On Great Commission Church History Classrooms

According to our mission statement, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary seeks to glorify the Lord Jesus Christ by equipping students to serve the Church and fulfill the Great Commission (Matt. 28:19-20). We also like to say that at Southeastern, “every classroom is a Great Commission classroom.” But what does that look like, especially if you are not a missions or evangelism professor? Good question.

My title is Assistant Professor of Church History and Baptist studies. My main sequence of courses is Church History I, Church History II, and Baptist History, all three of which are required core courses. I also teach periodic elective courses on a variety of topics in Baptist Studies and post-1500 church history. Because my classes are not about the Great Commission in the same sense as some other courses, I have to deliberately bring missional priorities to bear on my teaching and assignments. This is what I do.

In my Church History lectures, I emphasize the spread of Christianity through both informal expansion and formal mission efforts. I have found both “history of missions” and “global history of Christianity” texts helpful in shaping my own lectures. I also discuss key figures and movements in missions history (e.g. Ulfilas, the Edinburgh Conference) and try to correct misperceptions and oversimplications (e.g. the Reformers weren’t concerned with missions, William Carey was the first modern missionary, etc.).

In my Baptist History lectures, I emphasize the central role that missions has played in Baptist history, including Southern Baptist history. I discuss key Baptist mission pioneers (there are loads of them!) and important controversies surrounding Baptist missions (ditto). I also discuss the way the language of missions was used in 20th century Baptist life in both helpful and confusing ways. I give some considerable attention to how Southern Baptists cooperate for the sake of missions, particularly through the Cooperative Program.

In all of my classes, I try to make regular Great Commission application. First, I regularly urge my students to consider serving as either foreign missionaries or North American church planters. Second, I recommend reading (including some material unrelated to the class) that I think will help students develop Great Commission priorities in their own ministry. Third, because I am a history professor, we talk quite a bit about how the gospel has been contextualized in various times and places-we discuss good and bad examples of this and try to make relevant application to our present context(s).

As far as assignments go, in each of my classes every student is required to share the gospel at least once during the course of the semester. Students who fail to complete this assignment receive a letter grade deduction from their final grade. While such an assignment might seem unusual in a history class, I explain to my students that we are a theological seminary equipping students primarily to serve the churches through various ministry vocations. We are not pursuing education for the sake of knowledge alone, but education unto edification-we are training for life, godliness, and ministry. Plus, if my students are sharing the gospel, it helps hold me accountable to do the same-we professors live in a Christian bubble as well, so I need encouragement to get out there in the world and share Jesus.

Finally, though it is not directly related to the classroom, I try to be a Great Commission role model to my students. After all, professors (and other leaders) are always teaching-even when we aren’t teaching. I help to coordinate my local church’s Missions Ministry Team, and my students know it because I talk about what our church is doing. I also try to periodically help lead SEBTS mission trips-I am co-leading a trip to India with my friend and colleague George Robinson (who, by the way, is a new Between the Times contributor). And I share with my students some of my own evangelism efforts, especially those that I think include some “teachable moments” (both for the good and the bad!).

This is what I do in my classes-no doubt some colleagues do some things differently and better. I try to regularly learn from my colleagues various ways that I can incorporate Great Commission concerns and all kinds of other important and helpful priorities in my classes. (For example, an ethics colleague, Mark Liederbach, first encouraged me to include a personal evangelism requirement in church history classes, though this requirement is normally associated with personal evangelism classes.) I still have much to learn, and am thankful that God has surrounded me with so many godly role models.

If you are looking for a seminary that weds sound doctrine with missional emphases, then Southeastern is the place for you. If you want to learn to think rightly about God so that you can live rightly before God, then I would urge you to consider Southeastern. If you want to consider what it means to be a gospel-centered leader who is reproducing other gospel-centered leaders, for the glory of God and the sake of the nations, then you may find Southeastern to be just what you are looking for. Let me encourage you to contact our Admissions Office and schedule an appointment to come and visit the SEBTS campus. If you are coming this way, shoot me an email-I’d love to meet you and hear what the Lord is doing in your life.

Way To Go KBC! A BOLD GCR Vision!

You can go to http://t.co/t7bd94H and see the report that has been issued by the GCRTF of the Kentucky Baptist Convention. All I can say is wow and way to go KBC! This state convention has aggressively committed itself to a GCR for the churches of Kentucky. This is a great day in the life of that state convention, and it is my prayer that many more will follow in their footsteps. Their report is simple, clear and straight forward. Their desire to reach the nation with the gospel is evident in how quickly they hope to move to a 50/50 split in their Cooperative Program dispersement. I must confess that I am not surprised by all of this. Bill Mackey is a wonderful man of God and an excellent leader among Baptist state executives. Further, the taskforce was made up of wonderful men and women who have a passion for the nations. Their chairman, Hershael York, is one of my dearest friends and a man who oozes the Great Commission. I am so thankful for a state convention that is willing to make hard decisions in order to reach the nations with the gospel. KBC congratulations. You have honored the Lord Jesus. May your tribe increase!

Facts and Feelings from Orlando: The Road Back for Young Leaders and the SBC, Part 2

In part 1 of my post (link), I pointed out that the SBC messengers were not as young as we might have hoped. Since facts are our friends, we need to ask, “Why?” Certainly, this is not just an issue for Southern Baptists. Five decades ago, few would have written an article feeling the need to defend the existence and relevance of denominations, yet I felt compelled to do that very thing in the May 2010 issue of Christianity Today-and it appeared to be news enough to make it the cover story, with a tombstone for the artwork. Subtle.

