighbor kids to various “old fashioned games” to try and alleviate a bit of the stay-at-home monotony. She’s having fun, and the kids are too.

Pastors I’ve spoken with are leading their churches to abide by the stay-at-home orders, and the social distancing guidelines, out of love for their church and community, not because they believe the government has the authority to dictate whether the church can gather for worship. They are voluntarily following the guidelines because they love their people and don’t want to jeopardize the health and lives of their church and community.

Whether our state and national leaders, including the medical experts, get things exactly right in terms of how to handle the crisis is not the primary point when it concerns the church gathering or not. The politicians and medical experts won’t get it exactly right. They’ve changed their opinions about things such as whether to wear a mask or not. They have changed the rationale for the stay-at-home orders as well. We can certainly argue and disagree about how fast to open up the economy and get people back to work. But don’t let this create a problem for your church. When we think about love, remember love for the “weaker brother” (Romans 14 and 1 Cor. 8). Covid-19 is providing new ways to do this. This leads to the next principle.

Third, protect and promote the unity of the church. Some families pull together in a crisis and some get blown up by it. Churches are no different. Like kids squabbling in the backseat, this Covid-19 road trip is putting pressure on churches. There are financial pressures caused by over 36 million people losing their jobs in just eight weeks. Church members are seeing their businesses crumble. Some are dealing with sickness and even death. Even before Covid-19, an average of 7,700 people died every day in the United States, more than 2.8 million each year. If the averages hold true, that means that while 90,000 have died of Covid-19 in the U.S. so far, another 800,000 have died from some other cause. Covid-19 didn’t introduce death to us, but it has introduced massive job loss and isolation through stay-at-home orders.

Added to these troubles, pastors are learning new technologies and acquiring new skills and working harder than ever. Then there’s the pressure about when to begin gathering again and how to gather. When we gather, what precautions should we take? Do we need sanitation stations in the church building? How do we practice social distancing? Do people wear masks? Do we take temperatures as people walk in the door? What do we do if someone in the church gets sick with Covid-19? Do we ask everyone they came near to self-quarantine?

How about this question: should we obey governmental mandates and guidelines regarding the stay-at-home orders, or should we not obey them? What about the U.S. constitutional liberties about free exercise of religion? Are we allowing the government to trample on our constitutional and God-given rights by following the stay-at-home orders and not gathering for worship? And if we violate the governmental orders and guidelines, and someone gets sick, can they file a lawsuit? Will our insurance company support us if we fail to follow guidelines? These are the questions church leaders are considering.

As we continue down the road of Covid-19, this question of governmental authority, and when and how the church should start gathering, is beginning to threaten the unity of some churches. Disunity in the church over Covid-19 would be a great tragedy. Don’t let it happen.

Your pastor and church leaders are trying to do the right thing in the best way. Support them in this. They have incredible pressures upon them right now and they need the support and love of their church, just as you need their love and support. Like the rest of us, your pastor has never gone through something like this. He needs to know you support him. You don’t have to agree with his every move to fully support him as your pastor. He is God’s under-shepherd for your church. He bears a great responsibility about how he serves God’s church. He knows this, and more than the opinion of any other person, your pastor wants God’s blessing on his life and the people he serves. With all that your church and pastors are facing, don’t add disunity and grumbling to the mix. That will only serve the purpose of the evil one.

Fourth, focus on disciple-making and disciple growing. This is the mission of the church. Problems provide the church unique opportunities to make and grow disciples. Just think of the opportunities Covid-19 is providing families. Moms and Dads are home with their kids, teaching them math and history and grammar. Parents are teaching their kids how to handle a problem and how to redeem the time. How to pray. How to pull-together as a family. They are taking walks together, playing together, resolving conflict together, learning how to be together 24/7.

I don’t know all that parents are teaching their kids through this, but I know that they are teaching them because kids are always learning something, good or bad. I can imagine there is a family in your church that is memorizing a Bible chapter or a Bible book, together. They are redeeming this stay-at-home order, trying to make the best of it. Covid-19 provides churches a unique disciple-making opportunity. How are you growing the faith of your church and the obedience of your church during these days? What are you doing to further develop the leaders in the church? Has God led you to biblical texts that you have found helpful to grow the obedience of your church?

Impatient kids on a long road trip eventually learn that the trip will end. It might end at grandma’s house where they’re greeted with hugs and cookies. It might end at the beach or a family gathering where they get to play with the cousins. But all road trips end. The trip down Covid-19 will end as well. When it does, things won’t be quite the same. We’ll be in another place, at the end of the road. And when we get there, we don’t know what we’ll find, exactly. But we know that the Father will be there with us. Hopefully we’ll arrive together, as families and church families, serving God in His ever-changing and fallen world.

