NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–At the news conference after messengers elected him to lead the Southern Baptist Convention in 2008, Johnny Hunt, pastor of First Baptist Church in Woodstock, Ga., stated that key points of focus for his presidency would be “to keep … our hearts on what united us” and “inspiring the next generation with a vision for the Southern Baptist Convention.”
In many ways, the annual meeting in Orlando will define the success of these efforts.
Last year, messengers overwhelmingly voted to authorize Hunt to appoint a task force to study how Southern Baptists can work “more faithfully and effectively together in serving Christ through the Great Commission.” However, a consensus is not yet clear about the task force’s report and seven recommendations as public statements from Southern Baptists seem equally divided between praise and concern or caution.
As for reaching and inspiring the next generation, Hunt already had a 14-year track record of mentoring young pastors through his Timothy+Barnabas Ministry. But during the last two years he also has made an extra effort to reach out to young men affiliated with Baptist21 and the Acts 29 church planting network, Reformed or Calvinist-leaning seminarians, pastors and church planters. They have a sizeable presence at Southern and Southeastern seminaries and were present in noticeable numbers in Louisville for the 2009 annual meeting, and likely will play a role in the vote about the Great Commission Resurgence Task Force report and recommendations in Orlando.
Hunt invited Baptist Press to provide questions for an interview about his presidency the past two years, and the following questions and answers were exchanged by e-mail exclusively for Baptist Press readers:
BP: During the news conference after your initial election, you said you “want to see as many people as possible come to embrace Jesus Christ as personal Lord and Savior and then help as many people as possible become fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ and to see churches become personally involved in taking the gospel down the street and around the world.” What kind of progress do you see after your two years as president?
JH: I think that with the GCR we have made a significant movement in the right direction. Of course, I would always like to see us do more, but I think that with the passing of the Great Commission Task Force report in Orlando, we will begin turning this aircraft carrier called the SBC in a new and better direction, and the local churches and the pastors are the key. I think that a renewed emphasis on the local church as the headquarters of the SBC has also been a very positive outcome of the past two years of my presidency. The word is out now that we have seen an increase in baptisms this past year for the first time in a number of years. I certainly do not desire for the Task Force to take credit for that, but we are calling Southern Baptists back to why Jesus died in the first place, and that is to make a way for sinners to have a relationship with the Lord Jesus.
BP: At that same news conference, when asked about “narrowing parameters of participation within the SBC,” you said, “I would hope to unite our hearts around the things we believe Christ was most committed to.” What kind of progress have you seen?
JH: The final marching orders of Jesus is the Great Commission, found in Matthew 28:18-20 and Acts 1:8. Penetrating and conquering lostness with the Gospel is why He came and why we exist as a church. I believe that we have made progress in being passionate about what our Savior is passionate about, still, our baptism numbers and membership numbers clearly reveal that we are not where we need to be. We need a mighty movement of God’s Spirit among our people if a true, genuine GCR is to take place. We can suggest and implement some good and helpful constructive changes; but, even if we came up with a nearly perfect plan, apart from the work of God in each of us, we will not see a mighty work of God among the people called Southern Baptists. That is why our GCRTF report calls for repentance, brokenness, and humility before God as our first and foremost need. Our hearts must be changed so that we love Him more than our comforts and positions, and that we love Him more than the American dream.
BP: In retrospect, what has been the greatest area of insight or learning about Southern Baptists since you became president? What did you learn that surprised you the most?
JH: We are an incredibly diverse people, yet united around the inerrant Word of God and the Gospel. The days of methodological uniformity are gone, however, the lordship of Jesus Christ, global missions, aggressive church planting, theological education, and consensus built upon the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 is more than enough to unite us for the great task that God has given us.
BP: What have you found to be the greatest challenge you faced in serving as president? What challenges does a president face in his personal, spiritual or professional life? What have the benefits been?
