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FIRST-PERSON: Reflections from a younger leader

ALPHARETTA, Ga. (BP)–Lots of people have been thinking, speaking and blogging about the whole “young leader thing.” I’ve done my fair share — although speaking for young leaders is probably not a wise long-term strategy for a guy just 10 months away from turning 40.

Some have advocated convention change in how we affirm diverse and biblically sound strategies and how we do missional ministry together. Many have rightfully said that it is time for Southern Baptists to accept the fact that many of our best and brightest don’t wear suits, don’t use a hymnal, and have different methodologies than most of our existing churches. But the Lord also has spoken to my heart about how I, as a contemporary church pastor, need to change and learn as well.

In the foreword to my recent book (“Perimeters of Light: Biblical Boundaries for the Emerging Church” with Elmer Towns), Paige Patterson calls me a “son of the contemporary church.” He’s right. I’ve never planted or served as pastor of a church that was not contemporary, and God continues to place me in settings where that is our chosen ministry approach.

But, in all this talk about change, it is important to have some discernment as many young (and not so young) SBC leaders plant or transition to contemporary models. I am not talking about preaching against innovation or “smarmy” comments about worship bands. That is hurting our convention and squelching the conversation. But, I have learned along the way that:

— Theology matters and can’t be assumed.

Unlike most SBC pastors, I wasn’t raised or redeemed in a Baptist church. I was raised nominally Catholic and came to Christ in a denomination that drifted away from the Gospel. All this talk about “broadening the tent” does not appeal to me. Been there, done that, seen the compromise that follows. If young leaders are not serious about theology, preaching and cooperation, then this denomination is not the place for them. As I wrote in SBC Life (Feb. 2003), doctrine matters to missions — and it matters when we seek to be “missional” as well. I’ve learned that we need to constantly talk, think and learn better theology.

— Preaching is more than retelling biblical principles.

I’ve preached a lot of sermons that were more about my opinions than God’s Word. Sure, they were based on biblical principles (“love your wife,” “don’t worry,” “work hard”) but not grounded in the biblical story of redemption. Then, Donna (my wife) told me, that after all our years together, she felt that she did not know the Bible well. As her pastor, I had taught her how to be a godly person, but not how to understand our God revealed in the Bible.

The need for biblical preaching has never been more urgent. Biblical preaching is more than common sense truth with biblical proofs taken out of context. Instead, it is letting the agenda and shape of Scripture determine the agenda and shape of the message. I’ve learned that I have not taken it seriously enough — and I think I am not alone.

— Making your church relevant does not mean making it easy.

No question — most of our churches need to be more relevant to their communities and their cultures. According to a recent Leavell Center/New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary study, 89 percent of our churches are not experiencing healthy evangelistic growth. Part of the reason is that they have become marginalized from their communities.

Yet, in a noble desire to reach more people, too many innovative leaders (like me) tried too hard to make things relevant. We tried too hard to give them what they wanted. Missiologist/urban pastor Tim Keller rightly cautions, “Contexualization is not ‘giving people what they want’ but rather it is giving God’s answers (which people may not want!) to questions they are asking and in forms that they can comprehend.” I’ve learned that I need to remember that relevance only matters if it reveals the one true Christ and His Gospel.

— Most of us are too thin-skinned for real discussion.

I can’t say I have really mastered this one, but a robust theological discussion takes a thick skin. Denominations that care about doctrine must also care about practice. Theology determines methodology and if we want to change practice, it is important to have a theological basis to do so. That requires being willing to critique yourself honestly and to listen to others and their critiques. I’ve learned that sometimes I confused healthy theological correction with arguments over preferences … and took the concerns more personally than I should. I think a lot of disconnected SBC young leaders might have done the same.

The denomination where I came to faith doesn’t worry about practice, but they don’t worry much about theology or morals anymore, either. I’m glad these things matter — and I am glad we are having the conversation. I’ll take the Southern Baptist Convention any day — and work through the conversation with more traditional leaders to figure out what a biblically faithful church looks like in emerging culture.
Ed Stetzer serves as director of research at the North American Mission Board. A missiologist, he is the author of several articles and books on missional ministry.

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