Trust: The Essential Leadership Quality During Crisis

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When I was 14 years-old my family drove 265 miles from Whitefish, MT to Spokane, WA to see the movie Jaws. My grandparents lived near Spokane so seeing the movie wasn’t the only reason for our trip, but it’s the only part I remember. When we got to the theater there was a long line and the theater filled before we got in, so we stood in line for the next showing. It was worth it! To this day Jaws is the scariest movie I’ve ever seen. One thing that made the movie scary is that you didn’t see the monster. For much of the movie Jaws was unseen, but terrifying and brutal, attacking unknowing swimmers from the murky depths.

Like the shark in Jaws, Covid-19 is an unseen killer, but unlike Jaws there’s almost no place of safety. “Stay out of the water” and Jaws won’t bite you! But nearly every landmass in the world has reported cases of the virus. As of today, April 30, 210 countries and territories have reported cases of Covid-19. The first death in the U.S. from the virus is believed to be a woman in California on February 6, 2020. Twelve weeks later, 61,867 deaths have been attributed to Covid-19 in the U.S., and 231,415 in the world.

Nothing in our lifetime has challenged leaders on the scale of this killer virus. From the President to governors and mayors and school principals, and from business owners to church pastors to moms and dads, leading through this crisis is excruciatingly difficult.

It’s difficult because we can’t see the killer and define it with precision. It’s difficult because the means of victory are more costly than anything we’ve ever experienced, and we can’t quite agree on what exactly are the proper means. It’s difficult because the solutions, we are told, will be determined by science and data, but it’s not a “pure science.” Shutting down business and church and sports and national parks and staying home in isolation is a primary tactic to fight this enemy. But the science that has determined this as our best, first tactic, creates other problems, and some of them are deadly too. Over 30 million have filed for unemployment in six weeks. Job loss and the inability to pay bills leads to depression, drug and alcohol abuse, abuse in the home, and even suicide. Businesses built over a lifetime are being destroyed. How long do we keep things shut-down, and should stay-at-home orders be applied uniformly across the country or throughout a particular state? The decisions will be determined by science and data, we are told, but who interprets the data and how best do we apply the science? And how do the scientific disciplines of medicine, social science, political and economic sciences, interact as decisions are made?

So, with these leadership difficulties identified, and they are not the only challenges, what is the most important thing a leader can do in such a crisis? Quite simply, leaders must tell the truth. Tell the truth as best as you know it and as completely as you can. Don’t “manage the truth.” Tell the truth. Distort nothing. Be fully transparent. Confess what you don’t know. State what you do you know. Don’t overstate, or understate, just tell the truth. Manipulate no one. Don’t exaggerate things, and don’t try to reassure people by minimizing the situation, either. Lament loss. Acknowledge disaster, even as you express biblical hope. “Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:15).

John Barry’s outstanding book, The Great Influenza, tells the story of the 1918 flu pandemic that killed 50 to 100 million people. The book is a thrilling, terrifying account of what happened then and is happening now on a smaller scale. In the Afterword to the 2018 edition Barry writes, “If there is a single dominant lesson from 1918, it’s that governments need to tell the truth in a crisis.” He says, “As horrific as the disease itself was, public officials and the media helped create that terror … by minimizing it, by trying to reassure.” He writes further, “The public could trust nothing and so they knew nothing. Society is, ultimately, based on trust; as trust broke down, people became alienated not only from those in authority, but from each other” (pp. 460f).

Barry is right. Telling the truth, as best we know it, builds trust. Lying, hiding the truth, being dishonest with what you know and don’t know, destroys trust. And when leaders lose trust, they’ve lost the ability to lead. You’ve seen it – a brilliant and gifted person who can’t lead a country, a church, or even their own family because they’re not trusted. Nothing compensates for loss of trust.

What’s true about leadership during a mega-pandemic is true about leadership when the crisis is isolated to one family, or one church, or a large network of churches. Truth-telling, which is necessary to build trust, isn’t just vital for governments, it’s vital at all levels of leadership. Trust is the essential thing a leader must have. Thus, the crisis that is most damaging long-term is not the crisis event itself, but the erosion of trust that can destroy relationships, organizations, and the essence of society and culture.

Here is a worthy prayer: “God protect me from doing things or saying things that erode the trust that others have placed in me. God heal the wounds I inflict when my actions create distrust. God help me be a person you can trust, so that I am worthy of the trust of others.”

The Heart of God’s Shepherd – Jeremiah 16:1-14

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(Note: this is the synopsis of a message I did that I thought might be appropriate for such a time as this)

In our bedroom I have a painting of the missionary David Livingstone. After my first visit to Africa, I began to read his journals and some biographies as well. Livingstone buried children, his wife, and suffered incredibly as he took the gospel to Africa. One of the things I found remarkable is that the name Livingstone is still revered by Africans. There are several towns named after him. The largest city in Malawi is Blantyre. Blantyre is not an African word. It’s Scottish. It’s the little town in which Livingston was born.

