NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–The nomination of Avery Willis, a former Southern Baptist missionary and retired International Mission Board administrator, for president of the Southern Baptist Convention was announced May 6 by John Marshall, senior pastor of Second Baptist Church in Springfield, Mo.
Willis is one of six candidates Southern Baptist messengers will consider. Baptist Press asked each candidate to participate in a survey of mostly standardized questions, but the questionnaire included at least one query individualized for each candidate.
Willis’ answers to the questions posed by Baptist Press follow:
1) What has God done in your life and ministry to prepare you to be president of the Southern Baptist Convention?
He has saved me, called me to preach and be a missionary and used me by the power of His Spirit as a Southern Baptist in a variety of settings. Since you ask, I’ll list them, but all the credit goes to God for whatever He has accomplished through me.
— Ten years’ experience pastoring three Southern Baptist churches in the U.S., one of which I started and all of which saw growth in numbers, maturity and missions.
— Fourteen years as a missionary in Indonesia, six years as a field evangelist/church planter and eight teaching in the Indonesian Baptist Theological seminary, six of which I was president. I led in an innovative theological education process that increased the enrollment over five times to meet the need for pastors growing out of 2 million people coming to Christ in five years in Indonesia, the largest Muslim population in the world.
— Fifteen years as the director of adult discipleship and family ministry [at what was then known as the Sunday School Board] that included launching MasterLife (which has been translated into more than 50 languages) and the LIFE (Lay Institute for Equipping) courses, including Experiencing God, PrayerLife, The Mind of Christ, Fresh Encounter and the LIFE Support Series. I have preached in most of the state conventions and/or evangelism conferences. I led the Bold Mission Prayer Thrust team that called for solemn assemblies for revival and helped lead them with the SBC Executive Committee, 18 state conventions and the Southern Baptist Convention in 1991) I spoke at all the seminaries as a member of the SBC president’s Call to the Cross team that called for prayer and revival.
— Ten years as senior vice president of overseas operations for the International Mission Board, overseeing the work of over 5,000 missionaries plus 25,000 to 30,000 short-term mission volunteers each year. As a member of the three-man Senior Executive Team, I led in the strategic New Directions overseas that saw baptisms rise from 251,000 a year in 1993 to 609,000 baptisms last year and from 2,000 new churches started per year to over 25,000 per year for the last several years.
— I am currently executive director of the International Orality Network and have been involved in mission movements such as Bold Mission Thrust and AD 2000 and Beyond, and currently strategically involved in Finishing the Task and Call2All all over the world.
— During the process, I have written 20 practical books with the aim of helping God’s people be a people after God’s own heart who make disciples of all nations.
2) If you are elected, what would be your priority message for Southern Baptists?
Southern Baptists need a spiritual resurgence to become a people after God’s own heart who return to Him in repentance, follow Jesus in discipleship and bring the Bible to life through authentic lifestyles and actions, resulting in our telling God’s story to people everywhere and making disciples of all nations.
3) What do you believe is needed to see churches more effectively bringing people to Christ and making disciples?
— We must have revival and return to revolutionary first century discipleship. Jesus said, “Make a tree good and its fruit will be good.” (Matthew 12:33)
— We need to sow abundantly, because as a people we have sown sparingly we are not reaping abundant fruit.
— We need to sow where Jesus sowed. He said that He came to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor to the poor, the prisoners, the blind and the oppressed. (Luke 4:18-19) Baptists historically have ministered to the outcasts and disadvantaged, but as we have become more affluent we sow more in people like us than unlike us. When we do get the Gospel to the prostitutes, drunkards, the broken hearted, poor and prisoners, they recognize it as really good news. We need to minister more to these people and give a clear verbal witness when we do.
— We need to learn to communicate with the 50 percent of the U.S. population that is functionally illiterate. Churches are missing at least half the population that doesn’t feel comfortable in our churches. We need to train our pastors in narrative preaching and storying, as well as expository preaching that uses effective life illustrations. We need to improve our communication styles with post-moderns who grew up watching TV and movies and listening to music and don’t want to read, although they can.
4) Decline/plateau in membership, baptisms: What do you think the future holds for the SBC?
I believe the conditions are ripe for a move of God among us that will make us a people after God’s own heart and reverse the trends. I think the future is as bright as the promises of God, if we will believe them and obey Him. If we don’t, we will eventually become, as Dr. Jack Grey said, “a bloated carcass alongside the road of history.”
5) Regenerate church membership: To what extent do you see regenerate church membership as a significant concern in the Southern Baptist Convention?
