Speakers affirm editors' truth-telling role
Keynote speaker and founder of WORLD magazine, Joel Belz, also called on the editors not to abandon print media, but instead to infuse their work with a Christian worldview.
"Now when we live in a time when the printed page is called an endangered species, I want to say to you don't believe it," said Belz, who writes a weekly column for WORLD and is co-author of "Whirled Views," a collection of columns with the magazine's editor-in-chief, Marvin Olasky. "It is still a powerful, powerful tool once you learn to make it useful."
WORLD magazine's roots draw from the Presbyterian Journal, a North Carolina newspaper founded by Nelson Bell, the father-in-law of Billy Graham, and God's World, a weekly series for children that is still published today. Although WORLD faced a rocky start, the "senior version" of the kids magazine recently surpassed the circulation of Christianity Today.
But even with a strong subscription list, Belz said he still has difficulty finding qualified writers to evaluate movies, books, music and art for the magazine's review section. He eventually developed three criteria: Reporters must "see" accurately what is going on in any piece of art; they must report with interest what they have seen; and they must write from a shepherd's heart.
Belz said came to realize that those qualifications applied to the entire magazine, whether covering the federal stimulus bill or international issues.
"The basic premise of WORLD is from 1 John 1:3, which states, 'What we have seen and heard we declare to you.' We are not there to simply warm over other people's reports. [We] ask questions and see it for ourselves," Belz said, adding that the magazine recently sent a reporter to Baghdad for a week. "I'm not sure how many of you have done reporting in other countries. I like to be where I am safe, but if I am safe, will I see what's true?"
The tension between reporting from a position of safety and truly engaging the truth of a story is felt by every reporter, Belz said. The tension also can be seen in a church setting as editors seek to discern issues in a local church, region or denomination.
The call to be a truth-teller also applies to a believer's personal walk with God, Belz said.
"It is incumbent on you as a disciple of Jesus to work harder and harder to see the world the way He sees it. That is what Christian worldview thinking is -- you see the world the way God sees it," Belz said. "That is your task, not just as an editor, publisher or church person, but as a disciple of Jesus to see the world in crisper and crisper terms the way God sees it. And then to bear witness to what you've seen...."
In the same way a reporter tries to draw a reader into a story, Belz said believers should seek to draw the lost into the Gospel message.
"You don't want to be Jesus' witness with boring language -- you want to put it in sparkling terms [to those] who may have never heard."
The meeting of Baptist state paper editors, hosted by the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, was held in conjunction with the annual meeting of the State Convention Executive Directors.
During the editors' sessions, representatives from several SBC entities relayed updates, including North American Mission Board President Geoff Hammond, who spoke about the SBC's unfolding National Evangelism Initiative, also known as God's Plan for Sharing, or GPS.
At the invitation of Gary Ledbetter, president of the Association of State Baptist Papers and editor of the Southern Baptist TEXAN, two SBC entities gave reports to the editors for the first time in decades: the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, represented by Barrett Duke from the Washington, D.C., office; and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, with President Paige Patterson responding to editors' questions on the record.
Patterson, fielding editors' questions over lunch, made a plea for local churches to recover their Baptist identity, believing it to be an impending crisis in the Southern Baptist Convention already evident in various congregations dropping "Baptist" from their names.
"With the postmodern ethos in the country, it is no longer good to be anything.... And more and more churches are dropping the Baptist name saying, 'If we call ourselves Baptist, they won't like us now,'" Patterson mused. "It is manifestly a mistake to me because I happen to believe if you can find four Baptist churches on four corners of the same two cross streets and if you pray like you ought to pray, witness like you ought to witness and faithfully proclaim the Word of God, all four churches will grow."
While dropping the Baptist name might not impact churches today, Patterson voiced concern about Baptist churches of tomorrow.
The Baptist identity crisis also will manifest itself in a declining number of pastors, particularly for smaller churches, produced by Southern Baptists' six seminaries, Patterson said.
"As pastors begin to retire and all us old cats die off, beware of what is happening," Patterson said. "We have so emphasized church planting -- and we've been pretty successful with that -- that what we don't have in our seminaries are people who are interested in going into FBC Navasota, Texas, or wherever it may be and see that those too are God's sheep and that they need a pastor also."
Ledbetter, in his president's address, urged editors to remain steadfast to their calling of "proclamation ministry" in the face of rising postal rates, decreased advertising and the assertion that print is a dead medium.
"We have a lot to distract us," Ledbetter said, encouraging editors to return to their primary task of building up the body of Christ and supporting the Gospel work of the churches. "The content of our paper is of primary importance. It is our ministry message -- our prioritizing of news and opinion according to God's leadership."
Ledbetter, who also served as editor of the Indiana Baptist newspaper from 1989-95, urged editors to act as "informed observers," giving context and perspective to denominational action.
"I'm also convinced our convention and our various conventions need us," Ledbetter said. "The tendency of bureaucracies to lose their edge and devalue accountability is quite apart from their theology and regardless of their motives. If we are vigorous in our work and genuinely curious about the people who lead and serve us, we can be a benefit to the cooperative work of Southern Baptists."
Both in reporting good news and holding SBC entities accountable, Ledbetter said state Baptist papers should be a positive service to the local church.
"Our work of encouragement is much larger than just looking for good news, although that's a vital part of it. We can't do that vital ministry if we are merely dissident. The work of our papers, newsletters and magazines will be of no use if we treat our leaders and institutions as prejudged adversaries. We've gone through that phase and it harmed our ministries and that of the Southern Baptist Convention.
"Neither are we of positive service if we treat our leaders and institutions as if they are there to exalt us or even hire us. That careerist track presupposes that men place us in our roles rather than God," Ledbetter said. "Our first commitment is not to our rabbis, and we all have them, nor to the First Amendment. Our first commitment is to God's Kingdom and righteousness."
Although disagreement with institutional leaders is inevitable, Ledbetter said, "I'm convinced, though, that we should be, and mostly are, on the same side -- even with our distinctive viewpoints."
In addition to guest speakers, a Thursday night joint session of state executive directors and editors provided an overview of SBTC ministry, particularly in the areas of missions and church planting. Michael Lewis, pastor of Great Hills Baptist Church in Austin, reviewed the core values of the newest convention in the SBC.
"SBTC founders determined that the convention would be biblically based," Lewis said, noting that affiliated churches express agreement with the SBTC's statement of faith and the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 but are not required to sign either document.
Noting that the SBTC is Kingdom-focused, Lewis said, "Missions and evangelism were prioritized in budgeting and staffing priorities." He noted that the convention uses volunteers, paid consultants and a network of skilled specialists to keep its paid staff small in number.
"Through a vital partnership with the Southern Baptist Convention, the state convention maximizes its own ministry effectiveness," Lewis said. "Through the traditional Cooperative Program, the SBTC truly touches the entire world from Texas. Currently, the SBTC gives 55 percent of undesignated receipts to the SBC allocation budget."
Lewis also recapped several new SBTC missions initiatives, including a missionary/planter program, which recruits and trains missionaries to ethnolinguistic people groups in Texas, and The Ezekiel Project, a ministry that assists pastors of declining churches in implementing a strategy for spiritual renewal and revitalization. Due to the increase in Hispanic population in Texas, Lewis said the SBTC also has begun to launch parallel tracks to major events in Spanish, including retreats and conferences.
In other business, Ledbetter passed the gavel to Bob Simpson, editor of the Maryland-Delaware Baptist Life, as the next president of the editors' association. Illinois Baptist editor Martin King was named president-elect.
Melissa Deming is a correspondent for the Southern Baptist TEXAN, newsjournal of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention.