I have stated over and over that Ed Stetzer's Convention address was truly one of the great high points of the San Antonio Convention for me. I was deeply thrilled at his balance, biblical content, and prophetic power. His words were challenging, convicting, and powerful. I encourage all Southern Baptists to review them carefully and to see if we might come together in agreement that Ed's comments strike to the very heart of who we are and where we need to be.
Dr. Frank Page
President of the Southern Baptist Convention
I'd like you to take your Bible and turn with me to Acts chapter 16. We're going to look at the story of a journey and a vision. Our message title is "Come Over and Help Us." In that simple phrase, we find some great truths that can draw us together as a Convention. Truths that are — truth be told — what brought us together in the first place.
Frank Page asked me to bring a charge on how to reach North America. But, please note, we must never confuse ourselves that reaching America is so different than reaching the rest of the world. North America is a mission field because Jesus has sent us here. We are sent on mission for God's purposes to people in culture. I've used the word "missional" to describe that. If we are to reach North America, we must live as missionaries in our context.
Acts 16 will help us to think through that. Beginning at verse 7, it says, When they came to Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them. So, bypassing Mysia, they came down to Troas. During the night a vision appeared to Paul: a Macedonian man was standing and pleading with him, "Cross over to Macedonia and help us!" After he had seen the vision, we immediately made efforts to set out for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to evangelize them.
"Come over to Macedonia and help us!" That simple phrase describes a passion lived in the life of Paul and modeled in the New Testament. I want to break that phrase into three parts.
"Come over to Macedonia"
"Come over to Macedonia" is the first part. The idea of coming and going is tied into the Great Commission. We are sent, and we are to go. Most of the problems in the New Testament were caused by immature believers recently led to Christ. The mission of God is what got their blood flowing and gave them passion.
The context says Paul and his companions tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to. They were struggling and confused with their direction, but they knew they couldn't stop pressing forward for the cause of the Gospel.
Paul was speaking of Macedonia, but I think the example here gives us insight for our own context. When Paul heard the call there, he went, just as he did in Acts chapter 13 when he went to Pisidian Antioch and engaged a Jewish cultural context; or in Acts chapter 14 in Lystra where he engaged a pagan cultural context; or in Acts chapter 17 where he engaged high Greek culture with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
This was not just a geographic "Come over," but also a cultural one. We Southern Baptists have got to embrace the fact that when we read Scripture saying, "Come over," it is talking to us. We must not pine away for a culture of times past. We must engage the culture here and now with the life-changing and unchanging message of Jesus Christ.
That means you and I have to go into our community, not someone else. Please don't come home from a wonderful conference or read a wonderful book and say, "I want to be just like that church." Too many of us pastors have fallen in love with somebody else's town, somebody else's flock. But Jesus has sent us to where we are now and to the whole world for His glory. We must not love another — we must love the one He has sent us to.
We have to come into the culture where we are today. When every category of baptisms is trending down except those under five years of age, when more than 50 percent of SBC churches baptized no youth last year, when less than 10 percent of SBC churches are significantly involved in church planting, something is wrong. To reach North America for Christ, we're going to have to go into culture and proclaim a biblically-faithful Gospel.
It was fascinating to see people line up in the exhibit hall to hear the great theological radio debates here at this Convention. I think it's a good sign that Southern Baptists are talking about theology, but is there perhaps some irony, considering our Conventional decline, that behind them the Conference of Southern Baptists Evangelists booth was mostly empty.
I care deeply about theology, but is it controversy that excites us? Or is it God's mission? I want us to cry out before God: "Send us so people might hear the Gospel and be transformed by its power." We've got to be a missions people focused on reaching a lost world for Jesus.
"Come over and help"
The second is the word "help." The most important step in helping anyone is introducing them to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Our mission has to be tied into the mission of Jesus, to seek and save those who are lost!
We are partners with God in the act of reconciliation. Second Corinthians 5:18-19 says: Now everything is from God who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation...and He has committed the message of reconciliation to us. Friends, we may need to do some reconciling among ourselves so we can get back into the ministry of reconciliation.
This mission should compel us, it should excite us, and yes, it should be the reason that causes us to cooperate together.
If we're going to reach North America, we're going to do it best by doing it together.
