NEW ORLEANS (BP) — Amid debate over a decision by Dallas-area Prestonwood Baptist Church to escrow Cooperative Program funds, Prestonwood pastor Jack Graham told a New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary chapel audience Jesus must be the focus of every congregation.
The church “is not about us — my church, your church. It’s all about Jesus,” Graham said March 7.
Though Graham’s New Orleans Seminary appearance was scheduled months ago, some called on the seminary to revoke his invitation in light of Prestonwood’s decision in February to escrow CP funds over concerns related to the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.
New Orleans Seminary President Chuck Kelley rejected the idea and instead called on Southern Baptists to be more intentional about dialogue in times of disagreement.
A group of New Orleans students printed and sold “I Heart CP” shirts the day of Graham’s chapel address, which a limited contingent of students wore during the service. Though they disagreed with Graham regarding the escrowing of CP funds, they said their goal was not to protest Graham or Prestonwood, but affirm their commitment to the Cooperative Program.
After the chapel service, Graham met with the students for a brief question-and-answer session. The students also gave Graham a letter outlining their concerns. At Graham’s request, the Q&A was not recorded by the seminary and media members were asked not to report on the discussion. By all accounts, the 20-minute meeting was cordial.
The open letter, signed by six students and published on the SBC Voices blog, expresses appreciation for Graham and Prestonwood along with “deep concerns for the recent measures that have been taken.”
Prestonwood is within its rights as an autonomous congregation to escrow CP funds, the letter states. Yet when large churches withhold substantial CP contributions in attempt to influence Southern Baptist Convention entities, they may exert a disproportionate influence on Southern Baptist life and put smaller congregations “at risk of losing their voices” in the convention.
A better course of action would be for Prestonwood to express its concerns about entities at the SBC annual meeting or to appropriate convention leaders, with a goal of “reconciliation,” the letter states.
Graham told Baptist Press in written comments, “I enjoyed my time at New Orleans Seminary and appreciate the heart of the students for the Cooperative Program and Southern Baptist missions. I share their concern that we advance the Gospel through local churches by reaching our neighbors and nations with the message of salvation.”
Neither Graham nor Kelley addressed the controversy during the chapel service.
Graham preached on the apostle Paul’s prayer in Ephesians 3:14-21. He noted the prayer points back to Paul’s earlier teachings in the letter and concludes with praise.
“The church of the Lord Jesus Christ is built on prayer and the provision of God,” Graham said. “I am hugely bullish on the church and the ministry of local congregations impacting the world for Christ and fulfilling the Great Commission.”
While believers participate with God in ministry and receive His blessings, Graham said, the focus of the Christian life must “always, always, always” be Jesus.
The church’s faith also is centered on Jesus, Graham said.
Reading Ephesians 3:20, — a well-known passage about Jesus’ power exceeding anything believers can imagine — Graham said Christians can pray to God and expect Him to answer.
“Our faith is not in ourselves or our strategic plans…. It is believing God to do only what God can do in our lives,” Graham said. “We believe in a God who is able to do exceedingly, abundantly more.”
The power to live the Christian life comes from the Holy Spirit, Graham said. Through Spirit-filled living, Christians experience the abundance and provision Paul describes in Ephesians 3.
Like its focus and faith, the church’s fellowship is also centered on Jesus, Graham said, noting Christian fellowship should be characterized by diversity and community.
“As brothers and sisters in Christ, we are closer to each other than we are to our own family members who may be outside of Christ,” Graham said. “… It is Jesus who brings us together. Nothing else could create this type of unique fellowship.”