Merritt vows to encourage Baptists; calls himself a pastor's pastor

ORLANDO, Fla. (BP)--Calling himself a pastor's pastor, the Southern Baptist Convention's newly elected president vowed to stand true to the faith and lift high the banner of truth as found in God's Word.

James Merritt, senior pastor of suburban Atlanta's First Baptist Church, Snellville, is the third youngest SBC president and the first baby boomer elected to the position. During a press conference following his June 13 election, Merritt outlined his vision for the future of the Southern Baptist Convention.

"I am humbled and overwhelmed that God has brought me to this responsibility and I covet the prayers of my Southern Baptist family that I would lead with the distinction and wisdom of my predecessors," Merritt said.

He appeared at the conference with his wife, Teresa, and their three sons, James Jr., Jonathan and Joshua, along with other members of the Merritt family

"As I become the first 'baby boomer' to assume this position and the first SBC president of the new millennium, it is my conviction that there has never been a better time in the 2,000 years since the Lord Jesus Christ was raised from the dead to preach the gospel of salvation through faith in a crucified and risen Lord," Merritt said.

"There has never been a greater need for the gospel nor has the gospel ever been more relevant to the world than in the year 2000," he said.

Merritt stressed that his passions are for Jesus Christ and the church.

"I have basically two agendas as I enter this position," he said. "I love preachers and I have a zeal for the local church. It is my foremost desire to help pastors to lead their churches to become healthy churches that fulfill the Great Commission and especially in reaching the next generation for Christ."

Merritt said it is imperative to bring younger people into the SBC and involve them, not only in churches but convention activities. He also emphasized the need for a greater focus on evangelism.

"We must, as a denomination, never let anything become a greater passion than evangelism and soul winning," Merritt said. "Far too many churches have plateaued and gotten away from their first love.

"I am infinitely proud to be a part of a denomination that is willing to stand in the face of the sharp winds of political correctness and stand for the absolute truth that is found in Scripture," Merritt said. "To call sin, sin, whether it be the sin of abortion, homosexuality, adultery, violence or racism."

Merritt also stated his desire to see more pastors become personally involved in international missions.

"Too many Baptists have substituted giving for going. Every Baptist pastor and every Baptist layperson that are physically able should go on at least one mission trip before they go to heaven," Merritt said. "Missions is not just for full-time missionaries, and evangelism is not just for full-time evangelists."

Merritt handled questions on a number of issues ranging from the high divorce rate among Baptists to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, an organization of Baptist moderates created in opposition to the conservative direction of the SBC.

"I do not fear a split or even a splinter," Merritt said in response to a question about churches unhappy with the convention. "I think Baptists are extremely happy with the denomination and the leadership. If you believe in the Bible, that people need Christ and the gospel, then the best place to be is in the Southern Baptist Convention."

Merritt also addressed the issue of relationships with state Baptist conventions. "I am a champion of the Cooperative Program," Merritt said. "It grieves my heart to see any state convention take action to weaken CP. I would just make a plea to my fellow Southern Baptists that never has there been a better time to be a Baptist than today, to be proud that you are a Southern Baptist."

Merritt said he accepted Jesus Christ as his Savior when he was 9 years old while watching the movie "King of Kings" in Gainesville, Ga.

"I knew Jesus in my head, but not in my heart," Merritt recounted. "It was the greatest decision I have ever made in my life."

The new SBC president also praised his predecessor, Paige Patterson.

"Paige Patterson is a great man of God," Merritt said. "And to be quite frank, I would not here today if it were not for his courage to take a stand."

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