After his little girl died of Malaria, he wrote a letter to his sister in which he said, “Fever may cut us all off. I feel much when I think of the children dying. But who will go if we don’t? Not one. I would venture everything for Christ. Pity I have so little to give. But He will accept us, for He is a good master. Never one like Him. He can sympathize. May He forgive, and purify and bless us” (Mackenzie 113). In another letter he wrote, “A parent’s heart alone can feel as I do when I look at my little ones and ask, shall I return with this or that one alive?” (Mac, 114).

Livingstone knew he would see little fruit from his labor. But he also knew there was a day coming in which others would harvest from fields in which he sowed. He wrote:

“It seems very unfair to judge the success of these [missions] by the number of conversions which have followed…. Future missionaries will see conversions follow every sermon. We prepare the way for them. May they not forget the pioneers who worked in the thick gloom, with few cheering rays to cheer except such as flow from faith in God’s promises. We work for a glorious future which we are not destined to see, the golden age which has not been but will yet be. We are only morning stars shining in the dark, but the glorious morn will break – the good time coming yet…. For this time we work. May God accept our humble imperfect service.” (Mackenzie, 150f).

Today Africa has more professing Christians than Europe and North America combined, and some of this can be traced to a man who embodied God’s heart and was willing to suffer for Christ. We see people like this in the Bible, the prophets and the apostles, for whom obedience to God meant everything.

Jeremiah. David Livingstone, I think, felt a kinship with Jeremiah. Jeremiah wept the tears of God. He entered so much into the mind and heart of God that he embodied the feelings of God. Jeremiah not only spoke the Words of God, but Jeremiah felt the emotions of God. When you read his book, as I have dozens of times, you discover that Jeremiah doesn’t present the people’s pain to God. Jeremiah presents God’s pain to the people. Jeremiah knew the pain of God. But God demanded more of Jeremiah than emotional empathy. God demanded his whole life, physical, social, everything about Jeremiah became a living enactment of his message. And it made him hurt.

Jeremiah’s personal story is particularly striking in chapter 16. There, God told Jeremiah “You must not marry or have sons or daughters” (16:1). This was a devastating demand, but Jeremiah was called to embody in his life the catastrophe that would engulf all of Israel’s families. No family. And no funerals, either (16:5). Using a shocking triple negative, God told Jeremiah don’t go to funerals because the coming catastrophe would be so great that normal mourning would be abandoned.

No family. No funerals. No feasting. Jeremiah lived in loneliness and exclusion. He embodied what it meant for God to be driven out by the people He loved. Of interest is that Jeremiah was from Anatoth. Anatoth was where the priests lived who were banished by Solomon. Jeremiah was not a priest in Jerusalem. He was a descendent of the priest Abiathar, who supported Solomon’s older brother Adonijah to become king. Solomon said he deserved to die for that, but he let him live because he carried the Ark in the presence of King David (1 Kings 2:13-27). So Abiathar was banished to Anatoth and Jeremiah was his descendent. So, when God wanted a man to represent him, to embody the pain of God, he didn’t choose a priest from Jerusalem. He chose an outsider from Anatoth.

Maybe you’re an outsider. You don’t come from a “made family.” Nobody set you up to be the next best thing. That was Jeremiah. Maybe you can relate to him. But Jeremiah came to know God, and his heart was shaped by God, and he did what God told him to do, even if it brought him great suffering.

The prosperity gospel of health and wealth and happiness is made to look as stupid as it is by the life of the Prophets and the Apostles. It was precisely his obedience that thrust Jeremiah into 40 years of suffering and sorrow. God did speak to Jeremiah about the future restoration, but He also made clear that he wouldn’t live long enough to see it. When you preach from the hope passages of Jeremiah, like 29:11, “I know the plans I have for you … plans for your welfare …” you need remember, the restoration of Israel came after that generation was dead.

So what can we learn about shepherding God’s people from Jeremiah 16?

1. To shepherd the people of God you must enter into the heart and mind of God.

We cannot serve God’s people if we cannot hear God when He speaks, and if we don’t enter into His heart and mind, the mind of Christ, the Father’s heart. I’m actually quite concerned that some think that to shepherd God’s people you have to know the mind of Rick Warren, or Ed Stetzer, or, Matt Chandler, or pick your favorite (not that these aren’t good men from whom we can learn). Or, to lead the people of God you have to know the systems, strategies, and best practices. No. To lead the people of God, you must hear from God. You must know His heart. And even embody His heart and mind. That is first, second and third.

2. To shepherd God’s people you must present to them the heart and mind of God.

This is what you see in the prophets and the Apostles. You especially see it in Jeremiah. Jeremiah uses that phrase, “The word of the Lord” or “the Lord says” more than any other. In 16:1 “the word of the Lord came to me.” 16:3 “This is what the Lord says.” 16:5 “this is what the Lord says.” 16:5 “this is the Lord’s declaration.” 16:9 “this is what the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel, says.” People don’t need to know what their shepherds think about spiritual things. People expect their shepherds will talk to God in prayer, then reveal God’s heart and mind as expressed in His Word.

