EDITOR’S NOTE: The following interview of Bryant Wright, one of the three SBC presidential candidates, was published in the April 8 edition of The Christian Index.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–J. Gerald Harris, editor of The Christian Index (www.christianindex.org), newsjournal of the Georgia Baptist Convention, conducted the following interview with Bryant Wright, pastor of Johnson Ferry Baptist Church in Marietta, Ga., and one of three announced candidates for president of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Index: Please give our readers a synopsis of your salvation experience.
Wright: I was blessed to grow up in a Christian home with great Christian parents. But it wasn’t until I was heading into my senior year of high school that I became sure of my salvation. I went to a Young Life ranch in Colorado, where one night in hearing the details of what Jesus went through on the cross for me, I became very convicted.
Basically, I realized that night that I was just using God rather than following Him. I believed in my mind but didn’t understand a personal relationship with God through Christ. So at that point, I gave my whole heart and life to Christ.
Index: Please share also your call to the Gospel ministry.
Wright: I was a bit slow to have a call to ministry. I wanted to follow the example of my dad in being a Christian businessman, so I worked with Puritan Chemical Company in their Augusta office for 2.5 years after college. While the job was going great, I began to battle a call to leave business and go into ministry.
One of the men that helped me with the decision was Jim Griffith (former executive director of the Georgia Baptist Convention), when he was pastoring in Athens.
About once a month, I would stop in to see him when I was working in Athens. Finally, after a few months he said, “Bryant, I’m going to pray that if you are to stay in business, God will give you a peace about it. Or if the Lord is calling you into ministry, He’ll make you so miserable you can’t do anything else.”
He started praying, and boy was that prayer answered! So we (Anne and I) packed up our worldly belongings and headed to Southern Seminary.
It was tough in those days. My first teacher asked me if I thought you had to believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus to be a Christian. I looked at him stunned and said, “Yes.” He said, “After you’ve been here for six months to a year, you’ll get over that.” Thankfully I never did.
Index: What have been the most fulfilling experiences in your pastorate at Johnson Ferry?
Wright: Nothing has been more fulfilling than preaching and teaching the Word of God. Then seeing people not only coming to Christ but really growing in their faith as disciples of Jesus — seeing lives come alive in the Lord.
As part of that, to see what God has done in missions at Johnson Ferry. From the beginning, we have given heavily to missions both in our ministry budget and in all of our capital campaign programs.
In 2009, over 1,500 teenagers and adults went on 70 mission trips to 27 nations around the world. We’re so committed to getting people out there that we pay 50 percent of their costs. We now have 85 units (individuals or families) of Johnson Ferry members or former members serving in full-time ministry on the mission field either domestically or internationally.
Index: What have been your greatest challenges at JFBC?
Wright: Personally, to walk with the Lord day by day — to keep Christ first. One of the ironies of full-time vocational ministry is that we can get so busy in well-doing that we can neglect our relationship with the Lord.
Secondly, keeping my wife and family before the ministry of the church — not before Jesus, but before church ministry.
The Johnson Ferry local mission field is an affluent area. Materialism and worldly success are the big idols. The people have a lot of distractions that compete with being a fully devoted follower of Jesus.
Evangelical Christians give an average of just over 2 percent to the Lord’s work. Nothing gives a more vivid picture of how those who profess Christ in America love money and materialism far more than Jesus.
Index: What prompted you to first consider making yourself available to serve the SBC as president?
Wright: It sure wasn’t on my radar, but I was asked by a couple of pastors in different parts of the country in the same week at the end of 2009 to pray about it. Reluctantly, I agreed to pray about it, though I would have preferred not to. God gave a peace about being nominated. The call to be willing to serve is very clear and strong whether or not I’m elected.
Index: What do you feel qualifies you to be the SBC president?
Wright: In many ways, I’m not. I haven’t been very politically involved in denominational roles. We’ve given heavily to support denominational missions, but I have really focused on pastoring Johnson Ferry.
I thoroughly enjoyed leading the Pastors’ Conference in 2006 in Greensboro, N.C., for there was freedom to set the program as God led. I also served as chairman of the Committee on Committees when Jack Graham was SBC president. But I have turned down other opportunities to serve in more active denominational roles in the past to focus on Johnson Ferry.
I hope what God has done in missions at Johnson Ferry can be a positive example for churches all over our convention to become passionate about reaching our world for Christ through going, giving and partnering in missions.
Index: You have served on staff with Ed Young at Second Baptist in Houston. What is your relationship with him and what has he meant to you in the course of your ministry?
Wright: Edwin came to pastor First Baptist Church in Columbia, S.C., when I was a student at Carolina. I was going through a time where I had come to Christ and grown tremendously in parachurch ministries, and I was a bit cynical about the local church having an impact for Christ. Yet when I saw the impact of a God–called man being used by the Lord to bring spiritual life and vitality to what had been a pretty dead church, it really got me excited about church again.
