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Draper amplifies concerns on baptisms, young leaders in SBC

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–LifeWay President James T. Draper Jr. had no idea what would unfold from the 2004 Southern Baptist Convention when he expressed two concerns he had regarding the denomination. It has turned out to be a pleasant surprise.

In his report to SBC messengers, he said he was concerned about the fourth consecutive year of decline in baptisms and the lack of involvement by younger ministers within the SBC.

Over the succeeding months Draper released a series of columns that have come to be known as the “Frog Columns.” The first one, “Is the SBC the Frog in the Kettle?” restated the concerns from his convention address. Next came “The Frog May be in the Kettle, but It’s Not Cooked Yet.” In it Draper urged emerging leaders not to wait for opportunities within the denomination to become available but to be proactive in finding ways to contribute. Finally, “The Need for Both Frogs and Tadpoles” is Draper’s challenge to both veteran and emerging leaders to develop mutual trust.

Response to the three columns was overwhelmingly positive and hundreds expressed an interest in “being a part of the solution,” as one pastor wrote. There has been an ongoing dialogue between Draper and those who responded (see www.lifeway.com/emergingleaders). He will meet this spring with emerging leaders from across the country to further discuss ways to increase baptisms — an indication of effective evangelism — and to better involve them in the denomination.

The January/February 2005 issue of Facts & Trends, a publication of LifeWay Christian Resources, asked Draper to elaborate on why he’s drawn attention to these two issues and why they are important to the future of the denomination.

F&T: Why do you feel these two issues are directly related and why do you believe they are significant to address at this time?

JD: They are actually issues we as a denomination should have addressed years ago. On the first issue, decline in baptisms, I feel this shows a lack of focus on evangelism. Let’s go all the way back to the beginning of the Southern Baptist Convention 150-plus years ago. Baptists came together then for the express purpose of evangelism and missions. Those things are in our DNA, but unfortunately we as a denomination and as churches have strayed somewhat from that foundation, often focusing on a lot of things that have nothing to do with either of those. Baptism follows evangelism. I’ve become concerned as I’ve traveled around the country that baptism is not being emphasized. The reason is rooted in not wanting to offend or embarrass someone. Baptism is a public recognition of our commitment to Christ who died publicly for our sins. Baptism should inspire us to more faithfully serve Him. We need to keep focusing on how well we are penetrating our communities. How are we helping to alleviate crime and reduce poverty? How are we helping to improve literacy? These things become the outgrowth of witnessing, not something we do instead of witness.

Now here is why I believe it is important to connect evangelism — the heartbeat of Southern Baptists — with this generation of emerging leaders. This is the most visionary generation I’ve seen. My generation dreamed of a country club membership in a county seat town while serving at First Baptist Church. This generation doesn’t even think like that. They don’t even necessarily want to go to an established church. They are just as likely to go start a church somewhere. This is a powerful combination: their passion for evangelism and the willingness to go anywhere. We’ve got to find a place at the table for that in the SBC.

F&T: Do you believe there is a place for emerging leaders in the SBC at this time?

JD: I believe so. We can do a lot better sharing leadership opportunities. Look at the opportunities our seminaries are offering by giving credit for going overseas to work as missionaries. There are other opportunities through our mission boards with partnership missions. Associations maintain a number of ministry opportunities that need local church support. Throughout our SBC there are many areas of ministry opportunities and we need to maximize our energies. I’ll always be convinced that we can do more together than we can do individually.

There definitely is a mutual need. We older folks have got to pull a chair up to the table for the younger ones. The enthusiasm and passion of the younger people is needed in any setting whether it is the association, the state convention or the SBC. At the same time, the younger leaders need to learn from the experience of those who have gone before. My dad used to quote from a poem about an old bridge builder who came to a span and built a bridge. Someone asked him, ‘Old man, why are you building this bridge? You’ve already crossed this way and you won’t be returning.’ He responded, ‘There is a young man who comes behind and this chasm may be a pitfall for him. I’m building this bridge for him.’ That’s the kind of the mutual need we have of each other. The younger generation needs the prayer and guidance of the older generation and the older generation needs to have the fervor and passion that used to characterize their lives.

