Pastors' Conference looks toward unity
Passionate, funny, pleading -- speakers Mike Landry, Ed Stetzer, Francis Chan, Tom Elliff, Michael Catt, Fred Luter, Dennis Swanberg, Alvin Reid, David Platt, Johnny Hunt and Mike Huckabee (see related Baptist Press stories on Hunt and Huckabee) -- referred to the Great Commission, tertiary issues, humility, and accountability.
The pastors also elected officers for the 2010 Pastors' Conference in Orlando, Fla.: Kevin Ezell, pastor of Highview Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky., president; Jimmy Scroggins, pastor of First Baptist Church, West Palm Beach, Fla., vice president; and Ben Mandrell, pastor of Englewood Baptist Church, Jackson, Tenn., secretary-treasurer.
Mike Landry, pastor of Sarasota (Fla.) Baptist Church, pointed to the Book of Jonah for a lesson on maintaining the same love of Christ the Apostle Paul mentioned in Philippians 2:2. A lack of love, Landry said, turns a Christian into a judge as displayed in Jonah, judging the people of Nineveh and desiring punishment for them more than reconciliation.
A lack of love also makes a Christian arrogant and proud. "Is your agenda more important than God's agenda?" he asked.
The solution, Landry said, is to view the Great Commission as a relational mission as opposed to seeing it as a spiritual task on a to-do list. Enter the lives of people and make a difference in their relationships with God, he urged.
"What if at this convention we chose to ramp up our mission efforts by maintaining this same love? Do you know what I think would happen? I believe we would do, with abandon, whatever it takes to connect people to Jesus Christ," Landry said.
"I believe we would see far more people come to know Jesus Christ as their personal Savior and Lord. I believe we would find the team that's called Southern Baptists to be far more effective working together to accomplish the Great Commission. And lastly I believe we would witness and experience a Great Commission resurgence."
Preaching from Ephesians 4:1-6, Ed Stetzer, director of LifeWay Research, urged Southern Baptists to share a love-driven unity.
"God has already made us one… . We just have to live it out," Stetzer said. The decline in membership and baptisms in the SBC is "not a matter of debate; it's a matter of math," he said, calling Southern Baptists to set aside "tertiary" issues to join hands in ministry.
Stetzer encouraged pastors to "walk worthy, display right attitudes and live in the unity God has already created." Walking worthy, he said, calls Christians to walk in who they already are in Christ. "God is not honored when there are divisions and factions among us," he said.
Southern Baptists often are guilty of wrong attitudes that undermine the work of the Gospel, Stetzer said. If Southern Baptists followed the biblical mandate to consider others more important than themselves, "we would not be engaged in debates" about worship styles, methodologies and other issues.
"God is using all kinds of churches for His glory and honor, and we cannot and must not look down our noses at each other," Stetzer said, closing with a call to repentance and renewed commitment to cooperate with others who share a common statement of faith.
Francis Chan, teaching pastor at Cornerstone Church in Simi Valley, Calif., said radical love for one another was a defining characteristic of the early church, and should be for Christians today.
"Here's what's supposed to happen when someone walks into a gathering of believers: An unbeliever who has never seen God should walk into a group of us as believers and see so much love amongst us that they actually see God there," Chan said.
Chan recounted a time in his ministry when he was discouraged about the lack of power he saw in his church. Although it looked from the outside to be a growing congregation of thousands, he saw a vast divide between it and the church described in the Book of Acts.
That realization motivated Chan to temporarily step away from Cornerstone, re-evaluating the kind of church God wanted. When he returned, the leadership team moved forward with an emphasis on the church loving each other like family members. They began to look more at their collective identity in Christ.
"You used to not be a people group," Chan told the pastors, referencing 1 Peter 2:9. "But the moment you got saved, you became this race. You became a priesthood. You became a holy nation. It's not that you became an individual Christian, but you joined a group."
Tom Elliff, a former pastor, SBC president and vice president of the International Mission Board, shared the power of forgiveness from the vantage point of personal experience. He told how he forgave his father, J.T. Elliff, a pastor who left his wife for another woman. Elliff called pastors to forgive those who have betrayed and wounded them in order for Christ to be exalted and their ministries to be more effective.
"An unforgiving spirit is like an acid that eats the container from the inside out," Elliff said. "For you or for me to be unforgiving is the same as drinking poison and hoping the other person dies; we become the victim."