3. Those who shepherd God’s people must embody His message.

The classic definition defines preaching as “truth through personality.” The word “personality” speaks of the entire person – character, integrity, physicality, everything. When you listen to Jeremiah, and when you examine his life, you know, “This man was not a hypocrite. This man didn’t say one thing and do another.” He embodied the message.

4. Shepherds pay a price, often a big price.

This is where it gets tough for spiritual shepherds. You will pray a price. Probably not as big a price as Jeremiah – no marriage, no kids, no social life, starved at times, thrown in a hole. The annihilation and destruction of his city and his country. Continual rejection throughout the 40 years of his ministry. It won’t get that bad for most, but you will suffer.

David Livingstone’s favorite verse was, “Lo I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). The promise of Jesus’ presence, through it all, sustained him. Jesus is present with you too, if you trust in Him, and He will see you through to the very end.

Courage

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(Note: I wrote this article for the NW Baptist Witness a couple of weeks before the Coronavirus shut down much of our nation)

“We have given our children for Mexico, and now we will go back and give our lives.” Those words were spoken by Minnie Lacy following the death of all five of her children within 15 days. One-by-one the children succumbed to a horrible fever until each was dead. Her husband, George, didn’t think they could continue their mission work. “My Dear, we will give up and come home,” he said, before Minnie spoke those immortal words. This led to 30 years of heroic and fruitful ministry in Mexico. If you want to read the rest of the story, get David Brady’s excellent book, Not Forgotten: Inspiring Missionary Pioneers, and you will read of 18 such missionaries whose names you don’t know, but whose lives mattered much for Christ, and whose stories will help you live heroically for Christ.

I’ve been thinking about courage lately. My dad, when he was a boy, overcame his fear of bees by holding a bee up to his finger, and letting the bee sting him. His mom was terrified of bees, and he didn’t want to be afraid like his mom.

My dad taught me that courage is something that can be attained. We can grow in our ability to act courageously. That’s important because the time will come when each of us will need courage, and having courage may be more important than you know. Rev. 21:8 says, “But the cowards, unbelievers, vile, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars – their share will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.”

Have you ever associated cowardice with unbelief or murder or idolatry and other terrible sins? Though you may not have made the association, our Lord has.
So how can we practice living courageously? How do we become courageous men and women of God?

First, practice courage. Do things to help you overcome fear. I’m not referring to reckless behavior, but putting yourself into ministry opportunities that challenge your fears.

One of my early fears was public speaking. I had a bad lisp as a child. Speech therapy helped me overcome it, but overcoming it “in my head” took longer. I well remember the worship service in which I was asked to pray for the first time. Without warning, the worship leader said, “Randy, would you lead us in prayer?” I was stunned. But I did it. And it served as an important step to overcoming fear.

Second, do something for Christ that you’ve never done before. Share Jesus with someone. Volunteer to offer a public prayer. Visit a shut-in. Just do something. Spiritual growth requires more than knowing the truth. It requires doing the truth.

Third, read stories of courageous people. Missionary biographies are great. Reading how others lived courageously can help build our backbone. Something that has most surprised me as a ministry leader is that many “leaders” are gripped by fear. Fear of what “powerful people” will think if they take a contrary position, or fear of losing position or perks, too often keeps people from doing what they know in their hearts is the right thing to do. One way to overcome such fear is spend time with courageous people, and this can be partly done by reading their stories.

How does a courageous Christian live? They live in fear of God, not men. Obeying God is paramount, not pleasing others and forsaking God by doing so. The stories of Daniel in the lions den and his three friends in the fiery furnace teach this truth.
Courageous people fear God, not failure. Fear of failure keeps people from “attempting great things for God and expecting great things from God,” to paraphrase missionary pioneer William Carey. Scripture is replete with stories of God-fearing people standing up to tyrants, fighting giants, confronting death because they loved/feared God more than anything.

You can add to the list, but I’ll conclude by saying that we must disciple children to have courage and fear God. The evil one is discipling children to fear everything but God. Don’t fail your kids at this point. Help them be a Daniel, or a Deborah!