F&T: So are you saying there should be more emerging leaders in positions of status?

JD: Not necessarily. These emerging leaders see life in terms of ministry more than they do status. And that is why if we allow this whole emerging leaders’ movement to evolve into, “How can I have more status in the convention?” then we’ve done them a disservice.

F&T: So how do they contribute? How do they influence the future direction of the SBC?

JD: We need to focus on shared service and ministry. How many of today’s world leaders got to be a certain age and then decided they wanted to be powerful? Everybody who is a leader has paid the price to be a leader. They did the little jobs well and as they did they were given additional opportunities. Emerging leaders can start right where they are.

At the same time, we’ve got to recognize the contribution emerging leaders can make. We need to recognize their servant attitude and move them quickly to the table. Let’s all be willing to serve, but let’s also all be willing to sit down together at the table and tackle the challenges of reaching people with the gospel.

F&T: Do you see organizations like the associations and state conventions as obsolete?

JD: I certainly believe new wine needs to go into new wineskins. But, it goes back to what I said earlier. We are most effective when we work together. Christ did not create his church to operate in a vacuum. The association and the state convention need younger and older leaders who feel that way. Other churches need them. There are a lot of these younger leaders who have great ideas that need to be shared with others. Associations and state conventions offer available networks through which that energy can flow. The path to Kingdom growth passes through the local church.

F&T: But many times the methodologies of emerging leaders are so different than those used by their predecessors. Do you really believe there would be acceptance?

JD: I like the ballads of the ‘50s rather than the rock sound of today, but it doesn’t make the music I like any better or worse than what younger people like. They’re simply different. We are too hung up today on worship styles, on evangelism methods. We’ve got to get beyond that and look at the fruit the church is producing. Are people coming to Christ? Are lives being changed? Are the evangelized becoming evangelists?

Think of the Tootsie Roll. It has been around for 107 years and the recipe has varied little. However, the wrapper it comes in has changed several times over the years. That’s how the church must be. If the message ceases to be Jesus Christ and Him crucified, or if the object of our worship becomes the musical performers or the preacher, then we’ve got problems.

We’ve got to come to the point where we celebrate diversity. We don’t want diversity in the message, but we want it — we need it — in the methods. Look at God’s creation. Each of us is so different from everyone else and everything in our world is so different. Why then would we think God expected all churches to be the same? That’s contrary to God’s nature. There are a lot of folks out there doing it a lot differently than I’ve done it, but that’s OK. Again look at the fruit. If it glorifies God then let’s celebrate it. We need to affirm the innovation many of the emerging leaders are applying to reach this generation.

F&T: Do you sense there is a disconnect with younger Southern Baptists from their denominational heritage?

JD: I think there is a frustration on the part of emerging leaders because they see the denomination as being against everything and everybody, even each other. They are effective in their ministries and see the denomination as not being able to contribute because of the politics. I understand their concern in this area. We as a denomination have got to get beyond the Bible wars of 25 years ago and do something with what’s been gained. That’s why I say we must refocus on evangelism. Look at our history and that’s the common thread. That’s why we were founded, the reason the Cooperative Program was established, the reason for fighting for biblical integrity and what we need to be doing. That is what the emerging leaders are focusing on. I believe if they will involve themselves in the denominational process it can help us get on the right track.

I don’t know of a Great Awakening experience that ever started with high-profile leaders. They all started with young people, students, in prayer meetings. Anything we can do to magnify the role of young people is important.

F&T: What’s next?

JD: Listening. That’s what we are doing right now, listening to what emerging leaders — men and women — have to say. Initially, the hundreds of people who responded to the first “Frog” column echoed my concerns. By the time the last column came out I had hundreds who wanted to be a part of the solution, part of getting our denomination back to its founding focus: evangelism and missions.

I’ll be meeting with emerging leaders this spring for face-to-face dialogue. We’re working toward doing something at the SBC here in Nashville in June. I certainly don’t claim to have all the answers, but I do believe with the energy and enthusiasm out there among our emerging, as well as older, leaders for bringing this change about, we can keep the ball rolling.
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