This seems like an appropriate time to pause for a moment for reflection. I have just completed my first year as the national strategist for Empowering Kingdom Growth. I came to this position from Southwestern Seminary because I believed that this is the most important initiative Southern Baptists have undertaken in my lifetime. I believe that this focus has the potential to bring spiritual renewal and revitalization to our denomination and beyond. This has been an exciting year of discovery, enrichment, writing, and transformation. Nothing that I have seen or experienced has changed my original opinion about the significance of this undertaking. Therefore, I am looking forward to this next year with anticipation and expectation.
A Year of Discovery
I was fortunate that the EKG task force had laid a solid foundation — as a result, I could build upon the foundation that was already in place. I have been greatly encouraged by the support of the task force members as well as my colleagues at the Executive Committee and LifeWay. I have been personally challenged by the passion that Morris H. Chapman and James T. Draper Jr. have for seeing Southern Baptists committed to Kingdom initiatives.
As the year progressed, I discovered that we already had a rich collection of material available to assist individuals and churches as they attempted to answer the questions, "Am I a Kingdom person?" and "Are we a Kingdom church?" I have reviewed several books in previous articles and will not attempt to give a complete listing in this brief article. We will attempt to keep you aware of the materials that may prove helpful on our Web site. It was most helpful to discover that under the direction of the task force and with the help of LifeWay, Tom Elliff had led us to focus on the Kingdom family. This family foundation is essential to the building of strong Kingdom churches. My good friend, Gene Mims, had also led us to begin to consider the Kingdom-focused church.
A Year of Enrichment
I have had the freedom and privilege of speaking in churches, associations, state convention staff meetings, and leadership conferences across our convention. In each instance, I have been encouraged by the enthusiasm displayed for EKG. I believe that there exists a common consensus that we must refocus our denomination by finding out what is most important to our Father and joining Him as He advances His Kingdom. In each of these venues, I have been enriched by the input of the participants. Much of what I have shared in these columns has come from strategic input from persons across our great convention.
I have been most encouraged and challenged by the response of our laity to the biblical concepts of the Kingdom of God. I am convinced that many of our people long to be Kingdom people. When I have talked about the personal commitment card that is part of the study EKG: The Heartbeat of God, they have responded with enthusiasm. The one single commitment that has received the most positive response is the one where the participant covenants to choose a lifestyle that will free up time and resources for Kingdom advance. I have had several persons to respond: "I have been waiting for someone to challenge me in this way." Can you imagine what could happen in our churches and across our denomination if we took this one challenge seriously? I believe our laity is ready to be challenged.
A Year of Reflection and Writing
The task force encouraged me to write a foundational piece which would be both theological and practical in nature. While we maintain our conviction that EKG cannot be just another program, we have come to believe that it is critical that we provide for individuals and churches a tool that would help to understand what the Bible means by the Kingdom of God. But understanding of a biblical concept is not enough, we must be transformed by the biblical concepts we learn. I was reminded of this just a few weeks ago when I taught about the Kingdom in one of our local churches. The associate pastor indicated that he had been moved by what he had heard, but then he stated that we can be moved without being changed. He then challenged the congregation to a Kingdom commitment.
I can honestly say that I have never written anything that has challenged me more in my own personal walk than the material contained in the study, EKG: The Heartbeat of God. I often felt that my fingers were being guided across the keys of the computer. I constantly have to ask myself if I am willing to make the lifestyle changes necessary to be a Kingdom person.
As I studied the concept of the Kingdom throughout the Scriptures, I came to see a very simple but profound theme repeating itself. God was/is looking for a people who will embody His character, embrace His mission to the nations, and obey His Word. God called Israel to this task and blessed them so that they would be a light to the nations. Tragically, Israel chose to consume God's blessings rather than to convey them. Israel was rejected because they profaned God's name, ignored the nations, and disobeyed His Word.
I believe that God is looking for a family, a church, a denomination who will embody His character, embrace His mission to the nations, and obey His Word. Will we as Southern Baptists take the Kingdom challenge? Will your church? Will you? I pray that we won't be guilty of consuming the blessings rather than conveying the blessings of God. God's heartbeat is that every tribe and tongue and nation comes to know Him as King.
The Desired Outcome
The passion of EKG is for personal and corporate revival and renewal. The denomination cannot empower Kingdom growth. Only God can do so, and that is why He sent His Holy Spirit. When and where the renewal comes, we will see authentic, balanced, biblical, natural church and denominational growth.
Let me give you some idea of how important this is and why I am so passionate about this task to which God has called me. Several studies indicate that more than two-thirds of all evangelical churches are either plateaued or declining.
A North American Mission Board study has revealed that Southern Baptists have experienced a fifty-year plateau of 385,000 baptisms. Their studies also indicate that baptisms among our youth have been steadily declining for decades.
Recent studies by John and Sylvia Ronsvalle of Empty Tomb, Inc. indicate that the percentage of household income given by American Protestants through the church has been steadily falling. In 1933, during the depth of the Great Depression, we gave 3.2 percent of our income through the local church. By 2002, when Americans were over 480 percent richer, after taxes and inflation, Protestants were giving 2.7 percent of our income to their churches.
Further, as overall giving decreased, most of the total inflation-adjusted increase was directed to congregational finances thus hampering mission causes. This became a very real issue with Southern Baptists last year when we discovered that, for the first time, we had a large number of couples who were prohibited from going overseas because the money was not available. If God's heart is for the nations, Kingdom people will reflect His heart with our giving.
Let me state once again my conviction that EKG is one of the most important initiatives of our lifetime.
This has been the greatest challenge of EKG. We believe EKG must be a mighty movement of the Spirit — therefore it cannot be just another program! We have constantly sought the Lord's face in this matter, so prayer has become the hallmark of this movement. Our mission agencies have called us to prayer. NAMB has established the "What Now" emphasis that has challenged local churches to pray for each other. A part of our "What Now" challenge is a staggering goal of 1,000,000 baptisms. How can this happen when we have been plateaued at 385,000 for fifty years? First, we acknowledge that it will take a mighty moving of the Spirit. Second, we must recognize that denominations do not baptize, local churches do. Thus, we must all work together to assist local churches to become more effective in their tasks.
EKG: The Heartbeat of God and its accompanying forty-day study is designed to change the culture of the church. We are praying that every church in our convention will study it, and that the Lord will use it as a catalyst to cure our spiritual myopia and give us a passion for the world. When this occurs, we will no longer function based on what pleases us, but on what pleases the Father and advances His Kingdom. Can you imagine what it would be like if everyone came to the church business meeting with a single agenda — participate with God in the advance of His Kingdom? Can you imagine what kind of resources would be freed up in your church if people gave and served with Kingdom focus?
I don't believe this is just a pipe dream. If the early disciples turned the world upside down, why are we willing to settle for less?