INDIANAPOLIS (BP)–The Southern Baptist Convention may be facing a “death check” but the convention can overcome its illness by refocusing on being servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries, Al Gilbert, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, N.C., told messengers June 11 at the SBC annual meeting in Indianapolis.
Gilbert, who was diagnosed in 2005 with a rare cancer called liposarcoma, began the annual convention message by recalling the grim cancer diagnosis. Told initially he would survive only five years, Gilbert subsequently visited specialists whose tests resulted in a better prognosis and surgery to remove the cancer.
The situation turned out to be “life-altering, but not life-threatening,” Gilbert said.
“I’m happy to report that in the days of that death check, I went to the bottom and found that it was solid. God was there,” Gilbert said. “But during those times of consideration, I asked myself those questions that we all need to ask, things like, ‘Am I really dead to self and alive to Christ? Can I really say that to live is Christ and to die is gain? What difference has my life made and has it really mattered? What will be said about me when I am dead and gone? What will my wife think? Did I spend too much time at the church? Did my life make any difference at all?'”
In reality, the “death check” was a good thing, Gilbert said, adding that a similar kind of inventory would be good for the Southern Baptist Convention. “Denominational doctors” have provided a grim prognosis for Southern Baptists, but others, like Daniel Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., insist the convention is far from dead, Gilbert said. It may, however, be “top-heavy,” “bloated and unfocused.”
Southern Baptists must examine themselves to answer questions about the convention’s priorities, Gilbert said.
“Soon, we will be passing the baton to the next generation, and I don’t know about you, but they tell me they are not sure they want it,” Gilbert said. “That should make us sad and that should make us ask how we want to hand it off to the next generation.”
The best way to ensure that the convention remains vital in sharing the Gospel, Gilbert said, is to focus on being servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.
Preaching from 1 Corinthians 4:1, he said the word Paul used to describe “servants” in the verse depicts “under-rowers” on a ship who are following the rhythm set by an officer. In the SBC, he said, “we have some among us that seem to be following the beat of a different drummer,” like some of the Corinthians did as they debated whether to follow Paul, Apollos, Cephas or Christ.
“As the Lord Jesus continues to give direction to this old ship, and as the Holy Spirit continues to beat the cadence … you are not the slave driver, you are not the master. You are the under-rower,” Gilbert said.
Gilbert also pointed to Paul’s desire to be known as a steward.
Paul was not so much concerned about being evaluated by the church as with working in such a manner that the “captain of the ship” and the “owner of the house” would give him praise for his work, Gilbert said. The work God has for the church is revealing the mystery of the cross and the Gospel to the entire world.
“We have been given the stewardship of this incredible mystery, but the mystery that has been given is not simply the message of the cross,” Gilbert said. “It is also the mission that has been given to the church to proclaim the message.”
If the denomination is not diligent in proclaiming the Gospel, it will have no relevance to the culture, Gilbert said. In a day of instant communication and global travel, the job of being a steward should be easier if God’s stewards do not handle the Gospel lightly.
“If it is not a message for the whole world, then it is not good enough,” Gilbert said. “God sent His only Son so that he might be worshipped by all people of all nations.”
Southern Baptists will give an account as a denomination for what they have done with the Gospel, Gilbert said. That should drive home the importance of proclaiming the Gospel in purity, with power and with priority, he said.
There are troubling signs, however, that Southern Baptists may be in need of an evangelistic course correction, he said.
“Our baptisms continue to fall. We know that we are not impacting the world for Christ. We are not even winning our own sons and daughters like we should,” Gilbert said. “We have acknowledged that we have inflated numbers of membership and an incredible number of people on our rolls that are inactive and probably lost. … Could it be that we have established processes in our organizations that are really bureaucratic barriers, instead of mobilizing us to win the world to Christ?”
Gilbert said that in 2005-06 the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention gave a combined $10.4 billion in the collection plate, with $1.2 billion of that expended on missions. Only 5 percent of the total amount was given through the Cooperative Program, he noted.
While it is “absurd” for any pastor to be told how to steward his church’s resources, sharing the Gospel around the world must again become the priority of the convention’s churches, Gilbert said.
“Can we really defend our bureaucracy to the next generation?” he asked.
Gilbert concluded by echoing the call voiced by other convention leaders for a “Great Commission Resurgence.”
Gilbert said he was thankful for the SBC’s conservative resurgence because “without a totally inerrant, inspired Word of God, we have nothing to present to the world.” But now Southern Baptists should be praying for the Lord to call more missionaries and more people to support them.
“We should pray and tell the Lord, ‘Send us anywhere for Your glory, and if not us, send our children.'”
Gregory Tomlin is a writer based in Fort Worth, Texas.