That's why there's a "we" in the text. Notice how the "they" became a "we" in the middle of the text. Let me share with you some ideas about how we might do that together with three emphases:
One, we have to help by contending for the faith. We are a people of the Book. We hold certain things to be true because we believe them to be scriptural. No group without a firmly held theology reaches people for Christ. Missions without doctrine leads to compromise, and compromise leads to a lack of commitment to biblical truth. Soon we no longer see the need for evangelism because we have a flawed and weak doctrine.
Scripture calls us to contend for the faith in Jude 3. The battle for inerrancy in our Convention is over and won, yet preserving our doctrinal integrity is an ongoing task.
However, if we have to agree on everything, our mission will amount to nothing. Wasn't the promise of the conservative resurgence that we would get to the point that we agree on enough that we can now reach the world for Christ? When will that come? I'm ready. Are you?
I'm not without awareness that some of you use different confessions, but Southern Baptists have expressed our confession in what's called the Baptist Faith and Message. It's not perfect; it does not pretend to contain everything we need; but it is the statement we have agreed to. We cannot reach this continent by compromising these doctrines. But we need to live them out in different contexts.
We need to bring "help" by contextualizing. Many think they know what a Baptist church looks like. Some have suggested we need to mandate what it should look like, from dress, to worship style, to music. This is a fundamentally flawed strategy.
Around the world, we teach missionaries to understand their culture and plant churches. Lottie Moon dressed in Chinese clothes, lived in Chinese culture, and ate Chinese food — at least until she starved to death giving it all away. It is a great irony that one of the greatest missionary examples in our history, one whose work is celebrated each year at Christmas, is not the model in our own churches.
We will not reach North America of 2007 for Christ if we continue to try to do so with the church methods that worked in the North America of the 1950s. In 1 Corinthians 9:22-23, Paul explained it this way: To the weak I became weak, in order to win the weak. I have become all things to all people, so that I may by all means save some. Now I do all this because of the gospel, that I may become a partner in its benefits. If we're going to live out a biblically-faithful church, the Bible says we have to get in the context in a way that the Gospel can be proclaimed in an understandable way.
In Romans 9:3, Paul says: For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from the Messiah for the benefit of my brothers, my countrymen by physical descent. Paul's passion is so great that not only is he willing to become all things to all men, but he is willing to sacrifice his very salvation so the Hebrews might be saved. Yet for many of us in our churches, we cannot even give up our own Sunday morning preferences so men and women might be saved. Too many of our churches have chosen their traditions over their children.
We've also got to help by cooperating. We must be known as the Convention that believes in biblical fidelity and engaging people in culture, and we must learn to do it together. A theological renaissance that's not followed by biblical evangelism and missions is odd indeed.
We need all hands on deck for the Great Commission. We need a new common passion: reaching a lost world for Jesus. Brothers and sisters, it is not — and must not be — a liberal thing to call people to unite around missions. If we have a solid and settled theology, what we've got to do now is to cooperate.
"Come over and help us"
There's one more little word in our sentence — the word "us." "Come over and help us." Luke doesn't say, "Come and debate theology." He says, "Come over and help us!" We have got to do what it takes so men and women hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Too many of us love our preferences, our tertiary issues, our factions more than lost people — and lost people matter to God! Brothers and sisters, it's not what kind of songs you sing. It doesn't matter what you call yourself. What matters is our biblical mission — a faithful message of the Gospel lived out in a scripturally-sound church telling the Good News of the Cross and the Kingdom.
I have a funny-shaped foot, and it takes a while for a new shoe to adjust. So I wear my shoes a long time. But when the sole begins to wear out, and I step in a puddle, the water will rush up between my toes. Even though I don't like breaking in new shoes, I'll get a new pair when the water starts seeping in. I'll put up with the pain because of the greater benefit.
People never change until the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of change. We can bemoan declining baptisms another year, or we can figure out we need to change to reach North America for Jesus Christ.
Luke records, After he had seen the vision, we immediately made efforts to set out for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to evangelize them. Could we leave this Convention with a passion for mission? Could we leave this Convention with a vision for the people of our community? After we hear the cry, "Come over and help us," can we cry out like Isaiah, "Here I am, Lord, send me"?
God help us that we might be focused on His mission for His purposes, and that His name and His fame might become more widely known.
Ed Stetzer is director of LifeWay Research and LifeWay Christian Resources' missiologist in residence.