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SBC pres. speaks to editors on appointments, SBC’s future

PHILADELPHIA (BP)–When SBC President Frank Page addressed Southern Baptist editors in Philadelphia, he offered many of the same answers he gave to some of the same writers following his election at last June’s SBC annual meeting in Greensboro, N.C.

Page said that a sweet spirit, evangelistic heart and a commitment to biblical inerrancy and the SBC funding mechanism known as the Cooperative Program remain the litmus tests for those whom he soon will appoint to various SBC committees. Page also challenged SBC critics to do a “reality check,” asking them to take a look at what Southern Baptists are accomplishing in ministries and missions instead of often focusing on negatives.

“I sense a huge number of people — primarily laypeople, certainly pastors of small and medium-sized churches who are authentically, loving, Christian men and women — they want to win the world to Christ, care about people, help people in Jesus’ name,” Page said in his comments during the Baptist editors’ mid-February annual meeting, held this year in Philadelphia.

Building on the evangelistic foundation of his predecessor, Bobby Welch of Florida, Page said he has asked the SBC’s LifeWay Christian Resources and the North American Mission Board to team with state and associational staffs to develop a national evangelistic strategy.

“That’s why I’m cautiously optimistic,” Page said, noting that Southern Baptists are “tired of fussing and fighting” and would prefer to stay focused on missions and evangelism.

Part of the blame for the negative perceptions of the SBC lays at the feet of people Page described as wanting “to constantly cast us in a negative light because in so doing they can cast themselves as being positive in the life of Southern Baptists.”

Countering the critics is somewhat of a public relations problem, Page noted. When talking with people who have left the SBC or are considering that option, Page said he acknowledges “constant antagonisms have driven away massive numbers of people.”

“Go see who is nailing boards on walls, who’s gutting out the homes [in New Orleans].”
Frank Page
Instead of focusing on the negative, Page challenges those who are disenchanted with the SBC to take a closer look at the breadth of denominational ministry extending from New Orleans to the other side of the world.

“Go with me to the Katrina area where I’ve been three times in the last six months,” Page said. “Let’s go see who is nailing boards on walls, who’s gutting out the homes. You’ll find Southern Baptists doing 10 times more.”

On college campuses nationwide, he said, Southern Baptist ministers are making a difference.

While visiting Nepal last year, Page said he learned that the sound of Christian songs can be heard on any street in the capital city because there are now 5,000 house churches that didn’t exist five years ago, a result of Southern Baptist mission efforts.

It’s more than “patting ourselves on the back,” Page explained. “It’s just a reality check. If you’re looking for fault, you don’t have to look far, but let’s just be open and honest.

“Are there not things you can buy into?” he asks skeptics.

“If, after you’ve checked it out, you don’t want to be a Southern Baptist, God’s work is not tied up in who we are. But praise God He can use some of us.”

Page said he realizes much progress still needs to be made in encouraging local churches to reach out to multiple generations and ethnicities.

“Most are small groups of white people. Not only have we not learned how to reach out to other ethnic groups, but generations within their own ethnic group,” he warned, calling that an ominous condition.

While in Missouri, Page learned that only about 10 percent of the churches are led by pastors under the age of 40, a situation common across the nation, according to LifeWay studies.

“If that’s true, 20 years from now not only are many of our churches going to die off, many won’t be able to find pastors,” Page said, expressing concern at the declining number of seminarians interested in leading traditional churches. “They want to be church planters and missionaries,” callings that Page applauds while remaining concerned for the future of the typical small- to middle-sized congregation.

Some of those churches could become more relevant by trying to change, Page counseled. “There is hope,” he said.

He said he encourages young pastors to commit to such churches that are plateaued or declining. He praised the work of LifeWay, NAMB and many state staffs that are developing church transformation ministries.

Among some growing churches, Page lamented “an increasing self-centeredness” as they decide they don’t need to support the Cooperative Program because they can fund missions on their own.

“My contention is we can do both,” he said. “We need to do both.”

Page cited his own South Carolina church as an example of balanced support, having what he described as one of the largest mission programs in the SBC. First Baptist Church in Taylors, S.C., plants churches throughout Maine and in Indiana and Calgary, Alberta, while at the same time giving nearly $600,000 for missions through the Cooperative Program.

“If you allow it, your church can move into an isolationism that is very unhealthy,” Page said. “Balance is the key…. The Cooperative Program enables a ministry of doing things together better than we can do them on our own.”

Furthermore, Southern Baptist churches have what Page regards as a moral obligation to support their 10,000 missionaries across North America and the world. He takes exception to churches that pull back from CP support while demanding changes. “I encourage people to work at those changes that need to be made without taking our toys and going home, without becoming an outsider,” he said.

“I have wanted to change some things in the Cooperative Program that would make it more helpful. I believe there need to be changes, but I’m going to make them as a person who would help from inside.”

