2007 Southern Baptist Pastors' Conference
Published June 21, 2007
"The issue is not that the Spurs are playing in town in the NBA Finals," Hayes Wicker, Pastors' Conference president, said to the attendees. "Instead, we want to stress our victory and identity in Jesus Christ this weekend.
"We believe God has brought us here for a special reason ... so that we can say, like Jacob, that 'we have met God face to face' ... and [can] experience real revival."
The Sunday evening session—encompassing expository preaching and personal testimony—featured Charles Colson, founder of Prison Fellowship who accepted Christ after gaining notoriety for his role in the 1970s Watergate scandal; Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, and a former SBC president; Jerry Vines, pastor emeritus of First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, and another former SBC president; and Roger Spradlin, pastor of the 7,000-member Valley Baptist Church in Bakersfield, Calif.
The Pastors' Conference theme—"Jesus Christ ... from Him, through Him, to Him"—reminded pastors of the source of their strength and passion for ministry.
Colson addressed the theme by warning that Christians face "a vicious attack by neo-atheists," citing the immense popularity of such recent books as "The God Delusion" by Richard Dawkins. "This is a virulent strain of atheism that seeks to destroy our belief system."
To engage the culture and counter the prevailing belief that truth is relative, Colson said Christians must do better at explaining, in a winsome way, what they believe and why they believe it. To start, Christians must understand that Christianity is more than simply a personal relationship with Jesus, Colson argued.
"We have to understand that Christianity is a worldview," Colson said. "Christianity is a way of seeing all of life and all of reality. It's the way of understanding ultimate truth."
Beyond understanding Christianity in its entirety, Colson said Christians must be faithful to pass their beliefs to their children.
"What is wrong with us when kids are being raised to believe there is no such thing as truth?" he asked. "That's the end of the Christian Gospel if we can't make a truth claim in our culture today."
Such counter-cultural stances can earn enemies, with Patterson speaking on what he has learned about victory in Christ in spite of opposition. Patterson began by noting that any opposition he had experienced in ministry "was infinitesimal" compared to the suffering of Christians around the world who are persecuted for their faith as well as the many pastors each year who are asked by their churches to resign.
For pastors who experience opposition and suffering, Patterson expressed commiseration for the toll it takes on their families.
"The greatest sorrow is not what you experience yourself; it is the sorrow visited on your family," Patterson said, relating that his wife suffers with him "every step of the way."
Speaking to the children of pastors who face opposition, Patterson said, "Don't put your eyes on those events. Put your eyes on Christ Jesus."
However, Patterson noted that God allows opposition in order to develop Christian graces and to "chip away at the barnacles of sin that attached to this old hull."
"God allows opposition and suffering to teach us about His providential oversight," Patterson said. "In the darkest valley, look for the hand of God."
Opposition and suffering point to greater heavenly rewards, Patterson said; they "remind me of the blessings of God and show me the glory that shall be revealed."
Vines engaged the conference theme with an evangelistic message exhorting pastors to be prompt, obedient, observant witnesses for Jesus Christ. Turning to the account of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch described in Acts 8, Vines pointed out that all the ingredients for an effective evangelism approach are outlined in that passage.
When Philip was told to go to Gaza, he did not hesitate. "He could've said, 'Let's appoint a committee and vote on it,'" Vines said. "But, you do not vote on the commands of the Lord Jesus Christ.... Philip did not say, 'Not now.' If you are not willing to tell one person about the Lord Jesus, then you are not qualified to tell multitudes."
The Holy Spirit had prepared the heart of the Ethiopian eunuch to receive the Gospel message. Likewise, Vines encouraged pastors to be alert to any opportunity to share the Gospel with lost men and women in their daily lives, but not to water it down.
"There has been in our country a growing universalism," Vines said, decrying the teaching that everyone goes to heaven regardless of their faith or lack of faith. "Yet the Bible clearly teaches that all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.... The missing element in church growth and evangelism today is the role of the Holy Spirit of God. We need to join ourselves with the Holy Spirit.... [He] will make it possible for you to attach yourselves to people who are receptive to the Gospel."
When people search for answers by going to church, Vines said they need to experience Spirit-filled preaching, music and an invitation to accept Jesus Christ as Lord. Church visitors too often find churches that are either "fried or frozen," he said.
Spradlin brought a personal testimony about how Christians can finish life well like the Apostle Paul recounted in 2 Timothy 2:1-7. First, Spradlin said finishing well means being prepared to fight for your faith and focus on the future.
"We are in a long relay race, and the baton has been handed to us," Spradlin said. "We must hand it off to the next generation undiluted."
Spradlin old pastors to resist the tendency to be isolated and, instead, enter into accountability relationships with each other. Isolation leads to discouragement that can come from daily ministry to "sinners saved by grace," he said.
"There is pettiness and opposition that keeps us from seeing the big picture," Spradlin said. "Sometimes in ministry you have to go where the band doesn't play.... The prize is at the end of the race."
Spradlin said Paul was finishing well by forgetting about the failures of others, especially if they have caused pain or grief. Spradlin shared how his first-born 4-year-old daughter Charity was killed by a hit-and-run driver about a year after he started leading the Bakersfield church.
The driver turned herself in to the authorities, but one Saturday morning she came knocking on the door of the Spradlins' house. She was in tears and begged them for forgiveness. Spradlin said at that moment he prayed and asked God for help in how to respond.
"I forgive you," Spradlin told the weeping driver whose recklessness had caused such pain. In honor of his daughter and in recognition of God's compassion and providence, Spradlin established Charity Ministries to provide a home for orphan girls in India.
