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Q&A: An interview with Bryant Wright

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–The December/January edition of SBC LIFE includes an interview with Southern Baptist Convention President Bryant Wright, who also serves as pastor of Johnson Ferry Baptist Church in Marietta, Ga. Following is a transcript of the interview, which took place Sept. 21 following his address to the SBC Executive Committee.

SBC LIFE: What is your vision for your ministry as president of the SBC?

WRIGHT: As I mentioned today, it’s that we would return to our first love, Jesus Christ. That is the starting point. I realize that’s not a measurable goal, but it is the heart of what I would love to see happen — in individuals, but also in the local church and the denomination. In losing our first love we have allowed the “isms” — materialism, hedonism, the workaholism of busyness, and even churchianity versus a true relationship with Christ — to take precedent over the relationship with Him. When that happens we lose our spirit, we lose our heart, and we lose a passion for lost people. We’ve let culture influence us more than we have influenced culture for Christ.

Growing out of that would be a love for the lost. I hope that Southern Baptists will really get serious about a radical reprioritization of the Great Commission. That would first be demonstrated in personal giving. The reality is most who are professing Christians in our churches give little or nothing to the Lord’s work. That shows they really love their money more than they love Jesus. That’s a sad reality. And it’s a huge burden to me, especially when you consider how God has blessed the Christians of America and the impact that we could have on the world in sharing the Gospel by using the financial resources that have been entrusted to us. We have a window of opportunity that we need to make the most of and have an urgency about.

SBC LIFE: Do you have any kind of action plan or steps that you would like to take in order to help Southern Baptist churches recapture that first love?

WRIGHT: Really, just urging it to happen. It’s why we’re urging local churches to hold solemn assemblies … in January 2011 as a way we can call on the Lord to help us return to our first love of Jesus. But also, in light of what has happened with people going on mission trips at Johnson Ferry, I’m going to be emphasizing the value of mission trips. And that means having people really go [and] not just giving and praying. A lot of our people at Johnson Ferry have returned to their first love because they really become passionate about the Kingdom enterprise that Christ has us called to. When we step out in faith and are willing to sacrifice time and financial resources to go to another culture to share the Good News of Christ, it has a way of getting our priorities back where they need to be.

SBC LIFE: Earlier this evening you mentioned the role of spiritual training when people prepare for mission trips. Does discipleship training become easier when people are training for a specific ministry event or trip?

WRIGHT: It really does. Going back to that first trip during spring break in the early ’90s, I asked our student minister just to get away for a few days of prayer and fasting and to pray about what could be done to give a new vibrancy to the student ministry. I wanted them to have the chance to do something sacrificial and to work with the poorest of the poor. Now that really struck a nerve with them. And we required that they go through eight weeks of discipleship training; it was intensive discipleship — I mean two hours every Sunday night. For all of our trips, each person has to learn how to share his or her faith, we talk about quiet time, and we talk about cross-cultural issues that they’re going to deal with. That really enriches a church when so many go through that.

SBC LIFE: That is such an important component. If we suggest that merely going on mission trips will bring people back to their first love, it’s not just going on the trip …

WRIGHT: That’s right, it’s also the preparation. In that discipleship training, you’re developing a Kingdom vision.

SBC LIFE: Do you have any other ideas to help churches recapture their first love?

WRIGHT: There’s nothing more important than the pastor preaching the Word and feeding the flock. At Johnson Ferry, one of our core values is an unchanging message with an ever-changing methodology. With every generation, even every few years, the methods in doing ministry change; but you never compromise the message. It’s hard to overestimate the impact of a church hearing the Word of God from the pulpit in a way that they can apply in their everyday life. When you do that through Bible study classes, from children all the way to senior adults, then you’re really building disciples. It means having Bible teaching as central to who you are. We don’t have any better discipling tool than the preaching and teaching of the Word of God. My style of preaching is much more a teaching style. I realize historically in Southern Baptist life we’ve been very strong on evangelistic decisions, and I think as you look at what’s happening at Johnson Ferry, you see that. But I think people would tell you that my style is really more teaching with an evangelistic dimension to the teaching.

SBC LIFE: Do you have any other strategies for cultivating a return to the first love?