JH: I have found that the greatest challenge that I have faced in serving as President of the SBC is balance. Being focused on such a worthy cause of leading the wonderful Southern Baptist Convention, I find much of my time is taken away from being a local church pastor and from my wonderful, godly, precious family, and lots of friends that I enjoy spending time with. It becomes taxing on your personal, spiritual, and professional life and just making sure that you honor the Lord in each of these areas. I believe with all of my heart that my church has so fervently prayed for me because they have seen the benefits of being able to influence the largest evangelical body in North America that has the potential to touch this nation more deeply and the nations of the world more effectively.
BP: When you appointed the GCR task force, you expressed great optimism about inspiring Southern Baptists to mobilize more effectively for the Great Commission. What about the GCRTF process has encouraged you about the future of Southern Baptists? Has there been anything you found discouraging?
JH: I have been tremendously encouraged by how God brought such a diverse group of Task Force members to a oneness of heart and mind which is reflected in the unanimous report that we will bring to the Convention. I am also excited about the grass-roots support we have received across the Convention. My greatest discouragement has been how badly some have either misunderstood or misrepresented the report. Some have unnecessarily run to a worst case scenario reading, which I think is unfortunate. I am optimistic that the Task Force has sought the mind of God and that He has led us to bring this report at this particular time in the history of our Convention. We do not see this as the last word. Hopefully, by God’s grace, it will be the start of something great, for the glory of God. It has been said that great opportunities swing on mighty tiny hinges. I pray that we will see this as an opportunity for a new day as Southern Baptists in making the greatest impact in these latter days.
BP: Regarding the GCRTF report:
— The report seems to draw strong reactions at both ends of the spectrum (support and opposition). Why do you think it has become a point of contention with some people, rather than a rallying point?
JH: Any change is controversial when it happens, and that is a sign of life. Southern Baptists are a passionate people and I fully expect a good debate on this report. I also expect that once Southern Baptists understand it, they will embrace it wholeheartedly and with great enthusiasm as well as expectation. I think that change is always a challenge for God’s people. Change makes all of us uncomfortable, however, it sometimes is absolutely necessary. I believe that we now face such a time. Fear, I think, has been a root of much of the passion expressed by some. I cannot use the word “contention” for the simple reason that everyone is talking about the Great Commission — maybe a different approach, or maybe different thoughts that if they were on the Committee they would have dealt with differently. Just the fact that we are all talking about the Great Commission is enough to thrill my soul! I pray that between now and our time in Orlando we can continue to get our message out, clarify misunderstandings, alleviate concerns, and bring our folks together in great unity. Our most passionate desire is for all of us to be together for the Gospel and doing the Great Commission.
— If the report is adopted in Orlando, how do Southern Baptists move forward to making a Great Commission Resurgence a reality? If the report is not adopted, what do you see as the potential fallout?
JH: I believe the report is going to be enthusiastically adopted, so I do not fear any fallout from its defeat. I believe an adoption of the report also is just the first step. My prayer is that our folks, individuals in the local church and all the way to our national entities, will study the report and seek its implementation as it applies to them. I think the report charts a hopeful and positive future, however, following Orlando, the time for talk will need to dissipate and the time for action will need to take center stage. Southern Baptists must not turn their backs on a new generation of passionate and committed Great Commission leaders. What would it say if Southern Baptists vote down a report that is all about how to do more for the Great Commission?
— How do you evaluate the concerns some are expressing about the impact of “Great Commission Giving” on giving through the Cooperative Program?
JH: I think the area of Great Commission Giving is the area of greatest misunderstanding. Any day now, you will see more and more written for greater clarity in this area. I believe that the best thing folks can do is to read the report and not read into the report. Second, read the superb treatment by Bob White, State Executive of Georgia, who does an excellent job in explaining what Great Commission Giving is all about. Bob, as well as his father, has been considered through the years as “Mr. Cooperative Program.” If anyone is for helping, encouraging, and keeping the Cooperative Program at the forefront of Southern Baptist giving, it is Mr. Bob White. The last thing we want to do is to weaken the Cooperative Program in any way. I would argue that leaving things as they are now is actually the most likely way to weaken the Cooperative Program. We must all remember that we have been declining in percentages of CP giving for many years now. We need to energize our churches by making clear that missions giving is Great Commission giving and celebrate every church’s participation in our Southern Baptist work. The Cooperative Program remains central with the entire Task Force. We want to encourage giving, not putting up barriers to investments in missions.
