The starting point for Southern Baptists is not the Great Commission, but "falling in love with Jesus once again," Bryant Wright told messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting June 14.
Wright, president of the SBC and pastor of Johnson Ferry Baptist Church in Marietta, Georgia, likened Southern Baptists to the New Testament church of Ephesus that Jesus rebuked for having abandoned its first love.
Taking his text from Revelation 2:1-7, Wright noted that Christ began His message to the Ephesian church with words of commendation—and Wright acknowledged that Southern Baptists are doing thousands of good things at home and around the world.
"Ephesus had existed for forty years and endured hardship in the midst of a pagan culture," Wright said. "The Southern Baptist Convention, formed in 1845 in Augusta, Georgia, has survived a civil war, two world wars, the Great Depression, the recent years of economic recession, and years of abundance and great prosperity. In the past fifty years our convention has persevered in the midst of the most rapid moral and social change in the history of the American culture."
Like the church at Ephesus, Southern Baptists have resisted and exposed false doctrine, Wright said. "Unlike other mainline denominations that have chosen to take one pro-sin position after another, Southern Baptists have stood unapologetically upon the Word of God," he declared.
Wright continued: "Southern Baptists years ago decided that we must be faithful to the perfectly true written Word of God. In our seminaries, it is unbelievable what has happened in the last thirty years. Seeing the sound doctrine and the passion for Christ, for missions and church planting among our faculty and students, is an absolute miracle."
After Christ affirmed the church at Ephesus, Wright noted, He offered a word of rebuke because the church had lost its first love.
"We leave our first love when other priorities begin to be bigger priorities in our lives than our relationship with Jesus," Wright said. "I believe the number one idol within the lives of our people and in the lives of our churches is materialism.
"Studies have shown that less than 2.5 percent of every dollar is given by evangelical Christians in America today [to missions causes]. What it clearly says to us is that no matter how much our people profess that they love Jesus, they love their money more," Wright said. "There is no way that when a person is continuing to steal from God, they can claim they love Jesus Christ."
America's hedonistic culture influences today's church, and pornography is sapping the spiritual life from men in congregations, Wright asserted.
"There is also an incredible lust for the latest, up-to-date technology," the Georgia pastor said. "To stay connected through the latest social network technology becomes the dominant focus of the lives of many people.
"We can even let good things cause us to leave our first love—our families, our work, even our ministry," Wright continued. "I believe the major temptation for anyone who serves in Christian ministry is to begin to confuse their ministry with their relationship to Jesus Christ. Not our family, our work, or our ministry is to come before Jesus Christ."
Wright pointed out that Christ told the church at Ephesus to do three things to reclaim their first love: remember, repent, and then repeat what they did in their "honeymoon" days.
"When we begin to love the Lord, we will begin to love the lost," Wright proclaimed.
"The Southern Baptist Convention was founded on two key issues—one was good
and one was bad," Wright said. "We were founded in defense of slavery. We finally apologized, but it was 150 years late. The good thing was the spread of the Gospel. The Great Commission is the reason we were formed as a convention
Wright pointed out that the International Mission Board has identified 3,800 "unreached and unengaged" people groups that, as far as researchers know, have no church, no mission ministry, no witness for Christ. He challenged Southern Baptists to reclaim their first love by taking the Gospel to those people groups.
"There is no reason why Southern Baptists cannot adopt every one of those 3,800 people groups," Wright said. "Churches of all sizes can be a part of this effort. Churches can partner together to adopt some unreached and unengaged people group."
Wright recalled a conversation with Tom Elliff, president of the International Mission Board, in which they discovered their hearts were in complete agreement about mobilizing churches to reach the remaining unreached and unengaged people groups.
"We have to make a decision. Our decision is to be a part of God's Kingdom business or be on the sidelines," Wright said. "With all of our resources and with all 45,000 churches, there is no reason why we cannot have a sufficient number of churches to step forward and embrace every one of the unengaged and unreached people groups."
Wright reminded the audience that Christ warned the church at Ephesus their "lampstand would be removed" if they did not appropriately respond to the challenge placed before them. "If Southern Baptists do not respond to the challenge God has given us to reach the world, we risk having our lampstand removed," Wright declared.
"We need to repent and get our priorities right," Wright said. "Are we going to be on the front lines of ministry or are we going to be on the sidelines?
"God is going to find someone who is willing, and if we are not faithful to obey His Word, our lampstand will be removed. There is nothing sacred about the Southern Baptist Convention," Wright said, "[if] the Southern Baptist Convention refuses to follow the will of God."
J. Gerald Harris is interim pastor of Liberty Baptist Church in Dalton, Georgia, and is editor of The Christian Index, the state paper for the Georgia Baptist Convention.