Interview with SBC Presidential Candidates: Part Three, J.D. Greear

At the fast-approaching SBC in St. Louis messengers from our Southern Baptist churches will be tasked to elect the new President of the SBC. This is a significant responsibility, one that we at B21 and thousands of Southern Baptists take seriously. So, in an attempt to facilitate all of us becoming more informed voters, B21 has sent a list of questions to each of our candidates.  We will feature each candidate’s response in a three-part post.

Our third and final post features the answers from J.D. Greear, Pastor of The Summit Church in the Raleigh-Durham area in North Carolina.

If you missed our first two interviews, please view them here:

Part One: David Crosby

Part Two: Steve Gaines

Be sure to register and attend our lunch panel Tuesday at the 2016 SBC in St. Louis where we will be sure to discuss these similar pressing issues with all of our panelists.

Register here!

  1. Why are you allowing yourself to be nominated? What would you hope to accomplish as president of the SBC?

I believe we are at a generational moment in the SBC, and if I can help lead a new generation to embrace the mission and vision of the SBC, and stand hand in hand with, and on the shoulders of, our faithful brothers and sisters who have gone before us, I want to do that.

I believe that it’s time for new generations to take personal responsibility for the entities and mission boards of the SBC. There are still more than 6,000 unreached people groups in the world, and we have 1,000 missionaries coming home. Church planting in the United States is not even keeping up with population growth, and baptisms and personal evangelism commonly lag among Southern Baptists. These are not the “SBC’s problems,” they are our problems. We can’t be okay with these things. This has to break our hearts, and we have to do something.

On a personal note, the times in my life when God has led me the most clearly have involved him speaking through members of his church (Acts 13:2) in a way that resonates with visions and passions God has been cultivating in my own heart (Acts 15:28). That’s what happened in this case.

Several older leaders in the SBC whom I love and respect told me they believed the Holy Spirit wanted me to let my name be put in nomination in this season. My wife was not immediately excited about it, since she knows the burdens this kind of responsibility can bring. But she loves our missionaries and church planters, and believes that there are things we can do that may help increase support for them. Knowing that, she was all in. As the leaders of our church prayed with me, we saw several things God had done in the last 10 years that pointed us to at least “putting our yes on the table.”

God put four things on my heart:

  • To ask God to continue to re-awaken our Convention to the gospel. This needs to happen anew in every generation.
  • To call for a new era of engagement in the SBC, and a new openness to the new ways God is leading Southern Baptists to give and go in the mission. More on this below.
  • To strike a tone of grace and truth with our culture. Truth without grace is fundamentalism. Grace without truth is vapid sentimentality. Failing in either puts us out of step with Jesus. Southern Baptists should be known not only for our unflinching commitment to truth, but also for our excessive love toward our neighbors. We must not only speak the truth of Christ, we must do so with the spirit of Christ. We can’t be primarily known for our political position statements. We have to be known for our love and compassion. I am grateful for Russell Moore’s leadership here.
  • To help continue the diversification of our leadership. The United States of America is changing rapidly, and about one in five churches in the SBC now is predominantly non-Anglo (praise God!). We want to see our brothers and sisters from non-Anglo backgrounds rise up to leadership position in the SBC. I believe we are at a kairos moment regarding racial reconciliation, and we need to take advantage of it.

Ultimately, the SBC presidency is all about furthering the progress of the gospel, evangelism, and mission. I have asked God if my serving in that role could help further the mission, to open the door. If not, I am more than willing to follow and serve with the one the Southern Baptist people select.

  1. What are the biggest threats facing the SBC, both within and without?

First, unnecessary division. The SBC is a gospel-loving coalition of churches bound together by the Great Commission and the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message (BFM 2000). I believe the BFM 2000 to be ideal confession of faith for Baptists, narrow enough to keep us unified on the essentials, and broad enough to encompass all gospel-loving, scripturally faithful Baptists. Throughout the years, and especially recently, we have let differences in methodology or finer points of doctrine frustrate the unity we have in the gospel and our urgent mission. We need Baptists of all kinds to be engaged in the mission: men as well as women; traditional as well as younger; black, white, Hispanic, and Asian. It’s all of our Convention. For the sake of the mission, that kind of unity is absolutely crucial. Every time we fight about a non-essential, evangelism loses and the Enemy wins.