— What do you say to those who are wondering why the report had no recommendations for improving the efficiency and effectiveness of the six seminaries?
JH: Concerning our seminaries, I would point out first that there are a number of challenges to them in the final section that I believe they will take very seriously and respond to. Secondly, the Executive Committee just completed an in-depth, multi-year study of the six seminaries, so we did not see the need for redundancy. Finally, the general feeling of the Task Force was that we were pleased overall with our seminaries. Following the CR [Conservative Resurgence], there has been a radical transformation in our seminaries (that is only 10-15 years old) in the area of theology, preaching, missions, evangelism, and church planting. Now, can our seminaries do better? Of course, but as you know, two of the Task Force members are seminary presidents, and both Danny Akin and Al Mohler were receptive to any and all suggestions the Task Force raised and then included in the final section of the report.
— Was there an assessment of the efficiency and effectiveness of the IMB?
JH: There was an assessment of the efficiency and effectiveness of the IMB, but not in great detail. Time, of course, was a major limitation given our one year assignment. And, it was felt by the Task Force that it was not in need of the same careful analysis as say NAMB. We talked about merging the boards, but concluded that was not the best way to go at this time. We did agree to free the IMB to work with unreached people groups in the USA, which we think is a major step forward. But just like NAMB, the IMB is looking for a new leader who will bring his vision to the mission board. That is why, in part, the final report also backed off on details when it comes to NAMB. We have raised, we believe, some good questions and made what we hope are some good recommendations, but ultimately it will be up to the new president and board of trustees of both entities to chart their futures and implement their strategies.
— Why the selection of the Executive Committee to contribute the whole of the “symbolic and substantial” amount to reach 51 percent of CP at the national level for IMB?
JH: With the primary promotion of the Cooperative Program being placed in the hands of the states, it was natural and logical for the Executive Committee to make a reallocation adjustment.
— Would it have been more meaningful as a symbolic move (in terms of “actions speak louder than words”) if all SBC entities had contributed of equal sacrifice toward a reallocation to achieve 51 percent for IMB, especially given there were two entity heads represented on the task force?
JH: There was a unanimous sentiment by the Task Force that the Executive Committee could be streamlined and continue to do what Southern Baptists want it to do, even with this reallocation of funding. The Executive Committee is an essential part of our Southern Baptist work, but it exists in order that the actual work of the Convention may be done with integrity and strategic vision through the entities like the mission boards, LifeWay, the ERLC, GuideStone, and the seminaries. In all honesty, it seems that the best signal we can send is to reduce the costs of our facilitating ministries in order to strengthen our Great Commission focus. There was much discussion and Dr. Danny Akin and Dr. Al Mohler, both entity heads who serve on the Task Force Committee, offered support for such a decision if that is what the task Force chose to do. Basically, they sat out on that conversation for the most part.
— If the 51 percent amount is “symbolic,” what is the ideal percentage the IMB should be allocated of Cooperative Program gifts received at the SBC level?
JH: In answer to a great question of what percentage the IMB should be allocated of Cooperative Program gifts received at the SBC level, I think it might be possible to make minor adjustments to the current Cooperative Program allocations, but the best way to get more funds to the IMB is for Lottie Moon to grow toward the $200 million goal we have set by 2015, and for our people to put in their wills and estate planning Baptist entities like the IMB. More of us, no, all of us, should leave something behind of what Jesus has given us for the work of the Kingdom after we have died and passed on to be with our Lord.
BP: What words of advice do you have for your successor?
JH: I would advise my successor to be a man of prayer and one who loves and listens to the people. I would advise him to seek God’s face daily as he seeks to determine the vision He would have him cast for Southern Baptists. However, at the end of the day, just remember this: all that really matters is that I please God.
Will Hall is executive editor of Baptist Press.