Unregenerate church membership must be a concern for us when less than half our members attend church on a given Sunday. Our shallow evangelistic methods and poor follow up and discipleship have added many people to our rolls whose names are not written in the Lamb’s Book of Life. The larger question is what we do about it. Several groups are presenting resolutions to the SBC this year to address this concern.
6) Calvinism: Do you see any reason for non-Calvinist Southern Baptists to be concerned about a renewed emphasis on Calvinism in some Southern Baptist churches and seminaries?
We should be concerned about any Southern Baptist that does not feel the responsibility to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with everyone. Salvation is a work of our sovereign God, but God uses humans as His instruments to share it with the world. As a convention, we have never made Calvinism a point of fellowship or cooperation. Calvinists are welcome partners in our Great Commission task. Our point of concern should be with anyone who diminishes our responsibility to make disciples of all nations.
7) The role of the Baptist Faith and Message: What do you see as the proper role of the Baptist Faith and Message when it comes to governing SBC entities and employees?
The current Baptist Faith and Message is the product of the Conservative Resurgence and is a solid consensus document. I think it is sufficient to guide us in our relationships and our work. We don’t need to go beyond the BF&M confession to where there is not a doctrinal consensus.
8) The IMB trustee guidelines governing baptism and private prayer language in appointing missionaries: Do you think their action was needed and appropriate?
I addressed the sufficiency of the Baptist Faith and Message as our conservative consensus in the last question. However, as a Convention we have given trustee boards the right to set additional guidelines and policies for their work in their specific contexts. You are addressing an issue voted on by trustees elected by the SBC. As a former IMB administrator, I do not think it is appropriate for me to rule on these policies that the IMB trustees made after a three-year study, including a requested review by the convention. We should trust the trustees and we have a process in place as a convention to address those concerns when needed.
I think if there was ever a need for us to focus on a lost world and revival in the SBC, America and the world, it is now.
9) We hear reports that God’s spirit is moving in astounding ways in many parts of the world, with people being saved and churches being started so fast no one can keep track of the numbers. Based on your missionary experience, what do you think keeps God from moving in such remarkable ways in America?
Having been to approximately 120 countries, I would affirm your statement about God’s Spirit moving in astounding ways overseas. Let me pose the question like this, “What are they doing in their situations to work with God to experience phenomenal growth in numbers of churches and Christians that we are not doing as well with here?”
Conditions are different in every situation. There was a time when we saw phenomenal growth of churches and membership in the United States. However, missionaries and nationals in their respective countries are doing many things that further that kind of growth and avoid the things that hinder it. Here are some things we could learn from them as we pray that God will pour out His Spirit on us as He has on them. They are missional in their strategy, by which I mean they approach their situations as missionaries and I think we need to do the same thing in the United States if we are to reach the lost here.
— Prayer and the absolute authority of the Bible are integral to their discerning where God is at work.
— They research the people groups and population segments and the study the culture in each situation to understand their real needs.
— They devise multiple strategies to reach them.
— They sow abundantly and intentionally plant churches using local unpaid leaders.
— They communicate the Gospel using stories and other visual and oral means as Jesus did and make clear what it costs to become a real disciple of Christ. They teach them how to deal with persecution when they become followers of Jesus.
— They involve new converts immediately in initial discipleship and applied Bible learning.
— They focus on discipleship in relational small groups in homes or other available places.
— They implant the DNA of witnessing, making disciples and multiplying simple churches as rapidly as possible.
— They coach emerging leaders in the actual experience of doing the above.
— They involve other Great Commission organizations who can contribute their expertise and energy in appropriate strategies.
Here are some things that they avoid:
— Dependency caused by subsidy or dependence on outside leaders.
— Extra-biblical requirements for leadership.
— Church models that are not reproducible by the local people.
— Inappropriate leadership training models for their situations.
So how do you sum up what we are seeing on the mission field that we need to return to as Southern Baptists? It is not a formula, for such movements come only from God. I believe He wants a spiritual revolution of our 21st-century Christianity to become first-century disciples afresh. Here are seven marks that we have seen in Baptists when God used us most and I believe they are guideposts to God using us again as a people after His own heart:
— Gazing on God’s glory in worship.
— Returning to God in spiritual renewal.
— Following Jesus in discipleship.
— Bringing the Bible to life through authenticity obedience.
— Telling God’s story in evangelism.
— Making disciples of all nations in missions.
— Starting churches where we are not, through church-planting movements.
I wish I had space to spell them out here and I will do that if elected president. My track record in these areas and a concise plan of action for pastors and churches will be posted soon on my website, www.averywillis.com.
Compiled by Baptist Press assistant editor Mark Kelly.