As our Southern Baptist Convention embarks on a journey into a new millennium, I can say with absolute certainty that our future is as bright as the promises of God. Yes, there are some storm clouds on the horizon, but no storm cloud yet has ever overpowered the sun — neither the "sun" we see by sight nor the "Son" we see by faith.
I believe at this point in time there is a word from God for our Convention. It is Isaiah 54:2-3:
Enlarge the place of your tent, and let them stretch out the curtains of your habitations; do not spare; lengthen your cords, and strengthen your stakes.
For you shall expand to the right and to the left, and your descendants will inherit the nations; and make the desolate cities inhabited.
God said to the nation of Israel, "You are in a tent. It is My tent that holds My people. You should be constantly lengthening the tent and strengthening the tent."
Southern Baptists have become known as the denomination marked by two things: cooperation and conviction. It is these two tools that God has used and blessed to both lengthen our tent and strengthen our tent. So I want to propose two principles for us to consider tonight.
We Lengthen The Cords Of Our Tent — By Cooperation
Enlarge the place of your tent, and let them stretch out the curtains of your habitations; do not spare; lengthen your cords (v.2). God has graciously enlarged the tent known as the Southern Baptist Convention in the last century; now standing at more than 40,000 churches with more than 15 million members.
Seventy-five years ago our spiritual forefathers lengthened the cords and established the Cooperative Program. May I say to you that the Cooperative Program is not just a program — it is a spirit, it is a heart. It is an attitude that says, "Two heads are better than one, and a threefold cord is not easily broken." The Cooperative Program is simple as ABC — All Baptists Cooperate.
There has been a tremendous partnership during these years between the Southern Baptist Convention and our state conventions, and I want to take a moment and express my deepest appreciation for our state conventions who are standing strong with the Southern Baptist Convention, with our hearts chained together by love, and our hands linked together through the Cooperative Program.
I want to thank Southern Baptists in Florida, Virginia, North Carolina, Alabama, Texas, California, Colorado, New York, and in so many other places who helped a newly married, twenty-three-year-old young man get a masters degree and a Ph.D. and all along the way invested in my ministry.
I am grateful that through the Cooperative Program my church has the opportunity to invest in the lives of the future leaders of our Convention from all over the world, who are now being educated in our seminaries.
There are those who say that our tent is too narrow, and that we need to "broaden the tent." Well, I want to submit to you tonight that our tent is broad. It stretches from the Garden of Eden to the Island of Patmos. It stretches from "In the beginning" to "Even so, come Lord Jesus."
• It is as broad as the gospel of Jesus Christ, which is sufficient to save everybody, and the only message that can save anybody (Rom. 1:16).
• It is as broad as the grace of God, which has appeared to all men (Titus 2:11).
• It is as broad as the goodness of the Holy Spirit, which leads us to repentance (Rom. 2:4).
But I want to say clearly that our tent will never be broadened by compromising one jot or one tittle in this Book. Yes, our tent is broad, but not so broad as to compromise truth, tolerate heresy, or accommodate the spirit of an age where political correctness is more important than spiritual fidelity.
Our tent is broad, but we will not broaden our tent if it means going back to the days when seminary professors defended abortion and homosexuality, denied biblical miracles and the uniqueness of Jesus Christ, and declared a universalism that substitutes sincerity of faith for salvation through Christ.
But I want to say clearly to all Baptists everywhere. If you —
1) believe this Book has God as its author, salvation for its end, and truth without any mixture of error;
2) believe that this world is lost in sin and in need of salvation;
3) believe that Jesus Christ is God's only way to heaven, and only way to salvation;
4) and believe that the gospel should be taken to all of the world;
— you are not only welcome to come into our tent, you will be extremely happy here, and you can help us continue to lengthen our cords through cooperation.
We Strengthen Our Stakes — By Conviction
We are told here not only to "lengthen our cords" but we are also told to "strengthen our stakes." There is a reason for this. If you lengthen your cords, without strengthening your stakes, the first wind that comes along will blow your tent away. If we lengthen our cords without strengthening our stakes, our tent will be tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine (Eph. 4:14).
As I stand before you tonight, I am here humbly and gratefully, but enthusiastically to tell you that our stakes are strong.
In our seminaries our stakes are strong. Our churches can send their men and women to any of our six seminaries, knowing that they will get a first-rate theological education. But even more importantly, they can be assured that the students' faith in the Bible as the inerrant Word of God will be built up and not torn down; can be assured that they will be taught the whole counsel of God; and can be assured that they will not be taught anything contrary to the Scripture, nor to the Baptist Faith and Message.
