ST. LOUIS (BP)–Although Southern Baptists are often defined by what they’re against, newly elected SBC President Jack Graham wants the convention to be known for what it’s for — a renewed emphasis on reaching the world for Jesus Christ. In a brief news conference following his unanimous election June 11, Graham told reporters of his desire to strengthen churches and get out the good news of Jesus Christ.
The 51-year-old pastor of the Dallas-area Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano said he was encouraged to see SBC leaders sign a Covenant for Empowering Kingdom Growth that afternoon. “As I’ve watched the work of Southern Baptists being displayed this afternoon and the heart of who we are as a people, as a convention, I’m extremely encouraged and excited about the opportunity to step up to this leadership challenge.”
In opening the news conference, Graham said, “Being a Texan, I’m confident in thinking big — that the world and the opportunities of the world are bigger and greater than ever before for Southern Baptists. There has never been a better time, a better opportunity than right now for us to get the message of the gospel around the world.” Citing Romans 1:16 as “a life verse,” Graham said he is not ashamed of the gospel message and hopes to reflect that conviction as SBC president.
Standing up for doctrinal convictions is important to Graham, whether in the local church or on the mission field. “It’s a good idea to ask our missionaries to affirm the faith statement,” Graham said in answer to a reporter’s question. “We’re not a creedal people, but we are a confessional people.” He described the Baptist Faith and Message approved overwhelmingly by messengers to the 2000 annual SBC meeting in Orlando, Fla., as “an instrument of accountability.”
Just as employees are encouraged in the workplace to be accountable, Graham said a similar need has become apparent in the religious world today. “Our doctrinal accountability is vital. It’s a good idea that all who serve Southern Baptist churches respond to the will of the people, that all who serve us will share our faith and do it in a way that is conscientious.” Graham said the issue comes down to a matter of integrity, as missionaries are representative of the organization they serve.
Expecting the issue to be resolved quickly, Graham said the vast majority of Southern Baptist missionaries have been excited to sign the affirmation of the statement of faith. “If you can’t with integrity accept the doctrinal statements of who we as Southern Baptists are, then it becomes your responsibility in my opinion to back off and resign your position,” Graham said of those missionaries who find the statement objectionable.
While a creed “is a dogma required of the system itself,” Graham said Baptists have “shied away from creeds and made confessions of faith in what we believe,” offering general parameters and specific commitments of biblical truth. “All of this is about how much diversity is there? Where do you draw lines? When is a person a Southern Baptist and when are they something else?” he asked. “It is a statement of those beliefs in a way in which people can respond and be educated and an opportunity for discernment within the church itself.”
When asked to counter Jerry Vines’ June 10 Pastors’ Conference sermon in which he characterized Muhammad as “a demon-possessed pedophile,” Graham said it was an accurate statement. “Anyone who practices a faith or religion should study it carefully” and be aware of its leader and beliefs, he said.
Graham commended Vines, pastor of First Baptist Church, Jacksonville, Fla., as a dynamic preacher, acknowledging that his statement “was very strong regarding the history of Muhammad and the Islamic faith.”
“We, as Southern Baptists, are attempting to reach all peoples with the gospel,” Graham said, adding, “I believe that all religion apart from the faith that is ours in the Lord Jesus Christ is a works system. It is our desire to introduce people to God’s grace.” God’s love for the world, Graham said, is best expressed by his Son’s death on the cross and resurrection.
Pressed by another reporter as to whether Vines’ reference to Muhammad could be documented, Graham readily answered, “History shows he had 13 wives and numerous concubines. He married one of his wives when she was 6 and had sexual intercourse with her at the age of 9.”
Sharing his predecessor’s concern that Southern Baptists are losing their passion for evangelism, Graham said he had talked with outgoing SBC President James Merritt about the need to encourage personal and corporate evangelism. “The natural drift for Christians individually or as a congregation is to drift away from evangelism and missions,” he said, acknowledging that many churches never baptize anyone.
But, Graham said, “To see us moving in the cities, not just in the South, but all across America from Seattle to New York to Boston to Miami” is encouraging. “Our laity is being unleashed in America in Southern Baptist churches and into the heart of this nation and around the world. Our partnerships with world missions as well as national missions are very vibrant today. The railway is there. We just need to get on it.”
Questioned as to whether attendance at recent conventions reflects a lukewarm attitude, Graham reminded, “The work of Southern Baptists is done in the local churches. What I’m hearing in local churches and what I’m seeing in our own area and around the nation is very strong and healthy. More work and more witness is being accomplished by Southern Baptists than ever before. More missionaries are being appointed. More laypeople are going with the message of Christ, so I’m very encouraged.”
In response to a reporter’s question about a Florida Baptist Witness editorial predicting that the Baptist General Convention of Texas will eventually cease to cooperate with the SBC, Graham said that as a longtime Texas Baptist he is deeply interested in the subject. “We have seen in recent years the Baptist General Convention of Texas distance itself. The leadership, at least, of the BGCT is distancing itself from Southern Baptist work. I regret that very much,” he said.
“What I’m also seeing in Texas are many churches supporting the Southern Baptist Convention,” Graham said, adding that part of his responsibility as a pastor in Texas is to tell the story of what Southern Baptists are doing and to encourage churches to be a part. “This would not be a good time to separate from Southern Baptists with so many good things happening and so many opportunities before us.”
He added that “the rank and file” of the Texas Baptists wants to be a part of a worldwide missions strategy. “I’m looking forward to encouraging our churches in Texas to strengthen their support of the Southern Baptist Convention.”
Graham said a motion asking that the SBC be limited to relating to only one convention in each state will need to be reviewed by the Executive Committee. “It will be based on the due diligence of who the group is theologically and what the group represents. Are they Southern Baptists?” he asked. “The Southern Baptist Convention has the responsibility to receive funds based on what [its] understanding of what the group is and what their purpose is.”
Kentucky Western Recorder editor Trennis Henderson described Graham and newly elected first vice president Paul Pressler, also of Texas, as having been closely identified “with a small group of Baptist leaders who helped influence the direction of the convention.” While some are pleased with those elections, Henderson said others see it as “continuing a very narrow focus of who can serve and who shouldn’t serve.”
In response to Henderson’s question as to whether he should broaden the leadership pool, Graham said he hopes to “reach the generation that is here today and the one coming behind us.” Pleased with the unity observed at the St. Louis meeting,” Graham added, “I’m encouraged by all of that and I believe it’s a new day for Southern Baptists.”
Graham said he hopes to see those who were not a part of Southern Baptist life in the past given every opportunity. He voiced a particular interest in involving young adults, noting, “I’m looking forward to seeing many young faces, and I’ve seen that in the Southern Baptist Convention meeting here this week. We’re getting younger and not older and that’s a good sign.”