Saving the SBC Ship – Part 3

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In Parts 1 and 2 of this series I’ve demonstrated that the SBC ship has taken on a great deal of water and is riding low in the sea. Every metric used to chart Great Commission effectiveness has trended sharply downward, especially since the Great Commission Resurgence recommendations were adopted at the SBC in Orlando in 2010. My sources for data are the SBC Annuals which can be accessed online through SBC.net. You can access Parts 1 and 2 of “Saving the SBC Ship” through the following links, which I highly recommend if you’ve not yet read them.

https://randyadams.org/2020/03/03/saving-the-sbc-ship-part-1/
https://randyadams.org/2020/03/05/saving-the-sbc-ship-part-2/

Since publishing those articles I’ve received pushback from leaders at the North American Mission Board (NAMB). More than pushback, and in spite of our growth in baptisms, churches, and CP giving from the churches in the Northwest, and even growth in Annie and Lottie giving, they informed me and our leadership at the Northwest Baptist Convention (NWBC) on March 9 that they will end our joint-funding agreement for evangelism and church planting, and will stop virtually all funding through the NWBC as of September 30, 2021 (we will be able to “request” funds for certain evangelistic and church planting projects). Furthermore, they intend to place NAMB staff to work in the Northwest with no accountability to the NWBC. This has been done in other states as well. This will be interesting, to say the least, because we in the Northwest will not “walk away” from our mission field, the place where we live, and hand church planting in the Northwest to NAMB. We will have church planting staff that is fully funded by the NWBC. We hope that NAMB will reconsider “competing” with us in our own mission field by placing staff here. We value true partnership. But money withheld or given cannot and will not purchase my silence as it concerns the serious issues of decline facing the SBC.
Interestingly, NAMB has not refuted the data that comes from our official SBC Annuals. Nor have they offered a different interpretation of the data, other than to say that church plant reports prior to 2010 cannot be trusted because they are “fake numbers,” a term used from the platform of the SBC Annual Meeting.

Against the “fake numbers” argument, I offer three points. First, current church plant reports are the lowest we’ve seen in at least four decades. Were all prior NAMB leaders, and Home Mission Board leaders prior to the creation of NAMB, “cooking the books” with fake numbers? Is that scenario more likely than the fact that we have seen a steep decline in recent years?

Secondly, our most recent church plant numbers are about 400 below the number of church starts that were reported six and seven years ago when we were under the same leadership at NAMB. They are asserting that we are planting “higher quality” churches that will prove to be more durable. This has not been proven, merely asserted, and even if true it ignores the fundamental issue that we are starting far fewer churches and spending an extra $50 million dollars to do it!

Thirdly, the net increase in Baptist churches from 2000 to 2010 was 4,139 (2001 and 2011 SBC Annuals), and between 2011 and 2018 the net increase was 1,729. The net increase in Baptist churches has dropped significantly, demonstrating that we were adding more new churches in the first decade of the 21st Century. In 2018 we actually suffered a net decrease of 88 churches, and all indications are that we suffered a decrease in 2019 as well. This has so alarmed SBC leaders that we now have an effort to recruit non-SBC churches to affiliate with the SBC, with a goal of 400 affiliations each year, and we will begin counting new church campuses as churches (http://www.bpnews.net/54364/first-person-vision-2025-a-call-to-reach-every-person-for-jesus-christ). You will also note the “new” church planting goal is to start 750 churches each year. In 2010 that goal was 1,500. When that goal seemed out-of-reach the goal was dropped to 1,200 a few years later. Now the goal is down to 750 new church plants each year.

My suggestion to NAMB leadership was, and is, that if they believe the data I use is incorrect, or my interpretation of the data is wrong, they should make that argument. But it needs to be a fact-based argument, not one based on assertions that we should trust them and not trust those who came before them. Moreover, we have still not received an explanation as to why the church planting budget has increased from $23 million to $75 million in less than a decade, while we are planting far fewer churches and baptizing 100,000 fewer people, have slashed NAMB evangelism funding by about 65 percent, and total assets have increased by tens of millions of dollars in cash and property.

So then, how do we save the SBC ship? First, we must know the truth and we must not fear the truth. Knowing the truth requires transparency and accountability regarding finances and strategic decisions. Knowing the truth means knowing all the truth, the good, bad and ugly. Knowing the truth means we need to ask and answer hard questions. I have been told by some that exposing the truth will demotivate Southern Baptists mission giving. I strongly disagree. Truth, even hard truth, moves and motivates people to do more than they ever thought they could. However, I also believe that concealing the truth, burying the truth, ignoring the truth, and retaliating against those who ask hard questions and expose the truth will demotivate Southern Baptists like nothing we’ve ever seen. I believe we are in a struggle for the heart and soul of the SBC, and a part of this struggle is surfacing truth.

Second, we must rebuild trust. Trust requires truth, honesty and transparency. Trust requires mutual respect and valuing all cooperative mission partners. Weaponizing the mission dollars given by Southern Baptist by punishing and starving local associational and state mission partners who advance cooperative missions and the Cooperative Program is no way to build trust, nor is it a way to honor God. When I moved from being a local church pastor to a denominational leader, I soon learned that establishing trust and respect amongst a convention of pastors and churches was much different than doing so in my church. Pastors lead people whom they look in the eye every week, speaking God’s Word into their hearts, calling them by name when they see them on the street, and praying with them before surgery. In denominational leadership trust is mostly earned in ways that are less personal. Trust is earned through transparency, integrity, forthrightness, and competence, among other things. We have a crisis of trust in SBC life and we must restore it if we are to save the ship.