Southern Seminary and Southeastern Seminary were two of our hardest hit seminaries because of our past controversy. But in the last three years the enrollment at Southern Seminary has gone from 2,107 in 1996 to 2,450 in the year 2000. Enrollment at Southeastern Seminary has gone from 1,629 in 1996 to 2,010 in the year 2000. All six seminaries are led by men of God who love the Word of God, who have assembled tremendous faculties and staff, and who are totally loyal to the Southern Baptist Convention.
In our missions and evangelism agencies our stakes are strong. In the last three years Southern Baptists have averaged over 410,000 baptisms per year. We now have over 10,000 missionaries both at home and abroad. In the last three years $281 million dollars has been given to the Lottie Moon Offering for Foreign Missions and $126 million has been given to the Annie Armstrong Offering for Home Missions.
In our Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission our stakes are strong. We now have a strong presence in Washington, D.C., on the radio and in print, whose trumpet gives a certain sound. On every tough issue, from abortion, to homosexuality, to pornography, to gambling, to alcohol, this agency neither flinches nor falters in standing for what is right and true.
Finally, our Executive Committee can report that giving to the work of the kingdom through the Cooperative Program is strong. Total Cooperative Program giving was $431 million in 1997, $441 million in 1998, and $462 million in 1999.
But I say to you tonight, we still need to lengthen our cords and we still need to strengthen our stakes. In light of that, I bring four priorities to my tenure as President of this Convention:
1. In the area of missions, I have a burden that more of our pastors in our Convention have been to Israel than have ever been on a mission trip. The thought has occurred to me that if you take the Great Commission literally when Jesus said we should go into all of the world and make disciples of all the nations, individual Christians cannot truly and honestly say they have fulfilled the Great Commission until they have crossed the ocean or the sea or some border into another country around the world to share the gospel. Therefore I want to challenge every member of the Executive Committee tonight, and every agency head tonight, within the next two years to take at least one mission trip somewhere other than this land we call America. I would like to challenge every pastor in the SBC in the next two years to schedule at least one mission trip with people in their church, that they might come to know firsthand the opportunities of sharing the gospel with a world that is lost and hungry and in need of a Savior. Giving to missions is no substitute for living missions.
2. My second priority would be in evangelism. By the next Executive Committee meeting, I would challenge every member of the Executive Committee and every agency head to be able to share at least one experience of sharing their faith with a lost person. I have encouraged the North American Mission Board, and they have agreed, to sponsor a "Saved to Share" Sunday in which every Southern Baptist will be given an opportunity to write out their own personal testimony, and then to take that personal testimony and use it as a tool to share with lost people how they came to know Christ and to give them an opportunity to receive Christ as well. Dead orthodoxy is as dangerous as live liberalism.
3. My third priority is to motivate our Convention to reach the next generation. Dr. Bob Reccord of the North American Mission Board told me that last year baptisms of youth between the age of twelve and eighteen were at an all-time low in the Southern Baptist Convention. Eighty-eight percent of people under the age of twenty-five don't go to church anywhere. Fifty percent of kids in church drop out after they reach eighteen, and half of those never come back. The cold hard fact is if we do not reach the next generation, we will die out before we ever dry up.
4. Finally, I have a burden that we reach out to the next generation of pastors. We must move and motivate our younger pastors and those who would be future leaders in our Convention, to take interest in their Convention; to understand the importance of loyalty to this denomination and to get involved both at the annual meeting and on a consistent basis in the great enterprise called the Southern Baptist Convention.
So I close my address tonight with these words: Now is no time to stoop to bitterness and destruction, now is the time to arise and build. Now is not the time for division, now is the time for cohesion. Now is not the time for retreat, now is the time to charge with the sword of the Spirit and the gospel of Jesus Christ. Now is not the time to break ranks, now is the time to join ranks and to go for God.
The day after World War II began, Melvin Baker, president of the National Gypsum Company, sent a telegram to Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, that said, "The management of this corporation believes that business should go all out for quick, decisive victory ... and to this end the company's resources, technical knowledge, and the production at its twenty-one plants are at your disposal."
Well, the government was quick to take Baker up on the offer and sent a team of attorneys to work out the details with the company's attorneys. As meeting after meeting dragged out, as haggling over details dragged on, Baker finally stood up and said, "Look, there's a war going on. Let's forget about dotting the 'i's. Let's get together and go win this war!" Both sets of attorneys were startled for a moment, then they laughed and quickly signed the necessary papers.
I don't expect everyone to dot every "i" that I dot, nor cross every "t" that I cross, and neither can anyone else in this Convention. But I say to all of my fellow Southern Baptists, we can get together on the Word of God, we can get together on the gospel of Christ, we can get together on the love of Jesus, and let us lengthen our cords and strengthen our stakes until everyone has had the opportunity to enter into the tent of the grace of God.
James G. Merritt is president of the Southern Baptist Convention and pastor of First Baptist Church, Snellville, Ga.