EDITOR’S NOTE: Baptist Press invited the four announced candidates for SBC president to take part in an email interview based on a set of common questions, allowing each to speak directly to Southern Baptists about key issues being discussed leading up the annual meeting in Orlando. The following is the fourth article in the four-part series.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Southern Baptists must escape a culture of materialism and personal love of money as well as reprioritize Cooperative Program funds so more goes to the unreached overseas and in North America, according to Bryant Wright, pastor of Johnson Ferry Baptist Church in Marietta, Ga.
Wright is one of four announced candidates for Southern Baptist Convention president.
He is a trustee of GuideStone Financial Resources, served as chairman of the Committee on Committees in 2003 and was president of the 2006 Pastors’ Conference that was held in Greensboro, N.C. Wright holds a master of divinity degree from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., and a bachelor of arts in English from the University of South Carolina. After earning his M.Div., he was minister to single adults at Second Baptist Church in Houston before becoming founding pastor of Johnson Ferry Baptist Church in December 1981. In 2009, the church averaged weekly worship attendance of 4,383 among its resident membership of 6,121, and witnessed 459 baptisms. More than 1,500 teenagers and adults went on 70 mission trips to 27 nations around the world last year, and 85 units (individuals or families) of Johnson Ferry members or former members serve in full-time ministry on the mission field either domestically or internationally.
Individuals within the churches must return to Christ as their first love, Wright said in naming the most critical need in the Southern Baptist Convention. The lack of tithing reveals the idolatries of materialism and hedonism among evangelicals, he said, adding that the epidemic of sexual immorality has weakened the church.
Wright proposes greater direct missions involvement to galvanize individuals and churches, and advocates that state conventions “keep less in the state and send more dollars to the IMB and to other areas of the country where lostness is so prevalent.”
He supports the work of the Great Commission Resurgence Task Force, but sees their efforts as a first step.
“As a former church planter here at Johnson Ferry,” he wrote to Baptist Press, “I am encouraged that the Task Force sees the importance of church planting in the areas of greatest need in the United States — particularly our pioneer states and our large cities. Also, I agree with the Task Force that every church should be a ‘missional center.'” He would challenge local churches to participate on a mission trip as well as focusing on the immediate community as their mission field.
Wright also expressed his desire that leaders be appointed who have a passion for Christ, commitment to the Word and a vision for seeing the Great Commission fulfilled.
“I would seek to nominate folks that represent a broad spectrum of SBC life: pastors, church staff, laypeople, mainline states, pioneer states, larger churches, smaller churches, seasoned veterans and young leaders,” he said.
He also noted his drive for connecting with young leaders.
“Young leaders, like all people, are motivated by vision,” Wright said.
“Jesus gives us the right one: Go to all nations and make disciples. That means getting real serious with our time, talents and resources to fulfill this vision. Younger leaders are willing to make a radical commitment to Christ’s vision, and the SBC needs their passion for Christ and their fresh perspective on our world.”
The full text of Wright’s replies follows:
BP: What is the most critical issue facing the SBC? What is your plan to address it?
WRIGHT: First of all, individuals within our churches returning to Christ as their first love. Personal repentance that returns to Christ as our first and preeminent priority is the greatest need. The idolatries of materialism and hedonism are such a part of the American church that they have made us more like the culture than being a transforming power within the culture. When evangelical Christians in America average just over 2% of their income given to the Lord’s work, it’s obvious that “professing Christians” love money more than Jesus. With the epidemic of sexual immorality from lifestyles to things like internet porn infecting the lives of so many with spiritual poison, it is little wonder that the church is so spiritually weak in impacting our world for Jesus Christ. Returning to Christ as our first love is most important.
From the standpoint of our mission, it is time for our local churches to get serious about reaching our world for Christ both locally and globally. The local church needs to reprioritize reaching its local mission field and get refocused globally through praying, giving, going, and partnering in missions where the needs are greatest.
I’ve addressed the need for state conventions to keep less in the state and send more dollars to the IMB and to other areas of the country where lostness is so prevalent. I have a hunch that the average man or woman in the pew has no idea that the IMB currently receives only about 17 percent of Cooperative Program dollars, or that many states keep more than 60 percent of receipts at home. There needs to be a radical reprioritization of CP funds to where the majority of funds go to missions to the unreached in the uttermost parts and the largely unreached areas of North America. We have it backwards in prioritizing CP funds.
Another area of importance to me is seeing every church participate in sending its pastor and members on a mission trip each year. At Johnson Ferry, I can’t overstate the impact of a student mission trip over spring break in the early 90s that galvanized our missions area and ultimately our church as a whole. What started with a small group of teenagers going on a mission trip in the early 90s became a God thing. In 2009, more than 1,500 adults and teenagers went on 70 mission trips to 27 nations to share the Good News of Christ. Because of people going on short-term trips, we currently have 85 units (individuals or families) of Johnson Ferry members serving in full-time ministry on the mission field or in local churches. Every church can send a group on at least one mission trip. They may have to join with other churches in their association, but it can be done.
BP: Appointing leaders is a critical function for the SBC president. How would you name leaders to committees and other positions of responsibility?
WRIGHT: My primary concern would be that all committee members and leaders would have a passion for Jesus, a commitment to the trustworthiness of God’s Word, and a vision for seeing the Great Commission fulfilled. Because our convention represents churches of all sizes from all over the country, I would seek to nominate folks that represent a broad spectrum of SBC life: pastors, church staff, laypeople, mainline states, pioneer states, larger churches, smaller churches, seasoned veterans and young leaders.
I have a great desire to connect with the young leaders in our convention. Young leaders, like all people, are motivated by vision. Jesus gives us the right one: Go to all nations and make disciples. That means getting real serious with our time, talents and resources to fulfill this vision. Younger leaders are willing to make a radical commitment to Christ’s vision, and the SBC needs their passion for Christ and their fresh perspective on our world.
BP: Do you support or oppose the GCRTF? Why?
WRIGHT: I’m so thankful for Johnny Hunt’s leadership in forming the Great Commission Resurgence Task Force to help our denomination reprioritize reaching the world for Christ. I support the Task Force’s recommendations in that I firmly believe we’ve got to get more people out on the mission field in order to fulfill Jesus’ Great Commission. The recommendations of the Task Force are a hugely important first step, but it is only a beginning. The selection of the men to lead the IMB and NAMB are also hugely important.
As a former church planter here at Johnson Ferry, I am encouraged that the Task Force sees the importance of church planting in the areas of greatest need in the United States — particularly our pioneer states and our large cities. Also, I agree with the Task Force that every church should be a “missional center.” My prayer is that every local church will consider going on a mission trip in the coming year, as well as focusing on their local community as a mission field.
BP: What is your position about the issues relating to the Cooperative Program and Great Commission Giving?
WRIGHT: Johnson Ferry has established itself as a longtime strong supporter of the denomination’s primary funding channel. From the very beginning, when we were a brand new, “church plant”, Johnson Ferry began to give 10 percent of church receipts to the CP, as well as other mission endeavors. I led our church in this path because I have been so thankful for the SBC heritage I have been privileged to be a part of, and I believed that even a very small church like ours needed to partner with other congregations in reaching the world for Jesus Christ. However, our concern and dismay over the large amount of CP dollars that stayed in our mainline state led us to make a change. In 1997 the congregation began designating 3 percent of its 10 percent to SBC missions, specifically to the IMB through the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering, with the remaining 7 percent going to the Cooperative Program through the Georgia Baptist Convention. In December 2003, the CP figure was further reduced to 5 percent being sent through the state, while the IMB portion was increased to 5 percent. We did this dramatic shift in giving for one reason -– to get more resources to the parts of our world with the greatest need. It became a matter of stewardship of the Lord’s dollars. We would prefer that the full 10 percent we give to Southern Baptist mission causes go through the CP, but until the formulas change dramatically and a majority of the dollars go to missions reaching the parts of our country and world that have little gospel witness and a precious few number of churches, Johnson Ferry will keep giving directly to SBC mission causes like we’ve done with the IMB and our local association that has assisted us with so many church plants through the years.
I should note that last year the church reported that it gave 8 percent (down from the previous year’s 11 percent due to the sluggish economy) to all SBC mission causes, with a further redistribution of 3.5 percent to the GBC, 3.5 percent to the IMB, and 1 percent to our association. This was a temporary reduction due to the economy and budget constraints at Johnson Ferry, and our leaders are committed to raising the levels back to our normal 11 percent giving to CP and Lottie Moon and other SBC mission causes as soon as possible.
BP: What will Southern Baptists be deciding with their vote for SBC president?
WRIGHT: Southern Baptists will be praying for God’s man to lead our convention in this crucial hour. All the candidates for SBC president are fine men. They all have impressive credentials and many years of faithful service to our Lord through their local churches and the convention. We all share a desire to see the Great Commission fulfilled.
Since I am calling for a radical reprioritization of our missions giving over the next few years, Southern Baptists will have to decide if they feel the hour is urgent for us to go in that direction. My passion is to see Southern Baptists take the lead in taking the Gospel to the parts of our country and world with the greatest need for Jesus and where there is little or no witness.
