Frank Page reflects on his 2 years
INDIANAPOLIS (BP)— Frank Page, outgoing president of the Southern Baptist Convention, reflected on his two years in office in an interview with The Christian Index of the Georgia Baptist Convention.
His thoughts on Southern Baptists' key channel of missions support -– the Cooperative Program -- and other topics follow.
Q: Two years ago when you were nominated, you took a strong stand in saying it is possible for a church to be a strong supporter of both the Cooperative Program and its own missions work. Should CP giving be considered an indicator of a church's commitment to and participation in Southern Baptist life?
PAGE: I never cast aspersions on any church doing missions work, but I would have to answer "yes" to that question. I see Cooperative Program support as a strong indicator of support for and participation in Southern Baptist life … which includes not only support of 10,000 North American and international missionaries, but coordinated evangelism and church planting efforts and the providing of a quality education through our seminaries.
I believe that is one of the reasons that I was elected president of the convention two years ago -– because of my church's longstanding support of our Southern Baptist way of cooperating with other churches through this important avenue of funding. I think that struck a strong note with many of our laypersons attending the convention. My election was a clear message from the grassroots that people feel very strongly about this issue.
Q: Is the Cooperative Program relevant today as more of our churches decide to fund their own missions enterprises at the expense of that funding channel?
PAGE: Many churches, both large and small, now find it much easier to be personally involved in missions. Transportation costs are lower than they were 40 or 50 years ago, we have a higher standing of living with more disposable income and a higher spirit of volunteerism. All of these work together for more people to experience missions firsthand and I encourage that.
On the other hand, I've never favored taking food off the table or resources away from missionaries who we placed on the field and using those funds to do personal missions. That is counterproductive to who we are as cooperating Southern Baptists.
On another note, we are living in an anti-denomination, anti-institution age where there is a growing disconnect on all levels of society, not just in the church. Some people choose to work more independently of larger agencies which they traditionally supported.
Then there is the issue of funding duplicate, yet competing, worthy ministries. Is our God able to give the resources to do both? Well, all I can say is that He's done it in our church for years.
Q: How have you been able to walk that fine line between supporting both the Cooperative Program and funding your church's personal missions ventures?
PAGE: First Baptist of Taylors, S.C., has one of the largest missions programs in the Southern Baptist Convention; in fact, we give more money outside the Cooperative Program than we channel through the CP, but that doesn't mean we operate our own missions program at the expense of the national program.
As long as I call myself a Southern Baptist, we will support the CP because that is what it means to be Southern Baptist. We will also support a large number of church-based missions trips.
But while we are very heavily involved in personal missions, we have also been the largest CP giver in the South Carolina Baptist Convention for more than 20 years. We were the first to give $500,000 in one year and, last year, were the first to give $600,000.
The Cooperative Program is more relevant than ever as our number of missionaries and the cost of putting them on the field increases. The same is true for our educational ventures through our seminaries and our church planting and evangelism efforts through the North American Mission Board. The need to support the CP has not slackened but increased as the challenges have increased.
Q: Much has been made about the Conservative Resurgence and its role in returning the denomination back to its historic roots. But a renewed emphasis on evangelism and a healthy, growing denomination seems to have alluded us. Why is that?
PAGE: The Conservative Resurgence dealt with one issue that very badly needed to be addressed -– clarification and support of orthodoxy in our denomination. Was that necessary? I'd say an unqualified "yes." To me, the problem is that there were and are other crucial issues that have not received the same passionate attention.
Q: Can you elaborate on those?
PAGE: I believe there are four.
First, we have a considerable number of churches that are declining or have plateaued and little or nothing has been done to provide them with any assistance from a national level.
Second, there has been a lack of a cohesive national strategy to help focus our churches on a comprehensive evangelistic effort. There has been no central rallying cry, no stack pole around which we could gather.
Third, there is a growing societal factor where people are antagonistic to the church and its message.
Fourth, I agree fully with Paige Patterson's recent assessment of the busyness of our time and the simple apathy of our people not wanting to share the Gospel. I also believe that we have serious issues with the decline of our congregations due to many choosing to stay with a 1950s methodology while those around them are dying and going to hell without relevant ministries to reach them.
Q: How do you see the rise of Calvinism shaping the future of the denomination? In light of the denomination's continued decline, does the convention have the luxury of time to spend so much of its energy and resources on such a debate?