Third, we need to return to New Testament missiology, which is organic, grassroots and bottom-up, with strategic decisions made by those closest to the mission field. The Apostle Paul was commissioned and sent by the church in Antioch, but they did not micromanage him. They unleashed him and released him as he was led by the Holy Spirit to evangelize the lost and gather them into churches. Antioch prayed for Paul and supported Paul, but they did not seek to control Paul and dictate his work. Everywhere in the world where the church is growing, from China to Africa to the United States of America up until the past couple of decades, the growth of the church has been organic. Top-down control from national headquarters has never worked and it never will. This doesn’t mean that some great things aren’t happening. Of course they are! God is at work. He always is! But when you look to the broad scope of the SBC, the picture is not pretty. We must restore biblical missiology to our mission strategy.

We need to return to the time when Southern Baptists believed that every church matters, not just churches deemed “significant” based on size of attendance or budget. If a local church is the Body of Christ, purchased with the blood of Christ, that church matters, and that pastor matters, and the widow with her mite matters, and maybe she matters more. We need to return to cooperation, not competition; partnership, not power plays; and respect for all, not a “respecter of persons.”

I believe our future is bright if we do these things. If we rebuild our convention on a foundation of truth, and rebuild trust, God can bless us in great measure. But we cannot presume growing our Great Commission advance if we continue down our present path. Tragically, ships do sink, even big ones.

Randy Adams
Executive Director-Treasurer
Northwest Baptist Convention

Saving the SBC Ship – Part 2

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Part 1 of this series focused on the steep decline in Great Commission effectiveness that the SBC has suffered since the adoption of the Great Commission Resurgence (GCR) recommendations in the Orlando SBC meeting in 2010 (https://randyadams.org/2020/03/03/saving-the-sbc-ship-part-1/ ). Those declines are represented in the following graphs.


These declines make clear that the SBC Ship is floundering and requires serious attention. Bright spots do exist and many churches are thriving. Church planting in some regions, such as the Northwest where I serve, is doing quite well. It seems the IMB is poised to rebuild our international missions force, for which we are most grateful. But the SBC cooperative mission’s ship has taken on a lot of water. Let me tell you why I believe this has happened and continues to happen.

First, the shift from overwhelming support, and practice, of Cooperative Program missions was eroded by creating the category of “Great Commission Giving.” If you review the records, promoters of Great Commission Giving largely came from churches whose Cooperative Program (CP) giving was far below that of the average SBC church as a percentage of their budgets. Many SBC leaders could not say “imitate me” when it came to CP giving because if the typical Baptist church imitated the churches of many SBC leaders we would have “gone out of business.” This was/is a huge problem.

Southern Baptists have long believed in the “missions system” that included local Associations, State Conventions, and the SBC Entities (particularly the mission boards and the seminaries that train our pastors and missionaries). Historically, we believed the missions system produced better Great Commission effectiveness than simply “picking and choosing” which part of the system you wanted to support. I wrote about this in 2015 (https://randyadams.org/2015/09/13/do-as-i-do-the-big-issue-for-our-baptist-family/).

Although we can debate whether the creation of Great Commission Giving caused the erosion of CP mission giving, the fact that CP has declined by 34 percent since the 2010 SBC Annual Report is beyond debate. Actual dollars given have declined by 11 percent, but because the dollar purchased more in 2010 than it does in 2020, our CP missions support is 34 percent less in terms of purchasing power. That is real and serious decline, and I believe it was greatly aided by the shift toward Great Commission Giving. Certainly, those promoting Great Commission Giving, as well as urging State Conventions to keep less CP dollars and forward more to the SBC, with the “ideal” of a 50/50 split, claimed this would result in more mission dollars given through CP and SBC causes. However, the opposite has occurred. Fewer dollars are being given through the SBC mission system.

I’ll talk more about solutions in Part 3 of this series next week but will briefly say here that we need to choose leaders with proven track-records of CP support. Furthermore, we must include more Baptists in choosing our leaders through remote-access voting. In a future article I will articulate a plan on how to make remote voting work at the SBC Annual Meeting.

Second, the shift from mission strategies in which local leaders (pastors, associational and state leaders) are primary decision makers, to a top-down approach in which decisions are largely dictated from national leaders, was a catastrophic mistake. I believe the large decline in baptisms and church starts is partly the result of moving to a top-down approach.

This shift to a top-down approach was absolutely intended by the GCR Task Force. I quote from their report: “We call for the leadership of the North American Mission Board to budget for a national strategy that will mobilize Southern Baptists in a great effort to reach North America with the Gospel and plant thriving, reproducing churches. We encourage NAMB to set a goal of phasing out all Cooperative Agreements within seven years, and to establish a new pattern of strategic partnership with the state conventions.” For a complete copy of the GCR go to: http://www.baptist2baptist.net/PDF/PenetratingTheLostness.pdf.