The honest truth is that our CP missions program keeps too many dollars in areas that already have access to the Gospel. Think of it this way: every dollar that stays in parts of our country where there is a strong witness for Christ is one less dollar that goes to the most unreached parts of our world.
Our church has been privileged to serve side by side with our SBC missionaries in the parts of the world with the hardest soil and where the soil is most receptive. Their cry to us has been, “the work is so overwhelming … we need more help.” The way we give is one way to get more resources to them. But I must also say that I am passionate about seeing every local church catch a vision for engaging in missions. When local churches pray, give, go, and partner with workers in the field, we can see the Gospel penetrate the world in ways we’ve only dreamed of.
BP: What do you want Southern Baptists to know about you?
WRIGHT: Growing up in Atlanta, it was my great blessing to be raised by godly Christian parents. When I was 7, I made a profession of faith and was baptized by my grandfather, a Southern Baptist minister. Looking back on that experience, however, I cannot say with certainty that was when I became a Christian. During my high school years, I would often find myself using God — praying to Him only before a big test or game or date. Prior to my senior year in high school, I was invited to attend summer camp at a YoungLife camp in Colorado. One night the speaker focused on the details of what Christ went through on the cross and gave a clear call to follow Christ. I certainly answered that call that night. I felt I needed to settle who was going to be the boss of my life – God or me. There was no emotion in the decision, which was disappointing. It was simply a resolve to follow Jesus every day of my life. I found that when I returned home, I began reading my Bible on my own for the first time. I had a hunger for God’s Word that grew daily. I’ve been sure of my salvation since that time.
After high school, I followed a family tradition and went to the University of South Carolina. It was there I met Anne Hoskins, a lovely Columbia honey. We soon fell in love and were married. It was during those days at Carolina that I had my first experience with preaching. I was called to start a YoungLife club at a local high school. I would tell my buddies that I was going there each week to give a “talk about Jesus,” but in reality, I was really preaching the Gospel! What a joy it was to share the Good News with young people searching for truth. I also had the privilege of serving on the staff of First Baptist Church, Columbia, S.C., as a summer youth intern under Edwin Young. What a rich experience! But I was not yet called to full-time vocational ministry.
After graduating from South Carolina in 1974 with a Bachelor of Arts in English, I went into sales with the Puritan Chemical Company. I was looking forward to following in my father’s footsteps as a Christian businessman. I sure enjoyed those days in the business world. Yet, even though it was rewarding financially, I began to sense a call into full-time vocational ministry. I eventually left sales to pursue a Master of Divinity from Southern Baptist Seminary, and graduated in 1979. We then moved to Houston, Texas, where I began to serve at Second Baptist Houston as their first Singles Minister.
In December 1981, I was called from Second Baptist to be the founding Pastor of Johnson Ferry Baptist Church in Marietta, Georgia, where 20 families had begun meeting in a doctor’s office the previous year. It’s been my privilege to be the Senior Pastor for this body of believers for 28 and 1/2 years. I know what it’s like to be the only staff member of a small church with no building and what it’s like to pastor a medium-sized church, and a larger, multi-staff church. It has been an unbelievable joy to watch our church grow from a small church plant to the church we are today. God has done it. He’s simply allowed us to be a part of what He is doing at Johnson Ferry.
In addition to pastoring Johnson Ferry, the Lord led me to found and chair Right From The Heart Ministries -– a multi-media ministry using secular and Christian radio, television, print media and the internet to challenge, inspire and encourage people to get to know God through Jesus Christ in this hard-charging world in which we live.
In 2006, it was my privilege to serve as president of the Southern Baptist Convention Pastors’ Conference in Greensboro, N.C. I sure enjoyed shaping the program for the conference and heard so much positive feedback about the different styles of worship and the break-out sessions. I have also enjoyed serving on a variety of boards for both our state convention and the SBC and am presently on the Board of Trustees of GuideStone and Truett-McConnell College.
Writing is a joy and it has been meaningful to author four books: One Minute of Your Time, Another Minute of Your Time, and One Minute of Your Day (devotionals) and Seeds of Turmoil, a Thomas Nelson publication to be available in August this year, detailing the biblical roots of the Middle East conflict.
Ultimately, my passion is preaching the Word at Johnson Ferry and providing leadership to this local body of believers. I love pastoring the fine people at our church. I am inspired by their love for Jesus and their desire to be more and more like Him every day.
My wife Anne and I have been married for almost 36 years, and we have three grown sons, two daughters-in-law and three grandchildren.
Compiled by Baptist Press Editor Will Hall.