In 1897, while on a prolonged visit in London, Mark Twain received an unexpected visit from a reporter representing the N.Y. Journal. It seems that a report concerning the illness of Twain's cousin had been misunderstood in the States, and some had wrongly concluded that Twain himself was at death's door. On that occasion, the irrepressible author penned his now-famous response:
The report of my death was an exaggeration.
In recent days it has become somewhat chic, even among some Southern Baptists, to opine that denominationalism is dead, and therefore irrelevant. Certainly, some mainline denominations have clearly shown inarguable signs of irreversible demise, and in some cases that fate might be appropriate. When a denomination en masse jettisons its God-ordained responsibility to fulfill the assignment of Acts 1:8 — when it refuses to even acknowledge the authority and validity of the very source of that command, the Word of God — such demise may in fact be beneficial.
But is it fair to discount the validity and value of all denominational structures? More specifically, is it premature, and perhaps even destructive, to assign such dark diagnoses to the conventions and associations of Southern Baptists? My old boss, Dr. Bill Merrell, refers to this as an "unexamined assumption."
In the last issue of SBC LIFE we considered the Lord's command in Acts 1:8, pointing out that the Lord expects us to reach out to all four mission fields — Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth — simultaneously, rather than sequentially. We also pointed out that the most effective and efficient means for helping accomplish that goal is the Cooperative Program, because it funds the equipping and sending of missionaries to our own Judea (state), Samaria (nation), and "ends of the earth" (world).
But that raises the question: How do you organize to accomplish such a grand and glorious goal?
Consider this: Suppose you had access to $187 million that was designated to fund national and global evangelism (not to mention funds available on a local or statewide basis). Remember, God's primary instrument for accomplishing the Great Commission is the local church, but suppose you had more than 43,000 like-minded local congregations across the nation who were willing to join and support such an effort. You share a passion for advancing the gospel around the world, and you have the resources to do it, what would you do?
At some point you would agree on the need to organize, because an organism without structure bears a striking resemblance to an amoeba. In that organization process, you understand that it is not feasible for the more than 16 million members of those churches to all meet together in the same place at the same time, so you agree that it would be best for churches to send some of their members to a gathering — perhaps an annual gathering — to meet and decide on the best strategy for fulfilling Acts 1:8.
In that meeting, you agree that these funds should go primarily to evangelism, but you also recognize the need to have separate organizations — one for reaching North America and one for international evangelism, with staffs answering for those responsibilities — so you establish mission agencies for both realms.
But you also recognize the need for training pastors and missionaries to help these churches effectively fulfill Acts 1:8, so you decide to establish and oversee seminaries.
You see where this is going. This specifically reflects the need for a national organization, but the scenario could be repeated again and again on State and Associational levels as well.
As we have pointed out, individual churches, in and of themselves, are not capable of adequately addressing every level of the Acts 1:8 challenge. The questions we asked in the last issue apply here: How can a local church possibly obey this command? How can we advance and extend the gospel to those spheres beyond our own community? Are there structures in place that would effectively and efficiently accommodate such a task?
The obvious answers are once again found in the Southern Baptist Convention, your State Convention, and your local Association.
The reality is that these organizations are specifically and uniquely designed to accommodate and help churches carry out their mandate to be witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and around the world!
Again, it all comes back to the gospel. We are duty bound to use the organizational structures that will most effectively and efficiently facilitate the advance of the gospel on all four levels.
The Southern Baptist Convention, your State Convention, and your local Association are those structures!
This is not to suggest that these organizations are perfect; on this side of glory, we will not see perfection in any organization with human components.
But the Lord does not require perfection as a prerequisite for His working. Case in point — consider your church! Consider its pastor! Every successful endeavor that has utilized human agency serves as a mighty testimony of God's immeasurable and enduring grace!
Furthermore, you are uniquely positioned to positively influence all three of these organizations in order to ensure that they are the most effective and efficient they can be. You are also uniquely positioned to make sure they stay on task!
There is no need to "reinvent the wheel" when it comes to denominational structure. When the wheel on your car starts to wobble, you wouldn't decide to develop an alternative to the wheel — it's much easier to take your car to the mechanic and have him balance the wheels. Granted, sometimes it is necessary to replace a wheel. But that's not nearly as radical as seeking out a mechanical engineer and starting from scratch.
Our Southern Baptist denominational organizations may need balancing from time to time, but you are the one in a position to help do that! And there are occasions when it has been necessary to replace a denominational wheel — but that doesn't mean the entire structure is dead or irrelevant.
With your input and participation, your Southern Baptist association and conventions are poised to help you take the gospel to every person on all four levels! When you attend the respective meetings, when you prayerfully consider and vote on leadership, when you help determine how money will be spent, and when you help shape perspective, policy, and strategy, you are actually helping churches across the nation fulfill Acts 1:8!
Cooperation is more than a great word — it is a noble, worthy, and biblical principle — one certainly worth pursuing and embracing.
No single church can accomplish the Acts 1:8 challenge on its own; in fact, a church's tendency toward isolation may actually reflect its pastor's diminished and defective view of evangelism. Even worse, it might reflect a pastor's misdirected affection and passion.
But together we can — we can reach Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth — for the glory of God.
John Revell is associate editor of SBC LIFE.