JACKSON, Tenn. – Feb. 16, 2007– Though “cautiously optimistic” about the future success of the Cooperative Program, Southern Baptist Convention President Frank Page said the convention must address legitimate concerns if the CP is to remain effective.
And Thom Rainer, president of LifeWay Christian Resources, said a renewed emphasis on evangelism must begin with individuals and not with the denomination or church programs.
“If it is our desire that everything we’re doing this for is the furtherance of the gospel, then I believe the future will be bright indeed,” Page said. “We’ve got some issues that need healthy, Christ-like dialogue and debate.”
If, however, the SBC breaks into factions that fight with each other and if SBC entities degenerate into turf wars, then the future is not bright, Page added.
Page, pastor of First Baptist Church of Taylors, S.C., and Rainer spoke in the opening sessions of the Baptist Identity Conference Feb. 15 at Union University. The three-day conference was designed to explore the theme “Convention, Cooperation and Controversy.”
Among the other eight speakers for the event were Timothy George, dean of Beeson Divinity School; Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary; and David Dockery, president of Union University.
Page said Southern Baptists must have a mindset similar to that of the Apostle Paul when he was in prison. Though his circumstances weren’t ideal, Paul chose to focus on the positives – his ability to preach Christ to those he otherwise might not be able to reach.
Christians often find themselves in difficult situations, Page said, but the tendency is usually to ask God for a way out of the trouble.
“Our first response is, ‘God get me out of it. God rescue me from this difficulty,’” Page said. “But in so doing we have often short circuited God’s desire to teach us great and mighty things. … If we have the right mindset, then we can experience some great victories from God.”
Page related the importance of having the right mindset to the Cooperative Program, the mechanism through which Southern Baptist churches pool their resources to fund mission endeavors.
“The Cooperative Program was stared in 1925 so that the word of God might be preached to the needs of the earth,” Page said. “It is my prayer that the future of the Cooperative Program will be bright so the brothers can preach the word of god fearlessly and courageously.”
But that will only happen, the SBC president said, if Southern Baptists adopt an attitude of Christ-like selflessness.
“Often times in our convention we have broken into groups that want to know ‘Who’s side are you on?’ rather than ‘Are you preaching Christ?’” Page said. “There are people in the Southern Baptist Convention who thinks the convention belong to them. There are many groups that think that way. I have felt that way at times myself.”
But Page said “this convention does not belong to me, nor to you. It is a Jesus convention.”
Page added that Southern Baptists must examine their methodologies and determine whether the Cooperative Program needs to be changed in some ways. He acknowledged that the program isn’t perfect, and said it’s time to ask crucial questions and adjust the program to ensure its future viability.
Rainer, following Page’s address, spoke about the lack of evangelism taking place in Southern Baptist churches. He cited statistics showing that in 1950, Southern Baptists baptized 376,000 people when the denomination had 7 million members.
In 2005, when the SBC was 16 million members strong, SBC churches baptized only 371,000 people.
“Alarms are sounding loudly,” Rainer said.
He pointed to several reasons for the SBC’s downward spiral in the area of evangelism. Eschatology is one reason, because Rainer said Southern Baptists are increasingly abandoning a belief in a literal, physical hell. Lack of such belief diminishes enthusiasm for evangelism, he said.
Rainer also listed ecclesiology as another reason. On a given Sunday, according to statistics, only about 7 million of the SBC’s 16 million members attend church.
“It would appear that our church rolls are filled with non-members and, likely, unregenerate members,” Rainer said. “That which is dead cannot tell another person how to have life.”
Rainer said far too many church members, including pastors, admit to having no witnessing or evangelistic relationships – and individual Christians no longer feel like evangelism is their responsibility. Instead, churches relegate evangelism to a specific church program in which few people participate.
“When evangelism is not my responsibility, it does not happen,” Rainer said.
Changed hearts on an individual basis are necessary to change the current trajectory, Rainer said.
“Perhaps a great source of our evangelistic apathy resides not in denominational bureaucracy, resides not in churches that have all kinds of problems, but I think the problem resides in me,” Rainer said. “I am too often filled with my own pride and my own will rather than being filled with the Holy Spirit.”
Repentance of sins like arrogance and lovelessness, and more humility in ministry, are a step toward becoming more evangelistic, Rainer told conference participants.
“I know if a true evangelistic revival is to come, it must begin with God,” Rainer said. “And I must let Him begin with me.”