Texas pastor Jack Graham, in his president's address at the 146th annual meeting of the 158-year-old Southern Baptist Convention, June 17, told messengers he knew he was stating the obvious.
"If we are going to make a difference, we, of course, must be different," he said, challenging Southern Baptists to represent Christ to a decaying culture.
Citing a familiar passage from Matthew 5:13-16 about Christians being "salt and light," Graham recounted Jesus' description of how a citizen of the Kingdom of God is to live.
While it may be difficult to define the Kingdom, it is essential to demonstrate the Kingdom, he stated, referring to this year's convention's theme — Kingdom First. And although the concept is commonly understood by Southern Baptists, Graham said there seems to be so little difference between "the way Christians live today — or professing Christians — and the way the world lives."
Elaborating on the words of Sir Winston Churchill, Graham spoke of the opportunities each person has to make a difference.
"To each there comes in their lifetime a special moment when they are figuratively tapped on the shoulder and offered the chance to do a very special thing, unique to them and fitted to their talents. What a tragedy if that moment finds them unprepared and unqualified for that which could have been their finest hour."
Graham challenged Southern Baptists to rise to their "finest hour" at a time of "an ever darkening and increasingly decaying world" in which people seem to invent new ways to demonstrate "sinful depravity." That should not surprise God's people, he said, recalling the apostle Paul's warning in 2 Tim. 3:13 that in the last days, evil men and impostors will grow worse and worse, deceiving and being deceived.
The optimism of the 1990s encouraged by a flourishing economy and seemingly impregnable national security was erased by the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on America, he said.
"Once again, we recognized the face of evil and the weight of sin," Graham admitted.
"Some would say we should pack it in, go to our churches and worship, and wait for the next bus to heaven. Some would say the world is going to hell and there's not anything we can do about it."
Strongly disagreeing, he insisted, "There is something we can do about it. There is something we must do about it. Future generations, our own children and our grandchildren, for their sake, for the sake of the Kingdom of God, we must make a difference for the cause of our King."
That occurs by penetrating the decay of the culture and illuminating the darkness with the mission and vision of God rather than "retreating into some Christian subculture," he added.
"It seems that in our time the world wants to hear every view but our view, and then they even have the audacity to blame the problems of the culture and society on us. In recent days, we have been called terrorists and bigots. … You are the national scapegoat," Graham said, adding that it reminded him of the biblical account of King Ahab calling the prophet Elijah a "troubler of Israel."
"Elijah shot back," Graham said. "'It's not me. You, O king, you are the troubler of Israel because of your idolatry.'"
Graham drew applause when he challenged Christians not to retreat in the face of persecution. Instead, "run to the roar of our king and the king's battle, and we will win the day. May God give us the lion heart of our King."
While some forces are attempting to silence believers, discouraging them from influencing schools, workplaces, and lifestyles, Graham said Christians cannot "resist the rub and the call of God to penetrate our world."
"Can you imagine the moral condition of our world if it were not for Bible- believing, Kingdom-living Christians?" asked Graham. "Can you imagine where we would be, for example, on the abortion issue in our times were it not for the salty influence and penetrations of God's people at this particular time?"
Graham said people in the United States will not be made better nor the world changed through social programs, education, and legislation or even in electing the right president.
"There is only one way to change the world, and it is by changing people's hearts. And the only way to change people's hearts will be by the life-changing, unique, and only message of truth — the message of Jesus Christ," he said, referring to the exclusivity of the gospel. "The cultural solution, the moral solution of our time is a salt solution."
As a part of this process of preservation, Graham said the salt penetrates, irritates, and stimulates. He pointed to the need for Christians to resist rottenness in order to combat evil and deter decadence.
"It's not the bland leading the bland," he said, but "flavorful, fresh believers full of the Spirit of God, pouring out the salty, tasty fresh love and grace of God."
Contrasting a believer with a cup of non-fat, no-sugar, decaf coffee, he said there are "too many decaffeinated Christians in the world."
A Christian who is called to the Kingdom agenda to advance the message of Jesus is an antiseptic to arrest the corruption around us, he said.
Through compromise, Christians become diluted and lose their savor, making them worthless.
"When we lose our distinctiveness because of compromise either in our personal lives or doctrinal lives, we are not worth our salt. That's why I'm so thankful that this Southern Baptist Convention has determined without compromise to seek the purity of faith and the holiness and righteousness that is ours in Jesus Christ. We preach His salty truth without compromise, but with courage and conviction."
Southern Baptists must not contain the salt by keeping it in one place, he added.
"Too many see the church as one big, huge salt shaker that we call 'sanctuaries' or 'worship centers.' And so we gather together, the salt salting the salt, the light lighting up the lights, and containment — keeping the salt all in one place rather than penetrating the culture — keeps us from fulfilling the mission and the vision of the Kingdom of God."
As Christians offer light that will illuminate a dark world, Graham said they must be conspicuous, consistent, compelling, and ultimately consumed.
Reminding his audience that the apostle Paul was once "a young terrorist," Graham urged Southern Baptists to turn over their personal agendas to allow the King to shine in the spotlight, conspicuously offering a testimony that points people to God.
Graham pointed to evidence that Southern Baptists are salting the world, citing the massive collection of food boxes for Iraq, the faithful witness of chaplains in Operation Iraqi Freedom, ministry to those providing relief at Ground Zero, and honoring the sanctity of life at pregnancy centers.
He expressed gratitude for President George W. Bush's decision to sign a ban on partial birth abortion, pleased that inroads are being made to turn around "a culture of death" as evidenced by the decline in abortions.
"But the best way, in my opinion, is not to out-shout the darkness, but to outlive the darkness," Graham said.
He urged Southern Baptists to be compelling in shining light in the darkness.
"Remember, the church of Jesus Christ is not a safe harbor, it is not a club or a resort, not a place to bask in the sun, get a good tan, look good, and go home. The church of Jesus Christ is a lighthouse, a colony of the Kingdom on a dark and dangerous shore," Graham said. "And I thank God for the privilege of simply being just a little light, just a sunbeam for Jesus."
Similar to a candle, Christians ultimately are consumed, burning out for God.
"We're to focus on the King and His Kingdom every day. It is to be our magnificent obsession," Graham said. "God may have put you in a distant place, …a dark place, a dangerous place — and the greater the night, the greater your need to be there. We must not put our lights under a bushel."
Asking whether Southern Baptists will shine and salt the "extreme darkness and excessive decay of our day," Graham asked church leaders and pastors to "adopt the Kingdom agenda and to mobilize companies of salt and light around the world."
Drawing on the example of a nineteen-year-old student from Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, Ark., who "stepped into eternity suddenly" in a car accident, he told of a prayer she wrote in her diary "to make daily decisions which have eternal significance."
"That is the compelling cry of our King," Graham concluded. "That every day we would live in the light of eternity and make daily decisions that have eternal weight and significance and consequence."