Hunt points SBC to 'what's united us'
INDIANAPOLIS (BP)--The priorities Johnny Hunt announced for his tenure as president of the Southern Baptist Convention are the same ones that have characterized his 32 years as a local church pastor -- evangelism, discipleship and missions.
"I want to see as many people as possible come to embrace Jesus Christ as personal Lord and Savior and then help as many people as possible become fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ and to see churches become personally involved in taking the gospel down the street and around the world," Hunt said during a news conference after being elected SBC president June 10 on the first ballot among six candidates.
When reporters tried to apply characteristics of Hunt's ministry to existing political agendas, he kept to his message and refused to be drawn into what he regards as lesser issues. "I've not really thought that much through things that have divided us. I believe if we'll keep the focus off of that and our hearts on what's united us, it can lead us to the best days in the Southern Baptist Convention."
Hunt said he would uphold Southern Baptists' common identity as "a people of the Book," one of the leading mission-minded denominations of the world, and a body known for its commitment to planting churches. Instead of directly answering questions about "narrowing parameters of participation within the SBC," Hunt said, "I would hope to unite our hearts around the things we believe Christ was most committed to."
Issues in the culture such as global warming, homosexuality and abortion, and concerns within the SBC over the funding mechanism known as the Cooperative Program, a decline in baptisms, and disaffected young leaders were offered for his analysis. However, Hunt redirected attention to "inspiring the next generation with a vision for the Southern Baptist Convention."
Having established a track record of mentoring younger pastors through his Timothy Barnabas conference ministry the last 14 years, Hunt said he sees ministers in that age group as the future of the convention. "If we don't have someone coming behind us, we don't have a future. That is why God put fire in my heart to get involved. If our denomination were to become a byword in years to come, I would hate for it to be on my watch when I felt I maybe could have led to a positive change."
Hunt plans to network with younger pastors to encourage them to be part of what he predicts to be "a winning team" instead of giving them the idea that "we want them to be involved just to keep us alive." While he called for a "change in radical leadership to turn the tide in our denomination," Hunt set his sights on "sharing a vision of what's made our denomination great," then inspiring others to "step up to the plate."
"I'm not one who believes we need a whole lot more information about what we need to do. I just believe we need to be inspired."
Hunt praised efforts at this year's convention to increase the participation of younger generations. Instead of "constantly saying, 'Give to the Cooperative Program,'" he said, "We ought to show the generation coming behind us all that the Cooperative Program is doing." When taking a special offering in his own church, Hunt said he first tells what is happening and then proposes how to respond, whereas in the SBC, "We try to take the offering before we tell the story." By utilizing "e-mail blasts constantly streaming to make it clear to all who want to know," Hunt hopes to tell more people what Southern Baptists are doing "so they will want to be a part of it."
He also called for a realistic assessment of the facts concerning a decline in baptisms. "We ought to be doing more with all the people we have. We have a larger army and ought to be taking in more territory."
Though he pastors a large church, Hunt said he is not seen as "a large church pastor" by his peers. Asked whether his election silenced the notion that Southern Baptists were no longer electing mega-church pastors, preferring men like the current president, Frank Page, Hunt said, "I can only hope that I can be as good a Christian gentleman in public and private as Frank is."
Hunt said he "never intended to be pastor of a large church. I just wanted to reach all of the people I could." He said every church he pastored was smaller than the one he previously served. His current church, First Baptist Church in Woodstock, had 200 in attendance when he began 20 years ago.
"I've had an opportunity to lead every church I've been in through a transition to be a growing church," Hunt said. "My heart, through the times I address the denomination and in print, will be to lead them and encourage them to once again embrace God's heart for the nations and neighbors and hopefully see a turnaround" in declining baptisms.
Believed to be the first Native American president of the Southern Baptist Convention, Hunt was asked about his ethnicity as a Lumbee Indian of North Carolina and involvement with a new fellowship of Native American Southern Baptists. "I'm proud of my heritage and have some of my Indian family here with me. I don't know that we have enough to take on all of you," he joked, "but I'm very grateful for their graciousness and commitment to me through the years."
Having only pastored Anglo churches, Hunt said Lumbee tribe members often appealed to him to return to serve their community, yet later expressed their pride that God had sent to "to help all those white people." His own congregation supports a Spanish-speaking ministry as well as work in 37 nations this year. "We're committed to the neighbors and the nations. That's our prayer."
Hunt pledged to rely upon "a multitude of counselors" for wisdom in prayerfully making decisions. "I'm certainly not looking to lead as president by consensus, but I really do believe we need to broaden not just who serves, but broaden the area of wisdom."
When engaging the culture in regard to homosexuality, Hunt said Southern Baptists should "love them where they are and at the same time share what Scripture teaches and how we can help them."
Oftentimes, Southern Baptists are known for what they're against instead of "the wonderful things we're for," Hunt said, hoping to follow his church's desire to "love loud" in dealing with the culture. While he plans to become more educated about existing Southern Baptist ministries, Hunt said, "I'd like for this nation to see what we're doing and for it to be so loud that they see the love of Jesus and say, 'You know what? I'd like to hear more from you,' that they see the genuine person of the Lord Jesus Christ."
Hunt explained, "I can only try to lead the denomination as I do the church. I am a pastor, first and foremost. It is my calling." In contrast to one nominator's description of the SBC presidency, Hunt said, "To this pastor it won't be full-time job. I have a full-time job and I love it and I'm called to do it. But I look forward to attempting to lead the best I can to help us respond positively."
Asked by an Associated Baptist Press reporter for his assessment of "Southern Baptist loyalists" disillusioned by the SBC's perspective on speaking in tongues, women in leadership and identification with the Republican Party, Hunt said none of those issues had ever been raised during his travels to state conventions and pastor's conferences.
"I think those are things that our convention dealt with back during the conservative resurgence, and the ones who really held to [an opposing view] found a real home in the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship," Hunt added.
Among those who share his priorities of evangelism, missions and church planting, Hunt hopes to be "a conciliator for a common cause" of making the name of Jesus famous. "There's room under the umbrella of Southern Baptists for all that still have those type passions to see Christ and the Gospel really proclaimed."
He expressed surprise at having received support from individuals who disagree with him theologically but share those common priorities. "Maybe God's got Southern Baptists' attention to see that we'd better join hands in whatever time we've got left to do what we were placed here to do."
Tammi Reed Ledbetter is news editor of the Southern Baptist TEXAN. Jerry Pierce, managing editor of the TEXAN, contributed to this report.