The absence of young leaders is due (in part) to how we have treated younger pastors. I have written on that issue in what feels like countless articles (see here, here, here, here, and here) in our denominational press. But, I believe there are other forces at work besides the (very real) hostility that younger and innovative leaders have faced.

Thus, it is helpful to ask, “What else is going on that might keep younger leaders away?”

As I see it there are several factors to consider:

1. Mega Meetings – Popular large conferences targeting young leaders like the Catalyst Conference (12,000 in attendance at the Atlanta event, see www.catalystspace.com), Together for the Gospel (7000 at their recent event, see www.t4g.org), and Exponential (3,000 church planters, see www.exponentialconference.org) allow young leaders to choose where their travel money will go. Twenty-five years ago-when the downward trend began-many of these types of choices were not available. Today, and perhaps in particular in the recession, expenditures reveal what leaders value.

2. Methodological Disconnect – Some young leaders perceive that the standard for ministry is constantly being moved, leaving them little space to navigate from year to year. They believe in the confessional consensus of the SBC but are not interested in arguing over tertiary issues every twelve months. Thus, the idea of hearing another motion about the need for a better parking pass system or to adopt a denominational flag­­­­­ is not exactly something young pastors are just waiting to do each year. These types of discussions held by both older and younger leaders-none of us will forget the rapping motion this year-dissuade them from seeing it as connected to anything resembling ministry.

3. Theological Frustration – Young leaders have decided to stay with the SBC because of the confessional consensus of the BF&M 2000 and the Cooperative Program. But they are not going to attend meetings where their personal doctrinal stance or those of their peers is consistently attacked as if it were unorthodox.

One obvious illustration is with those identified as “young, restless, reformed” (to borrow Hansen’s title). They are a rapidly growing and influential group in Evangelicalism as a whole and in our convention as well. But we can count this group absent-along with others within our confessional consensus-if leaders and speakers continually cast aspersions on them for not towing a form of doctrine more narrow than our consensus statement.

Or, perhaps consider the contemporary church movement. It is a shame that once again, the fact that someone has (or does not have) Baptist in the name of the church they lead is a point of contention. It is an illustration of how some have made a methodological choice into a theological boundary. If conservative theology means traditional methodology, we have confused our standards and been dishonest about our means of cooperation.

As I mentioned in two earlier blog posts, (Confessional Consensus, Part 1 and Confessional Consensus, Part 2), if we keep moving the theological boundaries, people-both the young and the innovative-will grow frustrated and leave.

4. Lack of Relevance – Again, maybe this is just a young leader perception. The day-to-day demands of local church ministry makes traveling to denominational meetings where you have little influence seem a waste of time. Without the ability to offer a substantive voice to the conversation, they are choosing to participate in meetings (conferences, etc.) where they are given training and allowed to offer insight.

Added to that is the normal disconnect young leaders might have with a denomination. If your denomination has little impact on your local ministry, why would you want to listen to two days of agency reports? Many young leaders have disconnected with a system they feel does not understand their cultural context. They skip the meetings with the thought that little would be added to their ministry by attending.

5. The “Kids’ Table” Still Exists – The SBC Annual Meeting has undergone a major shift. Five years ago, who would have thought that the Pastors’ Conference would have young men such as Matt Chandler, Andy Stanley, and David Platt preaching? We are seeing a shift toward welcoming the influence of younger leaders. However, there is still a tension about their role in the decision-making of our tribe. We no longer hear insults about those wearing Hawaiian shirts; however, “young,” “missional,” “reformed,” “contextualization,” and “contemporary” are terms still held with suspicion by some. And, the young leaders who fall into these categories are not happy to sit at the “kids’ table” of the convention meeting just waiting for the grown-ups to finish their business.

There are many reasons that have kept younger messengers away (and, looking at the numbers, it is not just the younger ones). But, the underlying question (not a good one in my opinion) is, “Who is to blame for the exodus of young leaders from the Southern Baptist Convention?” There are many factors at work. It is easy to blame, but it is hard to fix the problem.

As Vance Pittman (and others) plan the next SBC Pastors’ Conference and Bryant Wright (and others) plan the next SBC Annual Meeting, I hope they will keep these challenges in mind. As I’ve said to many other denominations: “What you celebrate, you become.” If you celebrate controversy, narrowing parameters, and anger, that is what you get. Instead, if we celebrate rising leaders, the future, biblical fidelity, and God’s mission, we become focused on those very things.

Engaging young leaders is the subject tackled in the chapter “Ready or Not” in The Great Commission Resurgence: Fulfilling God’s Mandate in Our Time. The need is to move beyond the pleasantries of hand-shaking and pursue deeper friendships with the young leaders of our convention. Whether you feel ready or not, we do not have any more time to wait on raising up a new generation of leaders for the SBC, the Cooperative Program, and our global mission endeavors.

Over the next few weeks, Philip Nation and I will be blogging through that chapter at Between the Times. Feel free to weigh in, discuss, and even disagree. But, let’s not let be so naïve to think that this challenge is over. It takes a long time to change a trend, but we can do it if we will do it together.