REVISED 10:40 a.m. Friday, May 4, 2007.
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (BP)–A record crowd listened intently as speaker after speaker recruited them for the most enviable place of ministry in the Southern Baptist Convention: an unmarked foreign grave. Focusing on missions as “the global priority of our glorious God,” pastors and church leaders were urged during the 17th annual Southern Baptist Founders Conference to make Christ known to the nations, even if that means being torched alive by an angry mob or imprisoned by a hostile government.
The Founders Conference is a national meeting of Southern Baptists who embrace the doctrinal heritage historically known as “Calvinism” or “the doctrines of grace” which was held by those who founded the Southern Baptist Convention in the mid-19th century. Conference organizers were said to be “shocked” by a record registration of nearly 600 for the July 20-23 sessions at Samford University in Birmingham, Ala.
John Piper, author and pastor of Minneapolis’ Bethlehem Baptist Church, told the conference he was on “a recruitment mission for martyrs” in light of the teaching in Revelation 6:9 that the triumphant Christ will return only after the full number of martyrs for the faith have been killed for his name.
A passion for missions is inherently a part of Reformed self-identity, Piper contended, because Calvinists believe God’s glory as displayed in his sovereign mercy is the chief value in the universe. Piper promised unspeakable persecution for those whose passion for the supremacy of God’s name propels them to lands where Christ is not named.
“In my call to missions and to completing the Great Commission, I have no rosy picture whatsoever to paint,” Piper said. “Not because the devil is on a rampage, but because God designs that we deliver the sufferings of Jesus in and through our own sufferings.”
Piper said the Great Commission task is sidelined by pampered, persecution-free American Christians whose affections are indistinguishable from those of their unregenerate neighbors.
“One of the reasons we aren’t given the time of day in America is because people look at us and they see that we have exactly the same fears, anxieties and values they have, and it isn’t the embrace of danger and risk and AIDS and mockery and shame,” he said.
Recalling Jesus’ promise that his followers would be persecuted for godliness, Piper charged American evangelicals have “domesticated” the word godliness. Christians will not be persecuted for not committing adultery or refraining from stealing while living out comfortable middle-class American lives, he noted, but they will face peril if they carry the gospel of grace overseas. Believers must cultivate an openness to martyrdom on the mission field by finding their heart’s satisfaction in God.
“If you do not find satisfaction in God and God alone, you will count him as an enemy when he hands you over to the sword,” Piper said. “Get ready now not to get mad at God, but rather to say, ‘I’m being counted worthy to share in the sufferings of Jesus!’
“May it happen soon that there are going to be tens of thousands who think totally differently about dying,” Piper thundered. “Because they say, ‘To live is Christ and to die is gain. Let’s go. Why should we live to age 30 when Jesus is on the other side of the sword!'”
A strategy coordinator for the SBC International Mission Board, pleaded for pastors to consider whether the reason they may be unable to fan missions fervor in their churches is because they personally “haven’t dealt with why they fulfill the Great Commission by not going.” He argued those questioning whether God is leading them to missions should realize that God’s will for the lives of individual believers is not disconnected from his will for human history. That should spur Southern Baptists to set out for sectors of the world where the gospel is unknown, he said, with the confidence that God has published in Scripture his purpose for a worldwide harvest.
“Literally from Genesis to Revelation, God’s intention is nothing less than to entirely reclaim this planet for his glory,” the coordinator said.
Phil Roberts, vice president for strategic cities at the SBC North American Mission Board, described the missions situation at home in terms of American infatuation with religious pluralism and trendy paganism. The “American pantheon” now includes skyrocketing numbers of Mormons, Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Wiccans, Roberts said.
The antidote to this increased American spirituality is not timidity, he counseled, but the establishment of “Baptist churches, New Testament churches, built on biblical principles, genuine spiritual discipline and church discipline and encouragement, and to trust God to lead us in doing all that we can in sharing the gospel with as many as we can.”
Timothy George, dean of Samford’s Beeson Divinity School, pointed to Baptist missionary heroes such as William Carey and Adoniram Judson as models for a Baptist vision for world evangelization for the 21st century. Baptist missionary zeal at its best has been committed to a sense of the absolute sovereignty of God, the exclusivity of the gospel of Christ, the complete authority of Scripture, the contextualization of the gospel message, and holistic missions which refuses to jettison the evangel for social ministries.
Tom Ascol, executive director of Founders Ministries, said the conference leadership had heard from two or three dozen attendees who sense that God may be calling them to evangelize unreached people groups in what missiologists call “World A,” those places where the gospel has not yet taken root. Individuals and churches were urged to keep in contact with the SBC International Mission Board and North American Mission Board to explore possible avenues of missions service and to support missionaries with prayer and increased financial giving.