WRIGHT: Well, I would hope that in all of our teaching of the Word, the major focus is Jesus. The danger is, the longer we’re in the church, if we are not careful, we can become like the elder brother in Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son. The longer you’re in the church, the more you tend to become like the elder brother. That’s as true of Baptists as any denomination. I’m just haunted by Jesus’ story — not just what happened to the younger brother, but what happened to that lost sheep — Jesus taught about leaving the 99 sheep and going out to get the one. That’s the heart of God. And I just hope that’s the heart of people in our churches.

SBC LIFE: In some churches it’s almost as though Jesus has been reduced to merely being the way to enter into heaven, but after you get your “heaven pass” we focus on all these other things in the church. The ongoing significance and centrality of Jesus can be overlooked.

WRIGHT: That’s right. Jesus must be central to our message. He must be central to our Bible studies. We must always be reminded of how He dealt with sinners. One of the things I love about Jesus is that there is obviously nobody more devoted to the Father’s will than Jesus, but He was totally loved by lost sinners, and they loved Him. The religious people didn’t like Him, but He was so loved by sinners. If we can have that kind of spirit — the spirit of Jesus, that spirit and character of Jesus and the mission of Jesus — then that’s where we need to be.

SBC LIFE: For more than a year, the Executive Committee has been working in response to a motion made at the 2009 Convention encouraging the SBC to have a broader ethnic representation in its leadership. What steps can you take as president to increase visibility and participation of individuals in convention leadership that would reflect the reality of our convention’s multi-ethnic makeup?

WRIGHT: I’m asking the folks on the Committee on Committees to seek to have dedicated Christians who love the Lord, love the Word, but look more like the Christians who make up our convention — not just the Christians who make up the leadership of the convention. And it’s not just black and white — there are also Hispanic and Asian — we’re a very diverse lot. But when you look at the leadership out front in the convention, you don’t really see an accurate reflection of the ethnic diversity in our convention as a whole. We’ve got to be very intentional at this point in reaching out, and I hope that will be the case.

SBC LIFE: I don’t think most Southern Baptists know how ethnically diverse our convention is.

WRIGHT: Some of our African-American pastors feel like they are on the fringe. That is very unhealthy; it’s not good for us and it makes us a poorer people spiritually. We want to get a taste of heaven to see what it’s going to be like when every ethnos (ethnic group) and tribe gather around Jesus.

SBC LIFE: Currently, almost 95 percent of Cooperative Program funds received by the Executive Committee go to fund the International Mission Board, North American Mission Board and the six seminaries. You are on record saying that your church divides its support for SBC ministries at 5 percent to CP and 5 percent directly to IMB. If Southern Baptists across the land follow the example of Johnson Ferry, some are concerned that funding for these other ministries could be dramatically impacted. Given what you have led your church to do, what would you say to pastors concerning the priority of funding IMB, NAMB, and seminary training through the Cooperative Program?

WRIGHT: Well, the reason Johnson Ferry has chosen to give equally through the Cooperative Program and directly to the IMB is so we can give more to international missions. But we definitely know the seminaries need more money. They are training the future leadership of our churches for carrying out the Great Commission in our churches and on the mission field. Certainly we want to be a part of that. Our burden is how much is staying in the states, especially in the Bible Belt states where there are so many SBC churches. But we certainly don’t want to leave the seminaries and NAMB out of the equation.

SBC LIFE: So, with that in mind, what do you say to pastors as far as encouraging them to support the ministries of IMB and NAMB and seminaries?

WRIGHT: Obviously, the Cooperative Program is our flagship of overall mission support. That is the genius that started in 1925, and we certainly want to continue to support it. I just think there needs to be a radical reprioritization of the Cooperative Program funding so that more winds up going out of the states.

SBC LIFE: If the CP is restructured this way, state conventions obviously are going to have to reduce some of their ministries. Currently, some of the key ministries in state conventions include disaster relief, evangelism training, language missions, Christian higher education, collegiate ministries, children’s homes ministry, and ethnic church planting. What state convention ministries would you see as expendable so more money could be sent out of the states?

WRIGHT: I do not think it is my place to tell the state conventions where they should make their cuts. That is going to be a matter of prayerful consideration the state convention leadership will go through in deciding how to prioritize their funds. Let me explain it this way. Over the last two years, for the first time in our history, we have seen a decrease in our budget at Johnson Ferry. We have really had to consider what we needed to focus on and what we could cut out. We put it back on the staff. We didn’t have someone go to the children’s minister and tell him what things needed to be cut. That’s very poor management. We simply said, here’s how much money you will have. Now you decide how you are going to prioritize the use of the funds. I think it would be a wonderful, healthy exercise for the state conventions to ask themselves, “How can we best carry out Christ’s Great Commission through the states that we are representing with less funds?” And they will have the expertise about where to make those decisions.

