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Q&A: Wright on SBC, tenure at his church

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Bryant Wright was elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention in June, and recently he provided comments to Baptist Press regarding his new role and various elements of his ministry as pastor of Johnson Ferry Baptist Church in Marietta, Ga.

Started by Wright 28 years ago, Johnson Ferry baptized 478 people last year, has started seven churches in Cobb County, Ga., co-sponsored five other church plants, and in four of the past six years has given more than any other church in the SBC to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions.

In his comments to Baptist Press, Wright expressed hope that the convention would have a “radical reprioritization of fulfilling Christ’s Great Commission,” and he urged pastors to start by leading churches on mission trips. He also explained his church’s giving priorities and asked for specific prayer from Southern Baptists in the days ahead.

Following are questions posed by Baptist Press and answers submitted by Wright.

Q: What is something specific you would want Southern Baptists to know about their new president?

A: I’m still a bit surprised that the Lord has called me to this role, but I’m very thankful for the opportunity to serve.

Q: As you serve as president, what are your primary goals?

A: 1. I want to call Southern Baptist Christians to return to their first love of Jesus Christ. We’ve let so many other priorities and influences of the world become more important than our relationship with Jesus Christ. That relationship is what is most important for us all.

2. I hope to challenge our convention to have a radical reprioritization of fulfilling Christ’s Great Commission. When we love Jesus, we love the lost. This will call all of us as individuals and churches and associations and state conventions to reprioritize missions giving so that more dollars go where the need for a witness for Christ is the greatest.

3. I’m encouraging every church to have hands-on involvement in missions by going on at least one mission trip in 2011, especially if the church has not taken part in one before. I’m hoping that the pastor of each church will lead that trip.

4. I’m challenging pastors throughout our convention to pray about setting the largest Lottie Moon offering goal in the history of their churches and challenging their congregations with those God-sized goals.

5. I’ve been praying diligently for God’s men to be selected to serve as presidents of the North American Mission Board and the International Mission Board. I’m so excited that Kevin Ezell has been called to serve as president of NAMB. I really believe that he is God’s man for this hour. I ask all Southern Baptists to pray with me for the IMB search committee as they continue to seek God’s man to serve as IMB president. No two decisions are more important for leading and challenging us to fulfill Christ’s Great Commission in the next generation.

Q: After two months in the position, have you had any particular realizations about the task at hand?

A: I don’t think there have been any major surprises, but there is that constant daily reminder of the need for wisdom. The SBC president is called to speak to a plethora of issues that arise at a moment’s notice. I ask Southern Baptists to pray that God will give me wisdom in representing our over 45,000 churches, as well as our IMB and NAMB missionaries.

Q: What can Southern Baptists do to support you as their denominational leader?

A: My number one prayer request is that I will stay close to the Lord and close to my wife, Anne, throughout my term of service as president. And I ask all Southern Baptists to join our prayer team at Pray4SBC.com, where you will find prayer requests, as well as monthly videos in which I share my heart for the convention. On the website we also offer daily devotions that are really written to nonbelievers. But we hope they will serve as resources for Southern Baptist Christians as they share Christ with their non-Christian friends.

Q: By staying at Johnson Ferry for 28 years, you are an example of a pastor with long-term commitment to a local congregation. What have been the keys to a long tenure at the church?

A: 1. The pastor, in responding to the call of God and the local church, needs to go into that calling as if he will serve there the rest of his life. I realize this is not the case most of the time, but the willingness to do so is key.

2. On my first sabbatical in the late ’80s, I visited 36 growing churches of all denominations across the nation. One common denominator was that all had tenured pastors. The sense of trust and teamwork with staff and within the church and community enhance the opportunity for a long tenure at a local church. It has been a joy and continues to be a joy to serve as the senior pastor of Johnson Ferry.

3. The congregation never tires of being fed by the Word of God. That calls on the pastor to keep his relationship with Christ strong and to continually study to offer fresh insights to the same congregation over many years.

4. We have been incredibly blessed at Johnson Ferry to have such a great staff and supportive lay leadership to serve with. We are forever grateful for this blessing.

Q: How did Johnson Ferry’s passion for missions begin?

A: Anne and I had the privilege to serve as summer missionaries in a Scottish Baptist church during one of our summers in seminary. That experience was so rich. Being the only Americans with Christians of another culture really expanded our vision and understanding of the Lord’s heart for our world.

