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Jack Graham readies to wield gavel at SBC annual meeting

PLANO, Texas (BP)–Much of the preparation Jack Graham needed to serve as Southern Baptist Convention president came at an early age.

In a Christian home, his parents grounded him on the Word of God. A grandfather who lived with them read Scripture to him each evening. In a Fort Worth church, the pastor convinced him that to preach God’s Word and share the message of Jesus was the primary goal of a pastor. And influential professors at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary taught him to believe and trust the Bible.

Graham, pastor of the Dallas-area Prestonwood Baptist Church, will preside over the annual meeting of the SBC June 17-18 in Phoenix, following his election to the post at the SBC’s 2002 annual meeting in St. Louis.

“I’ve never attempted anything in my life without a sense of God’s call,” Graham told the Southern Baptist Texan, the newspaper of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention. “With that there is grace and provision to accomplish the task.”

Few Southern Baptists are asked to comment on such a range of topics as Graham has encountered the past year. The murder of SBC missionaries, the space shuttle tragedy, the war in Iraq, the evangelistic purpose behind humanitarian efforts and, in his home state, the new missions initiative by the Baptist General Convention of Texas are just a few of the subjects reporters offer for the SBC president’s commentary.

Yet his response on a national level is the same approach he utilized while serving as pastor in Cross Plains, Texas, more than 30 years ago.

“Even though I’ve been a pastor for a long time, I can never completely prepare for the world situations and crises we’ve known in this past year,” Graham said. “It’s important for me to pray and ask wisdom from God,” he emphasized, appreciative of the willingness of Southern Baptists to pray for him and other SBC leaders.

“Throughout my ministry and certainly these days in serving as president, I have collected files from many sources on ethical and cultural issues. It’s always been important to have a “go-to file” of materials and a well-thought-out worldview that is biblically based and solid on the Word of God.”

He looks for guidance on issues of the day in his study of Scripture. Taking a cue from his grandfather’s instruction that “readers are leaders,” Graham strives to be informed by reading extensively, even beyond the normal parameters for sermon preparation, from books, magazines and newspapers.

“It’s important to be alert to news,” he said, appreciative of “a media environment that makes it easy to go online, turn on a television, listen, watch and observe the debate.”

A call from a reporter comes at unexpected times and Graham has to be prepared to offer a response that speaks on behalf of Southern Baptists while giving a message of hope to the nation in times of crisis. While walking with his wife in the mall on a Saturday morning in February, Graham received a call on his cell phone, informing him of the shuttle explosion and asking for a comment.

“I heard a statement one time that the church must never play water boy to the game of life,” Graham said. “I’m grateful in these days that Southern Baptists have had an opportunity to be on the playing field of the great issues of our times. Other Southern Baptists have been weighing in on every conceivable subject. They’re not on the sidelines, but in the debate, engaging the culture with power.”

While his family grounded him from his earliest days on the truth of Scripture, Graham describes the influence of former Fort Worth pastor Fred Swank at Sagamore Hill Baptist Church as immeasurable. “He encouraged us to believe God’s Word without question and to study to show ourselves approved unto God.”

Graham began to see God at work in people’s lives during the days of the Jesus Movement in the early 1970s.

“Those early years established me in my faith,” he said. “I went on to seminary where professors like Roy Fish, Huber Drumright, Curtis Vaughan further taught me and led me to believe and trust Scripture and to minister with that solid conviction.

“When you preach the Word of God it gives you a sense of boldness and authority. I never have to wonder what I’m going to preach next. That was the habit at my first church in Cross Plains to my current church of Prestonwood — to simply open the Scripture, explain, illustrate and apply.”

As president of the SBC, Graham believes he must be a voice for Southern Baptists, offering a pastoral and prophetic role. That may involve presenting a Gospel that is offensive to many, he said, referring to a life verse of Romans 1:16 to “never be embarrassed or ashamed to proclaim the message.” Truth cannot and must not be compromised, Graham said, “especially in a world in which belief systems are perceived as being equal.”

When the secular media swarmed Graham and others over the characterization of Islam as a false religion, the SBC president said it was appropriate to offer a contrast of the uniqueness of Christ. “There’s an interest in what Southern Baptists believe. What we say is having a great influence to the highest halls of government to the smallest towns and hamlets of America.”

He said the media has been fair in reporting his comments and has begun to see that Southern Baptists represent evangelical Christianity like no other group. Still, he added, most secular reporters have difficulty understanding the insistence that Jesus is the only way to truth. “It continues to be a sticking point in the secular press.”

That debate is renewed as Southern Baptists begin ministering “a cup of cold water in Jesus’ name” through humanitarian efforts in Iraq. “The key is that you go in Jesus’ name,” Graham reminded. “You have the cup in one hand and the message in the other. Otherwise it’s simply social action.”

Southern Baptists should never apologize for their purpose of evangelism and missions, he added. “To do so would be to deny our Lord. Having said that, we are to penetrate the darkness of every culture with light and salt of the Kingdom of God. The key for all of us is to allow the spirit of Jesus to love people through us. To go in His name is to go in His authority and His love.”

Graham recognizes the struggle of balancing a prophetic word with personal witness but recalls that Jesus came in grace and truth. “If we go in His name, we will go in that same grace that offers His love and forgiveness and message.”