PAGE: I have always been a proponent of Southern Baptists going back to their roots … of the first century, not the 17th century [of the Calvinists]. It's healthy to discuss theological issues, but at the end of the day we need to come together in obedience to the Great Commission.
I believe very strongly that any discussion that prevents our coming together is being used by the Evil One to distract us from our prime objective as given by Jesus Christ.
I would like to add that in the two years of my administration I have tried to be fair to Calvinists in my appointments and dialogue and I continue to do so. At the same time, I have also asked both churches and ministerial candidates to be open and honest about their theological stand regarding this issue so we will not have major disruptions in the next 10 to 20 years.
Q: While the Conservative Resurgence paved the way for Southern Baptists to reaffirm their belief in the Bible, we seem to never have been able to recapture the evangelistic zeal for which we were historically known. In fact, LifeWay [Christian Resources] President Thom Ranier recently acknowledged as much in his interpretation of the most recent Annual Church Profile figures when he stated he feared we are a denomination that has lost its evangelistic passion. Those figures, released April 23, showed that the number of people baptized in Southern Baptist churches fell for the third straight year in 2007 to the convention's lowest level since 1987, and that membership posted a slight decline. How do you interpret those ACP figures? Are we losing -– or have we now actually lost -– that evangelistic identity that once made us great? Is our decline inevitable or can it be reversed?
PAGE: I believe that many have lost their ability to present the Gospel in relevant ways in the 21st century. If you continue with a 1950s approach, you will find it very hard to reach today's culture. We have lost our ability to relate, as modeled by Christ and Paul, who gave the example to be all things to all people.
As disturbing as the ACP figures are, there is one bright spot and that is the slight increase in attendance numbers. I do not believe that our decline is inevitable, but I will caution that if we cannot do a better job of relating to our culture, our decline is inevitable.
I am praying that NAMB, over the next decade, will provide us with a multifaceted, flexible strategy in evangelism that will provide both the training and focus that we need for our churches. We have so many people asking for help in teaching them how to be more effective in their evangelism efforts. NAMB is poised to make a major difference and to help us turn the tide.
ABILITY TO ADAPT
A few years ago outgoing LifeWay President James Draper said he felt the proverbial frog was in the kettle in regard to Southern Baptist churches being unable to adapt to changing culture. He specifically referred to an apparent unwillingness of the denomination's leaders, from the national down to the local church level, to accept the younger generation. His comments created quite a stir but they seem to have been lost in the passage of time. Is the threat still with us or are we now truly open to a younger generation's way of doing things, or is their way too unorthodox?
PAGE: For the past two years my committee appointments have included a large number of individuals from the ranks of younger, non-involved, conservative pastors. Much of the ministry of my predecessor's presidency, Bobby Welch, was among the non-involved.
I focused on the younger generation because I was tired of seeing the same names over and over in the appointments. They were good people but we needed to involve more of the younger generation.
I want our younger pastors and laity to know that, on a national level, we are listening and making the necessary changes to reflect who we are today. There is a large number of younger, biblically conservative pastors and laypeople who know how to listen and relate culturally like the Apostle Paul exampled for us. That's why we need to be more inclusive.
Q: Is there room for both an older generation's way of doing things and a younger generation's point of view, or are they worlds apart?
PAGE: There has always been an "us" versus "them" mentality between those in power and those not in power. The current trust gap in the SBC is now not as much theological as methodological. To some, the younger generation is frightening and not theologically correct. Unfortunately, we as Christians have a tendency to attach God's approval to what we like or dislike. People have always done that and it's no different in this case.
Q: Have we lost an appreciation for the concept of the "loyal opposition" -– someone who I may not agree with fully but with whom I'm willing to compromise my preferences in order to accommodate a different point of view? It seems that we are increasingly moving in a direction of personal preferences, whether it is worship style or choice of music, defining who we are as Baptists.
PAGE: I would have to say that it is true that we have lost the concept of the "loyal opposition" in many areas. I believe that is occurring because we have continued the narrowing of the parameters for participation on our committees.
I believe that in [the 2006 SBC annual meeting in] Greensboro, Southern Baptists spoke up and said there is certainly room for dialogue, room for differences of opinion, and that it is healthy to have choices and debate the issues.
When you invite a plumber to your house, he needs to bring various tools with him to complete the job. I believe there are differing ways of doing church, of conducting the denomination's affairs on the local, state and national levels. We need both the younger and the older generational views, with all of their differences of opinions, if our convention is going to grow and remain healthy.
