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Will Southern Baptists keep their eyes on the ball?

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Think about how many sports involve a ball. There’s baseball, golf, football, soccer, basketball, volleyball, rugby and cricket, just to name a few. These sports are so completely different, but the one thing they have in common is that if you don’t keep your eye on the ball, you’re not going to be very successful. It could also be painful!

I believe that is what Paul was telling Timothy through his two letters. In 2 Timothy, Paul flatly stated that “All Scripture is inspired by God” and explained its worth to “the man of God.” With deep seriousness Paul then charged Timothy to “proclaim the message.” He was telling Timothy to keep his eye on the ball.

This is my last commentary as president of LifeWay Christian Resources. I am excited that my successor, Thom Rainer, will author this column in the future. He is a great communicator and will be a tremendous blessing to you in the years ahead. Although I will still be involved in ministry –- one cannot retire from God’s service –- I will no longer have the opportunity to speak to the Southern Baptist Convention from a position of formal leadership. In other words, this is my farewell charge to a convention I love dearly and have seen do wonderful work for God’s Kingdom over my 55 years of ministry. It is also a convention that needs to keep its eye on the ball if we are going to be a tool in the hand of the Master for years to come.

We must preach the exclusivity and sufficiency of Jesus Christ. This is the ball that we’ve got to knock out of the park every time. I believe Southern Baptists preach this, and this is why I believe that God continues to bless us despite our shortcomings and weaknesses. We fought for biblical inerrancy and for the message of Jesus as revealed in Scripture. We must march boldly into a spiritually hungry world proclaiming Jesus while maintaining His attitude described by Paul in Philippians 2:5-11.

My heart and soul “amens” John Piper’s statement in his book, “Brothers, We are Not Professionals.” It is my plea to us all as well: “This is a plea for passion in the pulpit, passion in prayer, passion in conversation. It is not a plea for thin whipped-up emotionalism.” In other words, preach Christ crucified!

There are at least two tensions currently pulling on Southern Baptists.

First, the desire to be overly seeker-sensitive is pulling us away from proclaiming the hard truth of the Gospel. The Gospel is an offense! A righteous man was nailed to a cross. There was a beating involved, and blood shed. We must not water that down. We cannot compromise the reality of the Gospel under the guise of relevancy. Relevancy is earned when churches –- Christians –- acting as the hands of Christ, touch the wounded hearts and souls of those around them. When Christians act like Jesus, bear the burdens of others like Jesus, suffer with others like Jesus, then we will be more effective in verbally sharing the pointed truths of the Gospel with them like Jesus. What’s more, the lost will drink in the message like a thirsty man wandering in a desert drinks in cool, clean water.

A second tension we face is what I spoke of at the Southern Baptist Convention last June. We are in danger of choking the life out of the future of the SBC by dabbling in peripheral matters and neglecting the heart of our convention, which have always been missions, evangelism and cooperation. The added challenge here is to incorporate younger Southern Baptists into the leadership of our convention.

I spent a lot of time the past two years calling for the inclusion of younger leaders, but also for younger leaders to engage the convention and not back away. I have met many of these men and women, and I am impressed. They are accepting the challenge. They want to earn the right of relevancy and to partner in the ministry of the SBC. They want to push to the spiritually hard places and they are willing to suffer hardships to press into those places to share the Gospel among individuals in the world’s out-of-the way places or in their own neighborhoods.

Some across the convention point to the complainers among the younger leaders and despise the youth of the entire group. As a result we often get side-tracked into nonessential matters. This, in turn, can create larger barriers for our work together. We may become guilty of sacrificing cooperation with the sword of inflexibility. All the while the white fields waiting to be harvested stand decaying.

This is not new rhetoric; several of us entity leaders have been saying this stuff for years. It all sounds good when stated, but there is a disconnect between what is said and what is done. We should all -– not just the SBC’s leadership –- set an example of devotion to Scripture, personal integrity and cooperation.

A place to begin is on our knees. It is tough to criticize those for whom we pray. How my heart aches at the research that reveals we spend less than seven minutes a day in prayer. Brothers and sisters, we cannot do God’s work in our way. The only way to know and do the will of God is to fall on our face before Him, asking for His direction and responding in obedience. We must pray more purposefully and more passionately.

Closely related is humility. Individuals motivated by personal agendas reek of arrogance. God hates arrogance. I am encouraged because I believe there is a growing desire for humility in the hearts of God’s people. I believe there is a movement beginning to take place where Christians are dissatisfied with the comfortable, materialistic, ineffective Christianity they’ve been living and are truly seeking God. My heart’s desire is that humility will consume the church and consume our convention.

Morris Chapman said four years ago that the Southern Baptist Convention stands at a crossroads, that we can be a convention that reaches the ends of the earth with the Gospel or one that relegates itself to being an inconsequential regional convention. The choice is ours. Time is slipping by, and I believe God has allowed the SBC to linger a bit longer at that crossroads.

I will miss being as actively involved in SBC leadership as I have been in the past — I love you all! We face some tough individual and corporate challenges, but I am incredibly optimistic about what God is going to do through Southern Baptists in the years ahead, if we will keep our eye on the ball.
Draper’s last day as president of LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention is Jan. 31. This is his last column as LifeWay president.

    About the Author

  • James T. Draper Jr.