Communicating what God is doing through Southern Baptists is a task that falls to Baptist Press and state denominational papers. “For the most part our state Baptist papers have done an excellent job of informing Southern Baptists,” Graham said, also praising the denomination’s news service. Through Baptist Press, Graham was able to share with Southern Baptists and the nation about the importance of praying for soldiers serving in the recent war as well as highlighting the critical role of military chaplains.

“I wanted them to know they are not forgotten,” he said. “Southern Baptist chaplains and others who share the message of Christ are very important to our military. They are engaged in a different kind of battle for the souls and lives of soldiers.”

He recalled the story of Army Spc. James Kiehl of Comfort, Texas, being led to Christ by a chaplain and immersed in a makeshift baptistry using bottled water weeks before he was killed. His story went out to the news media and ultimately around the world. Yet, he went out into eternity knowing Christ.

At the same time, Graham is disappointed when state Baptist editors fail to deliver factual information or misrepresent the truth.

“A recent Baptist Standard article regarding a supposed meeting in North Carolina by a group of trustees said to be forcing Ken Hemphill out” as president at Southwestern Seminary is an example of unprofessional journalism, Graham said. “That was denied by Ken Hemphill himself as patently false, yet this state paper chooses to stand by its story and report something that could show up in a supermarket tabloid. I think it’s unfortunate.”

He added, “Baptist papers of all kinds need to not only be factual, but professional. They must speak the truth and do it in a way that edifies.” He encouraged Southern Baptists to turn to online news made available through Baptist Press and other websites to receive both information and inspiration.

Through such media outlets Graham’s call for local churches to build “Kingdom schools” received widespread publicity. “The message has been well-received, but it’s too soon to tell if it’s going to take root. What I tried to say is that Southern Baptists can make perhaps their biggest difference in the lives of young people through Christian schools. Southern Baptists should encourage churches and associations of churches to pray about starting a Christian school.”

Praising the work of Glen Shultz at LifeWay Christian Resources in speaking on behalf of the concept of Kingdom education, Graham said, “He’s just one man. It takes a pastor in a local church and local church leaders to see the vision that Christian education can make in the lives of children and teenagers.”

Graham is concerned that Christian teenagers lack a thorough understanding of biblical knowledge and truth. “They’re not getting it all in Sunday School. As well as we may do Bible study work with them, there’s a huge opportunity for Southern Baptists to change the worldview of a generation of people from a secular to biblical approach.”

Beyond the high school years, Graham is anxious to develop the next generation of Southern Baptist leaders. “You have a number of younger Southern Baptist pastors, staff members and leaders who are seemingly disinterested in the work of Southern Baptists. They aren’t involved and there is a growing independent spirit among some of them.”

If he is re-elected to the traditional second term as SBC president, Graham plans to invite younger leaders to a series of strategy meetings to relate how they can get involved in the life and witness of Southern Baptists.

“It’s very important that we cooperate together in the spirit of Empowering Kingdom Growth,” Graham said. He urged SBC entities to think creatively to facilitate the work of the local church. “The genius of Southern Baptists is that we are not organized from the top down, but from churches. [Sagamore Hill pastor] Fred Swank taught us that the headquarters is not in Dallas or Nashville. It’s at the local church.

“This is where the action is,” Graham said of local church ministry. “I’m concerned when local churches do not fulfill the Great Commission. I pray they never turn inward, but rather focus on the fields that are white unto harvest.”

He praised the work of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, which now numbers more than 1,300 churches, noting, “There is tremendous growth there. We need every Texas Baptist to cooperate to reach Texas and the world for Christ.”

Graham said, “I’m concerned that Baptists in Texas get in on what God is doing across the world through Southern Baptists and that the infighting within Texas would not limit Texas churches from achieving their best for the Kingdom of God.” He expressed hope that the Baptist General Convention of Texas would continue to cooperate with the North American Mission Board, referring to the BGCT’s unwillingness to sign a cooperative agreement proposed by NAMB that stipulates an affirmation of the Baptist Faith and Message by jointly funded missionaries.

He spoke of encouraging reports from those who serve as chaplains endorsed by NAMB and church planters engaged in reaching mega-cities and areas that are under-evangelized throughout North America.

Graham looks back to a meeting last year of regional leaders with the International Mission Board where he spent several hours hearing them describe the work in their countries. “For the next two hours it was like reading a chapter from the Book of Acts,” he said.

“To see, sense and hear the hearts of passion from our missionary teams and leadership just was overwhelming to me. It gave me such great encouragement to know that 5,470 missionaries are making the highest possible impact upon the world in sharing the Gospel. They have affirmed our Baptist Faith and Message 2000, are committed to evangelism and have great hearts. I’m greatly encouraged by that.”

Having visited most of the SBC seminaries, Graham said, “It’s impressive to see the quality and commitment of our current generation of seminary students. Not only are they being prepared, but they are already expanding the kingdom and engaged in the culture, making a difference for Christ. When you entrust a student who is on fire for the Lord to one of our seminaries, that fire will not be quenched, but turned loose.”

Ultimately, Graham believes missions is a local church ministry and the Southern Baptist Convention is only as strong as its churches.

“Empowering Kingdom Growth is a vision that is taking hold in Southern Baptist life,” he said. “I shudder to think what the world would be like without the witness of Southern Baptists. The church is moving from within the walls into the community and around the world.”
(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: READY TO PRESIDE.

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  • Tammi Reed Ledbetter