Q: Earlier this month at a meeting sponsored by the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, you stated that you believe continued resistance to change could kill more than half -– 20,000 of 40,000 -– of Southern Baptist churches by 2030. Could you elaborate on that?
PAGE: No one likes to talk about such projections but I stated that we would be happy to have 20,000 churches in 2030 if our denomination does not provide us with some serious strategies and national vision in evangelism, assistance in helping to revitalize traditional churches, and if we don't make great strides in Cooperative Program support.
I based that projection simply on my travels of the past two years into the large cities and grassroots congregations across our nation. Those travels left me with the overwhelming impression that many of our churches are small groups of Anglos, holding themselves together as they wait for the end to come. Numbers of them are closing their doors and are joining the trend of other mainline denomination churches that are slowly developing a mentality of retrenchment and are moving into a survival mode.
Q: Much is being made about branding these days. Each church has a brand, or a public image, whether or not it is working on that brand. By extension, each denomination controls its brand identity, whether it is good or bad. You recently told an Associated Press reporter that you felt Baptists are increasingly being viewed as "mean-spirited, hurtful and angry people" and that the denomination has been known too much in recent years for "what we're against" than "what we're for." You further stated, "Our culture is increasingly antagonistic and sometimes adverse to a conversation about a faith in Christ. Sometimes that's our fault because we have not always presented a winsome Christian life that would engender trust and a desire on the part of many people to engage in a conversation on the Gospel." How would you suggest we reverse this image?
PAGE: The reality is that Southern Baptists do not have a good public image. The general public's perception of us is not what it used to be and some of that is our fault. I have been working for two years to help change that. I believe that some of that negative image is our own lack of work to present a positive message to the world. Now, sometimes the media will intentionally paint us in a poor light. But sometimes we give them the documentation on which to base their stories; they are only reporting who we are and how we live out our heated disagreements among ourselves.
The vast majority of evangelicals are kindhearted, loving people who will give you the shirt off of their backs; we need to work harder at showing that truth.
Q: How do you interpret the "brand" of the SBC and its trickle-down effect on the local church? How can the SBC position itself as the first choice among those who are unchurched and are hurting and seeking answers to life's tough questions? Why should they choose a Southern Baptist congregation over that of a Unitarian Universalist or other non-Christian faith groups?
PAGE: The way people are going to choose us over another faith group is by knowing someone who is a kind, loving individual who lets the love of Christ permeate everything they do; someone who has reached out to them in love and grace.
Q: Some churches – some more than a century old and some just started last month -- have either removed "Baptist" from their name or never embraced it from their founding. Many say the Baptist name simply carries too much negative baggage and compromises their effectiveness in outreach. What is your personal feeling on this trend, and does it confuse our identity even further? Is the Southern Baptist affiliation an asset or a liability?
PAGE: I am proud to be a Southern Baptist and do not personally see our name as a liability. But as I travel around the United States and Canada I do see it as a liability that our brothers and sisters try to overcome. Sometimes it is just the word "Southern" and sometimes it is "Southern Baptist." In our age when individuals are increasingly anti-institutional, anti-big government, they don't want to feel that they are part of a large group. Smaller, more personal settings appeal to them more. That's why, in part, small groups have grown in popularity in recent years because people are looking for a sense of belonging.
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
What do you see to be the greatest threats to the Southern Baptist Convention?
PAGE: First, the increasing numbers of declining and plateauing churches that manifest a desire to hold on to outdated methodologies and ministries.
Second, a continued negative public persona exacerbated by persons who project a continued antagonistic spirit.
Third, an apathy toward soul-winning.
Fourth, an increasingly antagonistic societal rejection of the church in general.
Q: What is your wish list for the Southern Baptist Convention, and do you feel these wishes are actually attainable?
PAGE: First, that Southern Baptists will truly come to believe that the Gospel is worth sharing and that it is the power of Christ unto salvation.
Second, that our denomination will be able to provide serious assistance to those churches that are seeking help to move from their declining or plateaued existence.
Third, that there will be an openness in our denomination to new ideas and methodologies, even to the point of restructuring the denomination to maximize its effectiveness.
And yes, I believe that all of these are attainable.
Joe Westbury is managing editor of The Christian Index, newsjournal of the Georgia Baptist Convention.