Zealous for good works

[He] gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works (Titus 2:14).

I plan to complete my 2021 columns by highlighting four distinctives, denominational virtues really, that I’ve observed in the SBTC. Some of these are a tribute to the convention’s founding generation and some are advantages of being the newest of the Southern Baptist state conventions. The first I’d highlight is zeal. 

As I said, there are some advantages relative to energy that convey to new organizations. A new restaurant or a new church can gain momentum just by not being that “same old thing.” The SBTC has benefited from that, but we’ve also seen that being new is an entrée, not the foundation of a long-term mission. There’s a church near us called “Brand New Church.” I don’t know how old they are, but they’ve painted themselves into a corner if being new is their thing. People have to see something more than sparkle when they stick their heads in the door. After more than two decades, the SBTC has developed some deep and stable traits related to zeal and energy. 

One sign of long-term momentum is a commitment to the future rather than the past. You can see it in the staff members the convention has consistently raised up. The SBTC’s leadership team has trended younger than those of other state conventions for most of its life. Trusting younger people with the apparatus of the convention is an act of faith but also signals an openness to innovation that inevitably follows when a new generation leads. It has been a good example to our churches as they also work through significant generational transitions. 

The convention’s zeal is also seen by the posture of reform maintained by its leaders throughout its life. After developing a ministry structure for the first 10 years—those years of growth were an ongoing reformation—the SBTC has been through two major restructures during the second 10 years. These were done in a denominational context that saw other state conventions driven to grudgingly downsize by declining Cooperative Program giving. Such crises in other conventions have often occurred as some pastors doubted their state leadership was forward-thinking and efficient. That has not driven the organization of the SBTC’s staff. True, the COVID-19 year took a bite out of the convention’s giving, but the concerns of that year provided the occasion rather than the cause of restructuring. The SBTC has been a work in progress but has not yet been driven by desperation. Convention leadership committed to timely responses to the needs of the churches has spared the SBTC those moments of panic we’ve seen in some larger and older state conventions. 

But the purpose of this forward striving has not been for the sake of winning some contest or even the survival of the institution. The SBTC has been “zealous for good works,” as detailed in its core values adopted in 1998. Always and ever, the convention leadership is thinking about how to serve the churches as they pursue their Great Commission ministry. That is our good work. The convention does not baptize people or start churches; churches do that. Neither does the convention disciple new believers or build up stronger churches. It’s our privilege to help with those things, to provide resources and expertise that churches can call on as they grow the kingdom. The convention’s mission statement refers to “facilitating” the work of the churches. I’ve never been in an SBTC meeting where that mission took a backseat to denomination for its own sake.  

Call it “energy” or “zeal,” the SBTC must maintain this drive into the future. This trait must remain a virtue of our leaders and part of our church culture.  

Two of the greatest natural disasters in recent American history occurred in a Texas context. The first was Hurricane Katrina over in Louisiana. Texans spread out from Houston to Baton Rouge to not only restore our eastern neighbors but also to house, feed and comfort evacuees who came to Texas. I watched in an auditorium of Second Baptist Houston as thousands sat through a quick version of disaster relief training. Our fellowship of churches demonstrated a genuine commitment to good works that affected people in dire need. 

The second event was Hurricane Harvey. This time, the Texas Gulf Coast was devastated by a hurricane that wandered leisurely up the coast, doing wind damage is some spots and bringing a record deluge in others. While we were heartened at the quick response of our neighboring states, volunteers slogged through flooded roads into Southeast Texas to find churches and church members already at work. The drive of our people was such that an organic disaster relief response was underway even while the water was still rising. Apply it in as many ways as you will, but that is the spirit I mean. Our fellowship of churches doesn’t nearly have a lock on that, but this fervent desire for gospel ministry has been a characteristic of our convention from the beginning. I believe it comes from devotion to the Lord and a love for our neighbors.    

The attributes of our state convention are not a “special sauce” that ensures an organization will succeed. Think of them as gospel virtues that follow from seeking the Lord in all things. Whether he finds us successful in all that we attempt, may he certainly find us faithful, earnestly pursuing good works to the glory of our God.  

Gary Ledbetter
Southern Baptist Texan
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