WILLIAMSBURG, Va.?Southern Baptists must stop idolizing materialism if they are to return to their first love of Jesus Christ, declared Southern Baptist Convention President Bryant Wright in speaking to the Association of Baptist State Papers Feb. 16. It’s a focus he has shared across the country in calling for biblical stewardship.
“A radical reprioritization of our commitment to the Great Commission begins with the individual,” Wright said, using his own congregation at Johnson Ferry Baptist Church in Marietta, Ga., as an example. “The number [of members] that give nothing to the Lord’s work is astounding.”
That shift involves not just giving, but going, he said. As members of his church go on international mission trips through partnerships with evangelical ministries, he said their faith is revitalized.
“People come back home to north Atlanta and get under real conviction as they think about neighbors they have lived with for 10 years and never invited to church.”
He reiterated his desire to see a larger share of funding going to international missions. Through sacrifice at the state convention level, he said “the thought of getting the gospel out to the parts of the world where people have never heard or there is little witness for Christ would galvanize folks in their excitement of giving to the Cooperative Program,” the traditional means of funding both domestic and international mission boards, six theological seminaries, the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and the SBC Executive Committee.
State Baptist newspaper editors pressed Wright to explain his church’s decision to cut its CP contribution in half in order to send the portion saved directly to the International Mission Board through the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering.
“What do you say [about not reaching] a state like California with 33 million people that would be about the 35th largest nation in the world,” asked Terry Barone, editor of the California Southern Baptist.
“We are called to reach our Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the uttermost parts of the world,” Wright said, referencing Acts 1:8. At his own church where he has pastored for 29 years, the Cooperative Program received 10 percent of the church’s undesignated receipts for about the first 15 years, he explained, noting additional contributions to fund various parachurch organizations like Campus Crusade and Prison Fellowship.
The enthusiasm mission volunteers expressed after returning from overseas service led church leaders to request a study of CP funding. “These are sharp guys who are very excited about the Lord and the church,” Wright said. “When they found out over a majority of the funds were staying in the state of Georgia, they were appalled. It was not anti-reaching our state because some [were involved] in mission projects around the state. But just the thought of 3,000-plus churches with probably another 10,000 evangelical congregations in the state versus places like California or villages in Africa or remote places of China was just hard to grasp. How could a majority stay in the state?”
By giving half of the budget allocation in the traditional manner through the Georgia Baptist Convention where a portion is used for in-state ministry before sending the remainder to SBC causes and designating the other half for the International Mission Board through a designated gift to LMCO, the church’s desire that “a majority of dollars wind up in international missions” was accomplished, though two years of underfunded budgets have necessitated lowering the CP portion, Wright said. “We had to back off of that and are moving back up to the 5 percent level.”
Contrasting the needs in states like California from Bible Belt states “as far as our historical strength in Southern Baptist life,” Wright said, “I realize you could make the argument that 80 percent of Atlanta is lost. That’s why I’m passionate about the local mission field where God has planted us, but there are still a huge number of witness points?lighthouses?seeking to reach Atlanta,” he said.
Returning to his main point, Wright said giving by Southern Baptists has gone down across the board. “If individuals would be faithful to God, giving would be far beyond anything we could imagine, but people are in bondage” to materialism. Referring again to his church, he added, “We would rather give all 10 percent to CP, but would like to see a substantial change in how those funds are used.”
Northwest Baptist Editor Cameron Crabtree asked whether Wright was challenging only some states to change their priorities. “One of the things that puzzles me on your challenge is, for example, if Georgia chooses to send a substantial portion of its budget to California, it’s to reach the masses there, but if California allocates its own resources to do that very same thing, it’s keeping it at home. Why is it good for one, but not the other, when we’re really talking about the same result?” he asked.
After sharing his excitement over his church’s involvement in partnering with 13 other SBC churches to plant a church in California’s Silicon Valley, Wright responded. “It’s much healthier if those conventions in our Bible Belt states are giving more outside their states to the work of missions in light of all the witness points in those states.”
He reiterated his belief that such an approach would lead to a groundswell of support, especially with younger pastors. “Giving to the Cooperative Program would be enhanced in the process. It’s speculation. I don’t have proof of that, but we would be more excited at Johnson Ferry.”
Wright recognized that state conventions have to make tough decisions about their budgets in order to operate more efficiently, just as local churches like his own have sought to do.
“The good news is every ministry area had to be evaluated to ask what is primary, what do we need to focus on. That’s what will happen in state conventions if there’s a willingness,” he said.
Referring to a decline in CP giving, Alabama Baptist Editor Bob Terry asked Wright whether he saw the cause as being the love of money or a less effective denomination. “I think we not only live in a post-Christian age but a post-denominational age,” Wright said while also acknowledging that statistics show no increase in giving by Christians.
“Johnson Ferry has decided to be a part of a denomination. I feel we can do more together with other churches than alone, but in the mindset of the culture it is a post-denominational age.”
And yet Wright sees that as an exciting challenge. “It means you’ve got to have something of substance to offer people or they aren’t going to pay attention to you. If we have something to offer them such as the finest church planting ministry in America, don’t you know these young guys would be excited about that?”
While seminary students in his day were anxious to pastor churches in county seat towns, Wright said, “With these young guys it’s not even on their radar. They want to plant a church. We can moan and grown about people not being denominationally loyal, but it’s the world we live in so let’s think about how we can do ministry in the most Christlike, spiritually impactful way.”
Wright’s appeal for a focus on missions will be evident at the annual SBC meeting in Phoenix June 14-15 as mission board reports take center stage each afternoon when crowds are stronger. In planning the schedule with the Committee on Order of Business, Wright anticipates holding appointment services for both the North American Mission Board and International Mission Board during Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons with worship sessions reflecting contemporary and traditional styles of music.