Second, we have internal idolatries and strife that, I believe, have grieved the Holy Spirit. It is possible to make an idol out of the very best things, and I think we have at times done that with the Convention itself. The Convention is a temporary tool that God uses to accomplish the Great Commission. It doesn’t exist for itself. When we idolize the Convention itself, we grieve God and he won’t hear our prayers (James 4:3). I’m also been burdened about the uncharitable ways that we (me included) have often treated and spoken of one another. James says, “If you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic” (3:14–15). Few things glorify Jesus more than a loving and irenic spirit; few things grieve him as much as backbiting, slander, and unnecessary hostility toward one another. To the merciful God shows himself merciful.

Third, we have issue of a lack of participation and giving. The “crisis” of 1000 missionaries returning home should be a wake-up call for us as a Convention. We pastors need not only to teach our people to be generous to the mission; we need to be generous with our church budgets as well. Those in leadership positions within the Convention need to ask how to get more of the money that Southern Baptists give to the mission. The SBC does not exist to preserve institutions. It exists to extend the mission. Period. Furthermore, we need to be open to new ways of cooperative giving, without abandoning the old. I believe in unrestricted, cooperative giving, where we respect our leaders. I also respect the autonomy of local churches in how they choose to get their money to the cooperative efforts of the SBC.

Finally, a lot of the above springs from a lack of gospel urgency. That 6000 UPG’s still have little access to the gospel and that our communities are growing increasingly hostile to the gospel has to break our hearts. We should ask God to enable us to preach again with tears in our eyes and faith in our hearts.

  1. What were your thoughts on the Great Commission Resurgence (GCR) and how do you think the GCR is going across the convention?

My participation with the Great Commission Resurgence Task Force (GCRTF) opened my eyes (to an even greater extent) to the positive impact that a lot of our Southern Baptist institutions are having—at local, state, and national levels. Many of our state conventions took the GCR very seriously, which explains why we’ve finally seen Cooperative Program (CP) giving increase over the last couple years, reversing a long downward trend. The entire GCR discussion really heightened the focus on missions and made it tangible for people. On the whole, I’m encouraged at the direction of our Convention.

The GCRTF was a good first step. But only a first step. We need to figure out how to streamline our structures and our giving so that more of our effort and our resources get to the places the mission needs it most. That’s why the Convention exists—not to preserve institutions but to advance the mission.

What I think we must guard against is the inevitable inertia of institutions to prioritize sustaining themselves over furthering the mission. Those of us who lead institutions (myself included, seeing the local church itself as a kind of institution) need to ask, before God, what structures best serve the Great Commission in our generation and devote our energies and our money toward those things. Every dollar given to the CP is a sacred trust, for which we bear a responsibility to God and the Southern Baptist people. We must therefore ask: For every dollar given to Southern Baptists in the name of mission, how would God want us to spend it? Do our giving allocations line up with his priorities?

I want to encourage the Convention to continue to create more efficient structures for resourcing and sending missionaries, adapting to the needs and opportunities of the present hour. The Spirit of God is doing new things in our generation, and we need a Convention that responds to that. By no means does that mean we scrap the old. The Cooperative Program continues to be our primary way to resource our efforts in the Great Commission. At the same time, the SBC has recognized the category of “Great Commission Giving” as a legitimate way to support Southern Baptist mission. We need to respect the autonomy of churches in deciding where and how to allocate their resources between these, and to celebrate both as faithful service to the Kingdom of God. We need increases in both. Let’s celebrate churches that sacrificially give more to the CP, and let’s celebrate churches that sacrificially give more to Lottie, Annie, and other cooperative SBC causes!

  1. What are your thoughts on the new directions of NAMB and IMB?

Thanks be to God, he has given us tremendous leaders—men and women of God raised up for the hour—in NAMB and the IMB! He has been abundantly gracious to us, sending us a Conservative Resurgence, then a Great Commission Resurgence, and the leadership of these entities reflects those great movements. They are asking hard questions and making some tough decisions for the sake of the mission.

Overall, I am very encouraged by what I have seen. I definitely think these entities are on the right track. The responsibilities they shoulder are heavy, and none of us, of course, is beyond making mistakes. As Scripture reminds us, “Cursed is the man who trusts in man and makes the arm of the flesh his strength” (Jer 17:5). Thus, we need to pray for Spirit-given wisdom for them. They are leading us forward into unchartered territory. But we are confident that if God did all that he did in the Conservative Resurgence and the GCR, he will lead us here, too.