This “national strategy” has nearly eliminated the voice of Associations and State Conventions outside the South. It has greatly lessened work in the South, as well. But in most of the non-South this included eliminating funding for associations, most evangelism personnel, Baptist Collegiate Ministry, and has even reduced funding for church planting missionaries. I believe the huge drop we’ve seen in church plants, a 50-percent drop, despite increasing the church planting budget by more than $50 million dollars, is due to nationalizing our strategy and limiting the input of local leaders.

Think of it this way. What if the Federal Government dictated from Washington D.C. how we educate children in all 50 states, thus eliminating the control of the local school boards? Does Washington D.C. know what’s best for schools in Spokane, WA or Augusta, GA or Jacksonville, FL? No, they don’t. And, by the way, the local community may make a bad decision, but they live with the decision they make. And they have greater incentive to get things right, and correct course when they’re wrong, because their own kids are in those schools. I see a similar principle at work in the evangelism and mission strategies of Southern Baptists. Top-down national strategies that do not give deference to local leadership are doomed to fail. Some are unhappy that I am saying publically that the GCR actually led to a Great Commission Regression, but no one has argued that the GCR worked based on the data.

In Part 3 of this series I’ll offer practical steps the SBC can take to better advance the Great Commission. In light of that, I’ll leave you with the final statement in the 2010 GCR report, and it’s one with which I totally agree. The report concludes by saying we must “Commit to a continuous process of denominational review in order to ensure maximum implementation of the Great Commission.” As we approach the 10-year anniversary of the GCR it’s time to “review” and steer the SBC ship in a new direction.

Randy Adams
Executive Director-Treasurer
Northwest Baptist Convention

Saving the SBC Ship – Part 1

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As I’ve previously written, we will set a better course for the SBC ship by returning its steerage to those who built the ship (see https://randyadams.org/2020/02/17/giving-the-sbc-back/). But some might ask, “Is the SBC ship sinking? Does the ship need saving?” An objective examination of the facts suggests that, “Yes, the SBC ship is in trouble and taking on water.” Consider these facts, and note the shocking trends indicated by the graphs.

In the 2010 SBC Annual Report, the International Mission Board (IMB) reported 5,441 missionaries, while the 2019 Annual Report noted 3665 missionaries, a loss of 1,776 missionaries. In 2010 the North American Mission Board (NAMB) reported 1,256 church starts, and in 2019 NAMB reported 624 church starts, a decline of over 50 percent, while the NAMB church planting budget increased from $23,120,000 to $75,387,000 (these are budget numbers not actual dollars spent, which are indicated in the graph). The 2010 Annual SBC report noted 349,737 baptisms, while in 2019 there were 246,442 baptisms reported, a catastrophic decline that marked the fewest baptisms in 75 years. The lowest four years since 1947 are the last four years. Also, total Cooperative Program mission giving from all SBC churches was $525,866,995 in the 2010 report, and $463,076,368 in the 2019 report, for a decrease of $62,790,627. To keep up with inflation since 2010 we would need $620,523,054 CP dollars (18 percent inflation increase), which means the buying power of our mission dollars has decreased by $157,000,000, or 34 percent, since 2010!


The comparison with 2010 is appropriate because the Great Commission Resurgence (GCR) report was adopted that year at the Annual Meeting in Orlando. The GCR ushered in a dramatic change in how Southern Baptists cooperate to advance the Great Commission. GCR shifted money and power to the national SBC and lessened the influence and funding through State Conventions and non-South Associations. Tragically, however, the reports show that the GCR did not work. To be clear, the GCR was intended to reverse declines that began a decade previously, but rather than reverse the decline, the decline steepened significantly. The GCR hastened a “regression,” not a “resurgence,” in Southern Baptist’s evangelistic and mission effectiveness, demonstrating that the wrong “solution” to a problem can make the problem worse. Many were concerned about the premise of the GCR before it was presented in 2010, and I was in that number (https://www.baptistmessenger.com/oklahoma-baptists’-great-commission-resurgence/).

I approach things as a pastor. I try to hear from God and examine everything through the lens of Scripture. What does the Bible say, and does God have a specific word on the matter? These are essential questions. But I also remember lessons learned in my training as an engineer. Engineering teaches problem solving and the value of accurate data. Bad data leads to bad decisions. This is true regarding evangelism strategies or a production plan for an oilfield.

As a pastor of three churches, small and large, I saw that people reach people. Reaching more people required involving more people in the ministry. Jesus said this when He spoke of the need for workers in the harvest (Matt. 9:37f). In a sense it’s mathematical. Two can reach and teach more than one, and three more than two. More workers produce a greater harvest.

Leading the missions and evangelism work for Oklahoma Baptists helped me see the role that Associations, State Conventions, and the national entities can best play in helping our churches be more effective in disciple-making. For example, when all the partners worked closely together, collaborating in the areas of evangelism, discipleship and church planting, we were far more effective in helping our churches reach and teach more people, and we also started more churches in those Associations. The data revealed that getting pastors, associational leaders, and convention specialists around the same table, praying and collaborating, produced the most effective outreach strategies, by far.

