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FIRST-PERSON: Making evangelism good news again

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Well, it’s convention time again. For 22 years I have made the annual pilgrimage.

I remember my first Southern Baptist Convention. I drove from my country church in Texas all the way to Kansas City. I could not have been more excited if I were going to the Super Bowl! The denomination that had given me Jesus was turning back to the Word.

My heroes were preaching. The atmosphere was electric. The faces of young leaders were everywhere. Bonds of friendship and accountability were formed in my life that still stand strong. Two themes resonated across that arena and still resonate in my heart today: Southern Baptists believe all of God’s Word and Southern Baptists will do whatever it takes to reach all of God’s world.

As we gather in Nashville again this year, are we satisfied with our progress in those two areas? With our strong seminaries and theologically sound leaders, we are in great shape on the Word, but not doing so well with the world. And as many in the SBC are finally discussing, the next generation of leaders is wondering if we really are serious about reaching the world at all, or just about doing things our way.

I spoke recently at a gathering in Nashville and there was no shortage of young leaders. But as I listened to two of the speakers, I was terrified by some of the theology I was hearing. It was worse than much of what I heard from liberal SBC professors in the 1970s and 80s.

During an impromptu mini-debate with one of the speakers, I pressed him to make a clear statement that the Scriptures were true. He would not. I told him and the audience that I did not believe this generation of leaders really wanted to deconstruct the Gospel and deny the truth of the Bible. I said that I believed they wanted to be free to re-think how we do church and evangelism in a changing culture.

After the session, I was swarmed by young leaders affirming that they still believed God’s Word and were glad I had spoken up. Several were Southern Baptists, and what they said to me broke my heart. They simply felt there was no place for them in our Convention anymore — that anyone who didn’t fit the mold of a certain kind of leader leading a certain kind of church just wasn’t welcome.

Two things struck me about that experience. First, how ironic that we won the battle for the Bible and are in danger of pushing the next generation into the hands of leaders who don’t believe it! Second, I believe those young leaders were wrong and I told them so. I told them that I believed the great majority of Southern Baptists were completely open to them, even thrilled that God is filling a new generation with new ideas to take the Good News to everyone. Was I right?

I hope so. I believe so. Because I believe in you — Southern Baptists — the most wonderful Good News people in the world. You gave me Jesus in a way that was contemporary to the youth culture of the 70s. I have no doubt that you will do it again for this generation.

But it is time to speak up — and to say clearly to the next generation that the days of bashing people over issues of methodology are over and that we are ready to fully engage all those who believe God’s Word in a partnership of evangelism worthy of our very lives.

Come on Southern Baptists, let’s make evangelism good news again.
John Avant is the vice-president for evangelization at the North American Mission Board.

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  • John Avant