He asked me to serve as a youth intern one summer. What a great experience! Then after completing seminary, he asked me to join the staff at Second Baptist in Houston, Texas, as their first singles minister. I served there 2.5 years before becoming the first pastor of a new church plant called Johnson Ferry Mission.
Index: Your willingness to serve the SBC as president is probably born out of a vision for our convention. What would you like to accomplish as the SBC Convention president?
Wright: Most of all, I would love to see people all over our convention — in the pulpits and pews of every church — return to Jesus as their first love.
I’d love to see churches of all sizes become passionate about missions — going on mission trips, giving to missions and sending more missionaries out to the field. The call to reach this world with the Gospel locally and globally is a fire in my bones.
Index: What criteria would you use for appointing the Committee on Committees?
Wright: I’d look for people who love the Lord, who are qualified to serve, who are part of churches that support our denomination’s call to reach and disciple people for Jesus Christ.
Index: The president of the SBC has considerable influence and in many cases becomes the spokesperson for the convention. How would you want to use your influence as president?
Wright: I’d hope most of all to challenge Christians to renew their love for Jesus. I’d hope to point people who are not Christians to the Good News of Jesus Christ. I’d hope to challenge every single church to take at least one mission trip a year and pastors and staff of those churches to do the same.
I also want to urge churches to do all we can as cooperating churches to get more people on the mission field.
I’d hope people would cling to the unchanging message of the Gospel from the Word of God but be open to ever–changing methodologies in reaching our world for Jesus Christ. I’d hope people would be challenged to have a true “Kingdom vision” for Christ’s church.
Index: What are your views regarding the progress report of the GCR Task Force? [The interview was conducted prior to the GCRTF final report’s release May 3.] What role would you like to assume in the implementation of the GCRTF recommendations?
Wright: I’m so thankful for Johnny Hunt’s leadership in forming the GCRTF to help our denomination reprioritize reaching the world for Christ. Ronnie Floyd and his task force have made a great contribution to the future of our denomination. It is a crucial beginning in that direction, but it is just a beginning.
We still have miles and miles to go in implementing the recommendations of the task force and going even further in missions through the local church and our denominational missions. We’ve got to get more people out on the mission field.
Index: The Business and Financial Plan of the SBC Executive Committee prohibits SBC entities from soliciting funds from our member churches. Dr. White [Robert White, executive director of the Georgia Baptist Convention] recently stated, “It is absolutely essential that the boards of trustees of our entities exercise strict control over their entities to see that direct solicitation among our churches does not happen.” Will you cast your influence to support the Business and Financial Plan of the SBC Executive Committee? If so, how?
Wright: I look forward to learning more about it, but at this point I don’t see any reason for that to change.
Index: How will you use your role as convention president to encourage and support the work of the associations and state conventions?
Wright: Johnson Ferry has been the largest supporter of our local association, as well as a strong supporter of our state convention. I’m presently serving on the board of trustees at Truett-McConnell College and know how important it is to have distinctly Christ-centered colleges that are supported by our state conventions.
I’ve also served as a trustee at Shorter College. But in recent years, we have become greatly concerned about how much of the Cooperative Program dollars stay in state (over 60 percent), and how little actually gets to the international mission field (less than 16 percent).
I think any Southern Baptist would be greatly concerned about how small a percentage of our mission dollars actually end up going for international missions. In the end, it really comes to a matter of stewardship for the local church in how we give the Lord’s dollars to the work of missions.
There needs to be a dramatic reprioritization of the funding of CP to get more to international missions and more to national missions and more to the seminaries where men and women are being trained to lead the way in carrying out the Great Commission for Southern Baptist Christians.
The president of the SBC has no authority to reprioritize the funding of CP. The state conventions have the authority. It is my hope that the leadership of the state conventions will lead the way in this dramatic reprioritization of our mission dollars.
Then I think churches would be so much more excited about giving more of their mission dollars to CP. We are passionate about our mission dollars going to areas of the world where the need is greatest.
Index: The North American Mission Board has had its struggles in recent years. What can this agency do to become more effective in reaching our continent for Christ?
Wright: This is another area where I have much to learn, but NAMB has a hugely important role in assisting our churches in reaching North America for Christ. Finding the right leader is crucial. Reprioritizing church plants in the pioneer areas of our convention and major metropolitan areas of our nation is absolutely essential.
Index: You have had great success at starting other churches. How many churches have you started and what would be the combined attendance of JFBC and the churches you have started on a given Sunday morning? What has been your most successful church start?
Wright: It’s hard to define “successful,” for every area where a church is planted is unique. Some have more potential than others. We’ve made some mistakes along the way and yet feel we have learned a great deal in every church start. In some of the church plants we were the sole sponsor, and in some we were a co–sponsor with other Southern Baptist churches.
We’ve planted eight churches that currently average a combined 2,692 in worship attendance. We are now hosting three ethnic congregations on our campus with an average weekly worship attendance of 162. When you combine our church plants, ethnic congregations and weekly attendance at Johnson Ferry, an average of 6,735 people attend on a given Sunday morning.
