Triennial Convention reminds us of God’s work in the world

revivalThis May marks the bicentennial anniversary of the first Baptist Triennial Convention, a meeting of like-minded Baptists passionate about missions.

It was the summer of 1814 in Philadelphia. More than 30 delegates pooled resources to support missionaries.  It came after a century of revolution and war, but also of explosive missionary activity inspired by the Second Great Awakening.

It was the age of missionary giants such as Adoniram Judson and William Carey, who ventured to India to spread the gospel.  It was the time of Luther Rice, who traveled hundreds of miles by horseback to raise funds for missionaries and the Convention alike.

Other missionaries went West, East, and South to spread the good news.  One of the first women missionaries to participate in outreach, Charlotte White, traveled to Asia.

If anything, the Triennial Convention and the societies born out of that movement reveal the distinctive qualities of America’s missionary culture.  Since the nation’s beginning, the Founders believed in a “manifest destiny” to spread out to other parts of the continent out of cultural and Christian duty.

We were (and continue to be, according to the late President Ronald Reagan), in the words of Puritan John Winthrop, a “city upon a hill.”

Yet, this zeal was steeped in a colonial worldview in which Christians believed that they also had the calling to help others become “civilized.”

Despite the spiritual motivation, it was seductively patronizing in many of its forms.  Some mission activities indirectly perpetuated institutions of slavery and imperialism that gave way to Jim Crow, apartheid, and economic disparity later that century.

Nevertheless, I am thankful for the missionary legacy that birthed the Triennial Convention.  We Christians stand upon the shoulders of courageous men and women who had an amazing vision for spreading God’s Word.

But I am also thankful for a shift in worldview between then and now.  Now, we do not do missions in order to convert “the heathen” and take advantage of natural resources and third-world economies.  We do not free men and women in Christ only to enslave them upon the manors of men.

Rather, we see others as God-image-bearers who have things to teach us as well. Most contemporary missionaries seek to do “contextual” ministry through which they work within the very cultures of those whom they are reaching.

In the American Founding, Christians believed that they had a mission to bring God to the rest of the world.  Now, we realize that God is already at work in the world.

We only have to hear God’s invitation and bear witness to God’s good news with people on God’s–and their–own terms.

This strategy is biblical.  In Acts 17, the Apostle Paul took a tour of Athens.  When he preached to the philosophers there, he said that God was among them because they already built a statue to “an unknown god” (v. 23).

Paul stressed that this nameless god was the God of Israel who became human in the person of Jesus the Christ.  Paul used this cultural symbol and pagan poetry in order to connect his experiences of God with their experiences of God.

Whereas a colonial and imperial worldview tried to get people to church and assimilate cultures, a worldview taken out of Paul’s own missionary playbook behooves Christians to learn how to be guests in a world thirsty for the spiritual nourishment that only God’s well could provide.

Let us hear the invitation and go forth, and let us regain that missionary zeal that once captivated those courageous forebears who formed the Triennial Convention.

Southern Baptist Great Commission Report calls for support, draws controversy

On April 10, I published a column in the Rockdale Citizen challenging Christians to consider that unity in the church is a necessary catalyst for reaching people for Christ. I mentioned that there are many issues dividing Christians that can distract us from preaching the Gospel.

Not that these issues are small by any means. Many theological debates will pervade denominational life; we need to be careful that our debates are not so polarized that we lose focus of what’s most important.

About a month after that column, the Southern Baptist Convention took a healthy step toward unity for the sake of missions. On May 3, an SBC task force, named the Great Commission Task Force, released an initiative, the Great Commission Resurgence.

The GCR intends to refocus several bureaucracies in the SBC juggernaut to better promote evangelism. In other words, it is an effort to put three contentious decades behind the denomination and get back to the original purpose of the SBC.

In an interview with reporters on May 4, the chairperson of the task force, the Rev. Ronnie Floyd, shared that the Resurgence is designed to build a “culture of trust, of coming together in love for the sake of the Gospel.”

According to www.pray4gcr.com, one section of the GCR report reads: “We call upon the Southern Baptists to acknowledge the centrality of the gospel message to everything we do and everything we are. We celebrate the great variety in Southern Baptist life, but we believe that our true unity can be found only in the good news of Jesus Christ. We call for a new focus on the primacy of the biblical gospel.”

This call to unity is a breath a fresh air, and the acknowledgement that differences in Baptist churches exist also seems to be a step in the right direction. Commitment VIII of the task force’s Declaration states that getting out the Gospel requires nuance, diversity, and contextual missions within particular communities of faith.

It agrees that there are non-negotiable components of a biblical Christian witness, but leaves room for creativity and flexibility: “Different contexts demand diverse strategies and methods (of evangelism).”

The GCR also affirms what my church has believed for years — that everyone in the church, from pulpit to pew, are ministers of the Gospel in his or her home, workplace, community and county.

Of course the GCR is not without some controversy. There are debates regarding how the GCR restructures joint ventures between SBC state and national entities. There are also debates about certain buzz words in the GCR report.

Furthermore, Robert Parham, writing for Ethics Daily on May 13, noted that the Resurgence’s report has an implicit, anti-public school agenda. He asserts that the report devalues the place of public schools in society, that they are no better than godless entities. This is something with which not all Baptists agree, especially Baptist administrators working throughout the public school system in order to create healthy learning environments for our children.

The report also sends mixed messages. On the one hand, it declares that cooperation is necessary for missions. On the other hand, proponents are championing the Resurgence as a thoroughly conservative effort, with no room for partnerships with Baptist centrists, non-Baptist, and ecumenical agencies.

And then there is the report’s insistence that the Bible is to be taken literally, without error — something I wholeheartedly agree with in theory. In a presentation about the GCR’s work, Chairman Floyd quoted Joel 2:12-17 to encourage repentance in the SBC. If he read further — say, Joel 2:28 — he would also have to affirm that “your sons and daughters shall prophecy,” an important scripture that some Baptists use to affirm women in ministry (read: women pastors), something the SBC continues to shun.

Nevertheless, there are many positive things in the report that are refreshing to every onlooker. And, though I disagree with the Convention’s stance toward women in ministry, I think this kind of mission-centered trajectory in the SBC is something we can all prayerfully applaud and encourage.