Johnson Ferry’s passion for missions began with strong giving to missions. In our first annual budget in 1982, we designated 11 percent of our $88,000 budget for global missions. Ten percent went to Southern Baptist causes and 1 percent to Young Life. We’ve always wanted to have a “Kingdom vision” for ministry, recognizing that no one church or denomination can fulfill Christ’s Great Commission alone. So through the years we’ve partnered with other Great Commission ministries in seeking to reach our world for Christ.

In 1989, we were asked by the IMB to pray for an unreached people group — the Kyrghese, formerly part of the Soviet Union. We didn’t know anything about them. But praying for them really had an impact on our church, especially when the Berlin Wall fell and the opportunity to go and share Christ with this people group suddenly opened up.

The greatest impact at Johnson Ferry came when our student minister in the early ’90s challenged our high school students to give up spring break at the beach to go on a mission trip. After eight weeks of discipleship training, they went to Mexico and built houses for the poorest of the poor and went door to door sharing the Gospel of Christ. It was life-transforming. Since that time God has moved powerfully in our church, and each year more and more students and adults go on mission trips.

In 2009 we had over 1,500 adults and students go on 70 mission trips to 27 nations around the world. We’re hoping that even more will participate in a mission trip by the end of this year. Only God could have done this. These trips have had more impact on the spiritual life of our church than anything else in the last 20 years. And we have only just begun to do all that God has called us to do.

Q: Do you have any advice, in addition to taking a mission trip, for churches that currently lack such a passion?

A: If a church is lacking passion, I urge them to give generously and take part in hands-on missions. You have to step out in faith to develop that passion for seeing Christ work cross-culturally.

Q: In your remarks during the press conference at the annual meeting, you explained Johnson Ferry’s reduction from 10 percent CP to a split of 5 percent CP and 5 percent IMB in terms of focusing more resources directly to international missions. Do such adjustments model a lessened importance of cooperative missions and ministries to the church’s members?

A: I don’t believe this model lessens the importance of cooperative missions because it actually enables us to give more to international missions, which is what Johnson Ferry is passionate about doing. And I really believe Southern Baptists are most passionate about international missions, as well.

When we realized that about 62 cents of every dollar stayed in the state where there are thousands of Southern Baptist churches and thousands of other evangelical churches, we felt a need for radical change in the prioritization of Cooperative Program funding so that our mission dollars would instead go to places in the world where there is little or no witness for Christ. If the average Southern Baptist knew that only about 19 cents of every dollar winds up on the international mission field, I believe they too would feel a need for a radical reprioritization of missions giving.

Whether a church gives to denominational missions through the Cooperative Program, which is our primary means of missions giving, or gives directly through the Executive Committee in Nashville for our seminaries and NAMB and the IMB, or gives directly to the IMB, we are all participating in global missions together.

Johnson Ferry still gives strongly to the Cooperative Program because we want our state missions, seminaries and NAMB to be supported along with the IMB. On top of that, we have historically given 1 percent of our ministry budget to our association. So we are very cooperative in giving to Southern Baptist mission causes.

Q: Johnson Ferry subsequently reduced giving to CP and IMB to 3.5 percent each. Could you help Southern Baptists understand the rationale behind the added changes?

A: Those reductions came with deep regret as we had to make substantial cuts to our budget in 2009 and 2010. The cuts were across the board and affected every area of our ministry budget. But it was a temporary action, and thankfully we are proposing to increase these percentages to 4 percent and 4 percent in our 2010-11 budget. We hope to be back to 5 percent and 5 percent in the years ahead.

Q: Is there a danger that some members might pattern their personal giving priorities after these two actions, either in not giving sacrificially or in designating their giving to special projects and not to the church’s general budget?

A: I really don’t think so because an individual giving to the local church is different from the local church giving to denominational missions. They are just two different things. We as individuals in the local church are all called to bring our tithes to the storehouse in accordance with the clear biblical guidance in Malachi 3:8-10. But a local church has to seek God’s guidance on how to prioritize its missions funding to the denomination and other mission ministries.

Q: Two of the Great Commission Resurgence leaders, Johnny Hunt and Ronnie Floyd, have led their respective churches to commit a greater percentage of resources to CP during the current recession (FBC Woodstock through an increased CP percentage; FBC Springdale by reducing their television ministry). What has prompted JFBC to take a different direction?

A: We just want a majority of our denominational missions funding to go to international missions. We would prefer to give all our denominational missions support through the Cooperative Program. But until there is a radical reprioritization of Cooperative Program, we feel led to continue doing what we are doing.
Compiled by Baptist Press staff writer Erin Roach.

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