Elliff said forgiveness is a matter of faith. "If you will not forgive, you are denying the truth that God is sufficient for you," he said.
At the end of the morning session, conference attendees were given a free copy of Elliff's book, "The Red Feather," which tells the forgiveness story between Elliff and his father.
Michael Catt, widely known for his church's work with Sherwood Pictures, which produced the movie "Fireproof," shared his concern over the lack of respect between the older and younger generations of believers in the SBC.
The senior pastor of Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Ga., said the SBC stands at a seminal moment in its history.
"You and I need to care about the lost; listen more than we speak; pray more than we talk; groan more than we gossip; plead before God instead of pointing fingers; set an example for the next generation; stop burning bridges and start building them," Catt said.
Catt said the current generation has modeled a lack of respect for authority and the older generation. Blogs are an example of this, he said.
"We stand on the shoulders of giants, and somebody paved the way before we got here," Catt said.
Of younger people, he said, "I may not like what they dress in or the style of their music, but if they can get on their knees with me before Jesus and ask God to give us a heart for people and for Him ... we can be of one spirit."
Drawing from Acts 1:4-8, Fred Luter, pastor of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans, said early Christians "turned the world upside down" because they were empowered by the Holy Spirit.
"They were plain, ordinary people who did extraordinary things for the Kingdom of God," Luter said passionately. "These plain, ordinary people were empowered by the Spirit of God."
Luter said when believers wait on God's Spirit they become new people, develop new purpose and receive new power. After Pentecost, Jesus' disciples and followers showed new boldness as they shared the Gospel. They were new men and women with a new purpose, Luter said. They gave up their own agendas, and sharing Christ became their purpose.
"We can't win the lost by ourselves," Luter said. "We must be filled with His Spirit. We must be led by His Spirit."
Combining humor with a prescription for healthy relationships, comedian Dennis Swanberg encouraged pastors during the afternoon session. His jokes focused on the close relationships that have shaped him, and he urged pastors to develop friendships and interpersonal relationships that lead to a balanced, fulfilling life.
Based on his book "The ManCode," Swanberg told men their first priority is a one-on-one relationship with God, a principle he learned from his own father.
Men also need three close friends for accountability, he added, and a larger group of 12 friends with whom they can socialize or work toward a common goal. Swanberg used the number 120 to represent the local church, emphasizing "a man needs the church more than the church needs him."
The final number in Swanberg's code is 3,000, which refers to the number of people saved on the Day of Pentecost, and the impact a man can have on his community when he is seeking to serve and be in relationship with people around him.
Alvin Reid, professor of evangelism at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, said the Southern Baptist Convention is far too comfortable in a world racing toward hell.
Reid said the convention has reached a tipping point from which it cannot go back, but instead, must move forward for the sake of the Gospel. He said the SBC has "tipped" in how it views relationships, the Gospel, the future, the culture and success. Instead of seeing people as numbers and money as the goal, Reid said the thinking must be turned around so that people being saved is the goal.
"When we put anything above the Gospel we are in error," Reid said.
David Platt, lead pastor of the Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham, Ala., preached from Hebrews 13, a text he said demands readers to answer the question: "Are we going to die in our religion or are we going to die in our devotion?"
"This is a question God's people have had to face throughout history," Platt said. "I believe this is the question the people in the Book of Hebrews were facing, and this is the central question facing the church today."
Platt said Christians today, like the original recipients of the Book of Hebrews, have two options: They can retreat from the mission God has given them or they can risk everything for it.
"There is so little risk for the mission. We have retreated into our nice, big buildings where we sit in our nice, cushioned chairs ... where we are insulated and isolated from the inner city and the spiritual lostness of the world. We can either retreat from the mission of declaring the glory of Christ to all nations into a land of religious formalism or we can risk everything for the mission.
"Let's risk it all."
Platt recounted stories of believers worshipping and teaching in underground churches in Asia, noting the hunger of believers there to learn the Word of God.
"They have gotten the idea that the Word of God and the Spirit of God are enough to accomplish the mission of God, and they are right," Platte said.
Compiled by Gary D. Myers of New Orleans Baptist Theological and Keith Collier of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, with reporting by Erin Roach and Mark Kelly, Baptist Press; Rob Phillips, LifeWay Christian Resources; Meredith Day, North American Mission Board; Shannon Baker, Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware; Lauren Crane, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary; and Garrett Wishall, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.