In addition, we have been key partners with other churches in sponsoring 15 church plants across the United States.
Our largest church plants are Stonecreek Church in Alpharetta, Ga., (more than 1,000 in attendance) and Cedarcrest Church in Acworth, Ga. (over 700 in attendance).
Our most successful church partnership is The Journey Church in Manhattan. It has grown to four campuses and averages over 1,000 in attendance.
The Journey in Manhattan, along with Johnson Ferry and other SBC churches, has started a new congregation — South Bay Church in San Jose, Calif. South Bay has just celebrated its first anniversary and is averaging 278 people weekly.
Along with some of these original churches, we helped sponsor a second New York City church called Apostles Church NYC. Apostles now has two campuses.
Index: Two weeks ago the South Bay Church website identified themselves as “an interdenominational Christian church.” They have changed that terminology, but do they have an interdenominational mindset?
Wright: The term “interdenominational” was taken down to avoid any further misconceptions of the nature of the church. But know that South Bay Church was launched by 14 Southern Baptist churches from across the country. It both receives and gives money to its local association, as well as the California Southern Baptist Convention. Andy Wood and his team have a focused, Kingdom–minded approach to ministry that seeks to reach people and young families for Christ in the Silicon Valley who are far from the cultural and religious traditions and norms of the Bible Belt.
We have seen nothing but faithfulness to Scripture and a willingness to welcome and reach all people from all faiths and denominations with the Good News of the Gospel.
Index: We understand that Stonecreek is no longer a Southern Baptist church even though they received almost $100,000 from NAMB and GBC [Georgia Baptist Convention]. I don’t know about Cedarcrest and the Journey Church in NYC, but does JFBC seek to nurture these church starts and provide some accountability for them to be CP-contributing SBC churches as they grow and mature?
Wright: It was disappointing for the leadership of Johnson Ferry to hear that Stonecreek Church had decided to go non–denominational. Yet once a church constitutes, we cannot dictate their course of action. But as is the case with every church start, we learned things that helped us prepare for other church starts. When we decided to transition Cedarcrest Church from a campus of Johnson Ferry to a new church start, these points were included in our agreement with Cedarcrest:
— Foster and support a missions-oriented mindset and practice, as demonstrated in Johnson Ferry’s support of Cedarcrest: For each of the first 10 years, contributing at least 10 percent of the Cedarcrest annual operating budget to mission causes, with a minimum of 5 percent dedicated to Southern Baptist causes.
— Remain a cooperating Southern Baptist church for at least the first 10 years as a constituted church.
Johnson Ferry provides accountability and guidance to our key church plants like South Bay Church and The Journey. We do so through annual meetings that bring pastors and mission pastors together to hear about the fruit, effectiveness, mission opportunities and stewardship of the churches we sponsor.
In addition, I have personally taken the time to mentor the lead pastors of some of these churches, providing guidance and support through the early phases of the ministry.
A final word on church planters and the Cooperative Program: When I meet these young pastors, it is clear that they are already well-informed about the CP process.
I strongly encourage them to be mindful of the value of receiving and giving cooperatively with other SBC churches, but I also remind them that their foremost responsibility is to grow the kingdom where God has called them. They’re ultimately accountable to Christ for carrying out His mission.
Index: Since you have a conviction that state conventions should operate on 25-30 percent of the CP money they receive from member churches, do you also have a conviction about what missions and ministries the state conventions (and the GBC in particular) should eliminate?
Wright: I have not pored through the details and results of every ministry program within the GBC or other state conventions, but the measure of any organization is whether it is accomplishing its overall mission in the most effective way possible. I simply would ask the leadership of all of our entities: Is every ministry and program in line with Christ’s mandate to reach all nations and people groups? If so, are the resources that Southern Baptists give being used in a way that creates fruitfulness?
As I’ve stated before, my conviction is that at least 50 percent of CP dollars given by the local churches needs to end up on the international mission field. Obviously, this would mean a radical reprioritization of the CP funds, with fewer dollars staying in the states.
My proposal was that each state strive to keep no more than 25-30 percent. But the actual amount would be the states’ decisions, with the goal being 50 percent of their CP funds getting to the international mission field.
Index: Also, would you grant state conventions the same privilege that churches have in deciding what SBC entities and institutions they can choose to support?
Wright: State conventions already have the privilege. The president of the SBC has no authority to change that. The authority to do so lies with the local churches in the state conventions, along with the state conventions’ leadership. When Johnson Ferry has had to make dramatic budget cuts, our approach has been to give the amount of cuts needed to each ministry area and have the leadership of each ministry reprioritize their programs to work with fewer funds.
Similarly, it would be the state conventions’ decisions on what to prioritize with fewer funds. I recognize that there are great pockets of lostness in the United States, especially in our pioneer states and urban environments, so it is my hope that all of our state conventions will not only look at the lostness abroad, but prioritize their focus on the most unreached groups and areas in their states.