SBC LIFE: The situation with our state conventions is a little different than that. They receive the first portion of CP funds. Their messengers instruct them what percentage to send to the national Convention. Plus, many of the states routinely conduct reviews of their ministries. Since the states determine what percentage is forwarded, how would you encourage them, other than just saying that they need to do a very careful study?

WRIGHT: I would hope their priority would be on what is more intentionally Great Commission oriented, in the sense of truly mission-oriented, versus ministry-oriented. I realize sometimes that’s very difficult to differentiate.

SBC LIFE: We’ve mentioned such things as disaster relief, evangelism training, and language missions. So far, I think we’re in agreement that these are probably primarily Kingdom-oriented missional enterprises. We can add Christian higher education, collegiate ministries, children’s homes ministries, ethnic church plantings, and a litany of others things. Our colleges and universities take a pretty good chunk of CP money at the state level.

In terms of your distinction between mission-oriented and ministry-oriented ministries, would you consider Christian higher education as worthy of support?

WRIGHT: I think it is. I’m on the Truett-McConnell board, and the way those kids are coming to Christ and really being discipled at Truett-McConnell, that’s very exciting to me. But I think that Baptist institutions of higher learning can no longer be dependent just on the denomination. They’re going to have to increase their fundraising. I just really believe that Southern Baptist churches, and especially these younger pastors with the new church plants, would be much more willing to give generously if they saw that more and more of their dollars are really going to unreached people groups and if they saw that the state conventions were keeping less percentage of the dollars. I really believe that, and then you would see more giving to the Cooperative Program for the states if there was more passion about it.

SBC LIFE: What you’re saying here is if younger pastors see value added to Cooperative Program contributions — and not just younger pastors, but pastors in general — they would be more inclined to give through the CP. If so, how do we communicate value-added that would cause them to then believe that their contributions are meeting Kingdom purposes?

WRIGHT: I really believe if they saw CP dollars focusing on largely unreached areas where there are few SBC or evangelical churches, they would be more excited about giving to the CP.

SBC LIFE: We hear some churches saying that we need to get everything overseas. The problem is you don’t see that in their own budgets. They say we need to send more Cooperative Program money overseas, but they are keeping 95 percent of their budget in their own communities.

WRIGHT: I don’t agree with that approach — and that is what I was trying to share today in the challenge, for local churches to give sacrificially.

SBC LIFE: There seems to be a growing movement to encourage state conventions to go to at least a 50-50 model, 50 percent in the state and 50 percent outside the state. If the churches are keeping the bulk of their money for local mission and ministry, wouldn’t it be consistent for the states to follow that same strategy?

WRIGHT: I don’t think so. I just think the church is a missional agency for that local mission field where God has planted them. The amount of money that is given to denominational missions is a different matter. I just don’t think that 55 to 65 percent of denominational missions should stay within the state. I think the majority should go to international missions.

SBC LIFE: We are commanded to reach Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria and the uttermost. Where do the Judea and Samaria components come in?

WRIGHT: The witness you have for Christ in the southern United States, with so many Southern Baptist churches and so many evangelical churches, versus the witness for Christ in Portland, Oregon, or New York City, San Francisco, Bombay — there’s just no comparison. And that’s what our burden is at Johnson Ferry. I realize everybody can be different, every local church has to decide if they want to give more to Judea, but where we are in the United States, especially in the southern United States, I feel like there are just so many existing resources for a witness of Christ that we need to focus where there’s less witness. I don’t look at the local church the same as denominational missions. I think they’re two different entities there.

SBC LIFE: Thank you, Bryant for your time tonight — we pray the Lord will richly bless you and your ministry in the months ahead.

WRIGHT: Thank you. I want to keep putting that word out there encouraging our churches to recapture their first love for the Lord and the lost and to give sacrificially and go to reach the peoples of our world. If the local church becomes passionate about that, that’s what really matters.
For more information about SBC LIFE or to learn how to receive SBC LIFE, visit SBCLIFE.org.

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