Much of this changed in 2010 with the GCR strategy. Through the GCR Southern Baptists adopted a nationalized, top-down strategy, which led to massive reductions in evangelism and church planting missionaries at the State and Associational levels. A reduction in missionaries, and in church planters as well, has helped to produce unprecedented decline in the harvest. Fewer workers, smaller harvest. It’s biblical mathematics.

This really shouldn’t surprise anyone who knows mission’s history, or biblical missiology. A relational, collaborative approach, empowering those who do the work of sharing Christ, baptizing, and starting the churches in their community, is always best. Those experiences, together with ministry on the mission field of the Northwest, have deepened my understanding of how cooperation in missions makes us more effective.

In “Saving the SBC Ship – Part 2” I’ll go into detail as to how and why the 2010 GCR strategy failed and what Southern Baptists need to do to become more effective in our Acts 1:8 Great Commission Advance. Look for Part 2 this coming Thursday, with more to follow next week.

Great Commission Advance through the Northwest Baptist Convention

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Yesterday I released a series of messages on social media that contain factual information detailing the decline of Southern Baptist’s Great Commission impact. You can check my Facebook or Twitter to see those messages. I will release a future article that will go into greater detail.

Today I want to briefly share what the Northwest Baptist Convention (NWBC) is doing to help our churches advance the Great Commission. You see, I believe in a cooperative, systematic approach to evangelism and advancing the Great Commission. While it is the local church that does the biblical work of sharing the gospel, preaching the Word, raising up the missionaries, teaching tithing and stewardship principles, the local Baptist Association and State and National Conventions have played an important role in developing a cooperative system of training and sending and developing resources, among other things.

First, when I arrived in the Northwest in 2013 I promised our churches that the NWBC would provide evangelism resources to every affiliated church, without charge, so that every church, from the smallest to the largest, could equip their people to share the gospel and deploy them to actually do it. The reason we can provide the resources at no cost is because our churches have already paid for them through the Cooperative Program and our NWBC Mission Offering. When I was in Oklahoma I led Oklahoma Baptists to do the same, with my team developing the My316 evangelism materials. We have continued to use these materials in the Northwest, and other state conventions have used them too. However, the NWBC also provides other evangelism tools. In fact, we will pay the bill for any biblical evangelism training resource that a church chooses to use.

Second, we provide evangelism workshops and training every year. Our Annual Meeting always includes workshops on evangelism, and we sometimes do them at other times too. Our Pastor Cluster groups make evangelism a key part of their monthly meetings.

Third, the NWBC established an IMB partnership with East Asia that launched in 2015. In addition to dozens of churches sending teams to work with missionaries, volunteers from the Northwest have staffed several major IMB retreats. These have been coordinated by our NWBC staff. For example, in 2016 we sent 163 people from 32 NWBC churches to minister to our missionaries and their children in a huge training conference. In 2019 we sent 113 people from 23 churches to do the same. We have also staffed smaller IMB East Asia retreats, sending up to 50 people from multiple churches. We do this because we believe in Acts 1:8 missions. Our churches could not do these big retreats and partnerships without leadership from both the NWBC and IMB. That’s part of the “mission system” Southern Baptists have established. Additionally, I have personally preached in 9 IMB retreats and conferences, going back to 1993 in Pakistan. Every church and convention I have served in has been heavily involved in missions, both locally and globally. The result of which has been increased support of missions, both in financial giving and in sending missionaries to the field. Three Northwesterners were commissioned by the IMB just last November.

Fourth, the NWBC has a strong and growing commitment to church planting, in partnership with NAMB. I believe in partnership and cooperation and it grieves me deeply that we do not cooperate like we once did. The NWBC is the only State Convention that remains in a jointly-funded partnership with NAMB. We do this because we believe in what NAMB and the NWBC can do together. Churches young and old need local partners, the Southern Baptist system, which historically was highly relational and local, with national partners primarily supporting the local denominational partners. I believe in that system. I believe in local partnerships strategy and methods that are driven and developed as locally as possible. In my experience, locally driven strategies better mobilize local churches than top-down strategies.

This is a fairly brief summary, but I hope it gives you some idea of our commitment to actually do things that help our churches advance the Great Commission. Is it working? Yes. Not like we want it to work. I always want more and am never quite satisfied with what we are achieving. But since I came to the NWBC in 2013 baptisms have increased, mission giving has increased (Cooperative Program and the mission offerings), church plant numbers have increased, and the net number of churches has increased by more than ten percent (60 more churches at last count). As always, I am happy to address questions and provide clarification or additional information. It is a good day to serve the Lord in the Northwest!

Randy Adams
Executive Director-Treasurer
Northwest Baptist Convention