"Some people have a long list of those who have wronged them. Bitterness comes from unhealed wounds, which can ruin your ministry," Spradlin said. "People are going to hurt you.... Paul had learned to let go, and so must we."
In the Monday session of the conference, Southern Baptist pastors and others prescribed renewed confidence in the power of the Gospel, abiding in Christ and personal holiness as remedies to the decline in baptisms across the Southern Baptist Convention.
Dwayne Mercer, senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Oviedo, focused on the importance of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
"All these things are good, but I wonder sometimes if we are not accentuating the human side of the equation while neglecting the spiritual," Mercer said. "I don't ever want to be caught wrapped up in my personal ambition. I don't ever want to be caught up in the things—even the good things—of this world so that I cannot pay attention to the Holy Spirit of God in my life."
James MacDonald, senior pastor of Harvest Bible Chapel in Rolling Meadows, Ill., reminded Christians they are the recipients of a Gospel of power, which they should proclaim boldly.
"The power of the Gospel is in the proclamation [of the message], not in persuasion. I want to stir within you the belief that the power is in the message itself," MacDonald said. "We don't need to lose our confidence in the Gospel or the Word of God because Jesus conquers stubborn unbelief."
Citing a decrease of 7,000 baptisms in Southern Baptist churches from 2005 to 2006, Johnny Hunt, pastor of First Baptist Church in Woodstock, Ga., challenged pastors to recommit themselves to reaching people with the Gospel.
"The greatest need in the Southern Baptist Convention is not in the pew, it's in the pulpit," Hunt said. "If we're giving more money and making less impact, then something is wrong in the pulpits of America."
Hunt said Southern Baptists have no excuse when 22,000 churches failed to baptize anyone between the ages of 12 and 17 in 2005.
Michael Catt, senior pastor of Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Ga., said individuals, local churches and the Southern Baptist Convention will be able to bear fruit if they abide in Christ.
"Jesus invited us to three experiences: come to me, follow me and abide in me," Catt said. "Abide is not a passive word, it is an active word. It was the magnificent obsession of the early church to be in Christ. We can do more if we learn that the source of our power comes from abiding in Christ."
James 4 teaches that idolatrous desires in pastors' hearts can prevent their prayers for the salvation of sinners from being answered, said J.D. Greear, senior pastor of Summit Church in Durham, N.C.
"There are two things that I try to hear God saying to me each morning," Greear said. "First, I try to hear God saying you are my son in Christ. Second, I try to remind myself that I don't need the world because I have everything I need in Christ."
A lack of holiness is the cause of an anemic Christianity more concerned about a person's physical appearance than their spiritual condition, said James Merritt, senior pastor of Cross Pointe Church in Duluth, Ga.
Merritt, a former president of the SBC, said many churches are too concerned with "extra-biblical standards" about "what we think church should be like."
"We should be consumed with a holy love," Merritt said. "We ought to be holy because we've been converted by God."
JAMES T. DRAPER JR.
James T. Draper Jr., president emeritus of LifeWay Christian Resources, R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., and O.S. Hawkins, president of GuideStone Financial Resources, shared personal testimonies about Christ's victory in different aspects of their lives.
Sharing about Christ's victory in spite of temptation, Draper said he learned his presumed strength was actually one of his greatest weaknesses.
"I was confident that I would never be immoral with another woman," Draper said. "However, a young woman in my church began to take a special interest in me. I was her counselor and I was flattered at her interest. I thought I was not capable of being immoral. Then, one day God opened my heart and let me see what He saw. As I reflected about the state of my heart, I saw a disgusting, black reality and God showed me that I was capable of committing every sin. That was a life-transforming moment for me."
R. ALBERT MOHLER JR.
Mohler discussed Christ's victory in spite of pain in light of his recent life-threatening bout with blood clots in his lungs. Mohler shared several lessons he learned through his own bodily pain during his recent hospitalization.
"Our body reminds us of an incredible, sovereign God who made us," Mohler said. "We also have a body that reminds us of the effects of sin and our need for grace. Lastly, we have a body that reminds us of eternity. Pain reminds us that we are not to be satisfied here. Our bodies are yearning for the glorification that will come [for believers] when Christ returns."
Addressing Christ's victory in spite of affliction, Hawkins talked about his grandson Jackson's tragic eye accident last summer. Jackson, now four, has undergone three surgeries after injuring his eye with a letter opener.
Hawkins said pain can do what joy cannot. Although it initially leaves people in confusion, it ultimately brings them through confidence to comfort, he said.
Following Mohler's testimony Wicker set aside a time of encouragement and prayer for those in the audience suffering through trials.
Wicker said there was a great "esprit d'cor" among the people of First Baptist Church in Naples in putting together the Pastor's Conference. About 200 people traveled from Florida at their own expense to and adopted each speaker and program person in the women's conference and pastors' conference, Wicker said.
"There was a real spiritual hunger for the truths that were being taught about the victorious Christian life in its different aspects," Wicker said. "We gathered together around a common focus of evangelism and lifting up Christ. I didn't sense any divisiveness or critical spirit by and large."
Elected as Pastors' Conference officers for 2008 were Michael Catt, senior pastor of Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Ga., president; Steve Dighton, senior pastor of Lenexa Baptist Church in Lenexa, Kan., vice president; and Roy Crowe, senior pastor of Highland Baptist Church in Laurel, Miss., secretary/treasurer.
Coverage of the Pastors' Conference symposium and breakout sessions will be covered in next week's Witness.