Page agreed with an editor who described his election as SBC president as a referendum on the Cooperative Program, while adding that some may have overreacted in voting against candidates whose churches were not as strong on CP support and yet funded missions directly.

“I thank God for churches that are doing mission work — however they’re doing it, but many of them downplayed the Cooperative Program and God’s people reacted to that.”

On the one hand, Page said he agrees with those who tire of appeals for increased CP support without showing the value for those dollars. But he said he is just as tired of unsubstantiated charges of a “bloated bureaucracy.”

Upon further investigation, critics will find the SBC’s overhead is lower than in most benevolent organizations, Page said.

“Is some of it bloated? Absolutely. Do we need to make changes? Yes. Dialog. Communicate,” he urged. “Do it from inside instead of saying, ‘We don’t need this.’”

Taking his commitment a step further, Page said he still attends associational meetings. “That’s real out of style. Some megachurches say we don’t need the Southern Baptist Convention. No, I don’t either. But, I need to be needed,” he said, calling for “a selflessness that says, How can I minister?”

In some cases, Page said, churches were encouraged by some SBC entity heads to become involved in certain projects, at times leading to reallocating funds away from CP. He would prefer leaders say, “Do that in addition to giving to CP.” Some leaders, he said, “may be pulling back from perceived pressure to do certain things at the expense of the Cooperative Program.”

“It comes down to balance. God wants us to do as well as give.”

Many of the questions from Baptist editors concerned the annual meeting this June in San Antonio, where Page anticipates being nominated for a second term.

“I’m unaware of any opposition at this point,” he said, “but that could change and, if it did, that would be fine with me.”

Page said the theme of the June 12-13 meeting will be, “Lord, send Your reviving Holy Spirit to transform churches, bring us to repentance, unite us in a common missional task and bring revival and renewal to our convention.”

With less preaching and more prayer, Page envisions the meeting as “a plea to the Lord for revival.”

Having given up on predicting what Southern Baptists would do next, Page said some issues that might arise include private prayer language and the role of women in ministry.

“As you know we have people who bring motions and resolutions quite regularly and we will continue to do so,” Page said. “Sometimes we’re quite surprised by some of those, but those are two issues that may come up this year.”

Page made it clear he cannot control what surfaces on the convention floor or in the Resolutions Committee though he will encourage members “to do what I think is important and keep us focused on the main thing.”

While such issues may be worthy of discussion, Page said private prayer language is not a concern for the vast majority of Southern Baptist churches.

“It’s not even on the radar screen for 99.9 percent of our churches and I think it would be best discussed in private conversation rather than on the convention floor,” he said.

By encouraging dialogue and a biblical approach to conflict resolution as found in Matthew 18, Page hopes to see many arguments subside.

“Quit talking about people and talk to people,” he advised. “We often find a lot more common ground than we think we have.”

Diversity in the body of Christ can be healthy, Page said, as long as opinions are shared in a Christ-like way.

“When you speak the truth without love, it really results in a cold-hearted legalism, and when you speak love without truth it leaves people bereft of direction. We’ve got people out there who will speak the truth and there’s no love. That drives people away. People who love to death, but have no truth leave people anchorless. That’s why the Word is so precious,” he said.

Asked whether he thought bloggers would destroy or rescue the convention, Page said both premises are exaggerated. While the number of people blogging is relatively small, he said the number of people reading blogs is much larger. Calling them an influential force, he said, “They’re reflecting the thoughts and beliefs and sometimes the frustrations of people and must be seen in that light.”

Pressed to comment as to whether mission boards and seminaries should extrapolate from the Baptist Faith and Message statement that a woman should not serve as a senior pastor or be ordained for chaplaincy work or hired to teach in a theology department, Page affirmed the SBC structure and the right of trustee boards to make policies and procedures.

“At my very first press conference I answered that question to say, personally I would encourage our entities not to go beyond the BF&M 2000, and I do stand by that to this day. They have a right to do what they wish to do, but I personally encourage them not to go beyond that.”

Page said recent comments he made to a Nashville reporter to affirm discussion of various theological issues were inaccurately characterized as advocating things he did not propose.

“The Southern Baptist Convention did adopt the BF&M and it does state clearly a belief that the senior pastorate should be held only by men and I happen to concur with that. Women are affirmed as ministers of the Lord just like anyone else,” he said, noting their work is much appreciated in his church and most others that he knows.

Asked to evaluate seminary education in the SBC, Page said record numbers of students are enrolling, although most of the growth is coming through the college section and non-theological schools.

With fewer students graduating in the more typical track for training pastors, Page said a smaller number would be prepared to pastor traditional churches.

He dismissed the characterization of the six SBC seminaries as “lockstep.” Instead, he said while each is grounded in conservative theology, “They are all coming out with distinct and different characteristics in their philosophies.
Drawn from coverage in the Southern Baptist Texan.

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  • Tammi Reed Ledbetter