These entities, like all parachurch ministries, exist to assist local churches in the work of the ministry, not to do ministry for them. The local church is God’s “Plan A.” Churches plant churches, raise up leaders, send out missionaries, and evangelize their cities. I’ve been encouraged to see these entities begin asking how they can better serve the churches. I hope to represent Southern Baptist churches of all shapes and sizes well to these entities, pressing in on that very question.

  1. If you could change one thing at the annual meeting, what would it be and why?

I’ve already seen some inspiring changes in the way the annual meeting functions. I’m grateful for Ronnie Floyd’s leadership in making prayer a distinct emphasis at last year’s meeting, and anticipate that again this year. He has also prioritized racial diversity by encouraging different leaders to speak and lead in times of worship. Leading the people of the SBC to trust God in prayer and to follow him in racial diversity are huge steps forward, and we want to keep taking those steps. And while the lion’s share of those changes will happen in individual churches, the annual meeting makes a statement to the churches about what we value.

I’m open to thinking through the annual meeting, asking how we can make it (1) more efficient, (2) more spiritually enriching, and (3) a better representation of the SBC people as a whole. In general, the Convention meeting was designed a long time ago, according to needs back then. At times it has seemed like an entity-led infomercial for why they need our money. We need to lay the Convention meeting, along with many other things, on the table and ask what the objectives are, and what the best ways are to accomplish them.

  1. Is the Baptist Faith & Message 2000 a sufficient doctrinal statement for Southern Baptist cooperation, or do other things need to be added?

In my view, the BFM 2000 is an ideal doctrinal statement. It is narrow enough to keep unity and broad enough to allow for variance on non-essentials. It is a wonderful guide and rallying point for our Convention.

It behooves us to make sure that those we appoint to lead and influence our Convention stand in line with our agreed confessional statement. In looking for nominees for specific appointments, for instance, I would look for people who sincerely support the BFM 2000, though I would hope for much more than that as well. Those who serve our Convention should also display a love for the Great Commission, a passion for local churches, a habit of evangelism, and a disposition toward a “wide tent” of SBC life.

Doctrinally speaking, however, I see nothing that needs to be added. In fact, the problems occur when people “unofficially” add their own preferences to the BFM 2000 and make those things the standard for cooperation.

  1. Our convention is diverse theologically, especially on the issue of Calvinism and Non-Calvinism. How will you engage these issues and how will you help everyone work together?

Ha! Well, a few years ago I was asked by Danny Akin to speak at an SBC conference on Calvinism that they were hosting at Ridgecrest. I asked him (sincerely), “OK… which side am I supposed to represent?”

I’ve never been comfortable with the neat and tidy “Calvinist” or “non-Calvinist” labels. I certainly believe that God’s work in salvation is always prior, and that no man can say that “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit. But I also see so much in Scripture about “whosoever will may come,” that we are to spread the gospel promiscuously, and that our prayers and evangelistic efforts have real effect. In fact, Scripture even indicates that if we don’t share the gospel, we will be guilty of the blood of those who might have been saved had we preached to them (Ezek 33:8).

I am pretty confident that if you asked the average person at the Summit whether we were “Calvinist” or “non-Calvinist,” they wouldn’t know what to tell you. I prefer the balance of the BFM 2000 here. We are committed to preaching the Bible, doing the work of evangelism, and giving God all the credit.

We have some people on our staff who lean more reformed, and others who lean the other way. I always tell them, “Calvinism isn’t an issue to me until it becomes one to you. But when it becomes one to you, that will be an issue to me.” While we may not be able to settle each of the “five points” to our satisfaction, we know that the Bible is clear in condemning a divisive and uncharitable spirit on things that are not essential.

We only have so much “bandwidth” as a Convention, so I would rather be known for the gospel and the Great Commission than for a particular stance regarding Calvinism. I’ve heard it said that “heresy” can relate not only to what you believe, but the weight that you give to certain issues. We certainly want to explore and believe all that God has said to us, but we want to unite around the essentials of the gospel. The majority of Southern Baptists just want to love Jesus, believe and teach the Bible, and see people saved. That—and the doctrinal confession of the BFM 2000—should be our point of unity and our evaluative tool for leadership.

  1. How will you try to encourage and incorporate young Southern Baptist pastors in to the convention’s work?

I know it sounds cliché, but those of us who are younger are “standing on the shoulders” of faithful, older generations who pioneered paths in mission. We in the “younger” generation need to honor them, to learn from them, and to walk hand in hand with them into the future. We need to ask, humbly, a lot of questions. (As my mentor Paige Patterson often told me, “We should never tear a wall down before we know why it exists!”) And we need to continue supporting and increasing the mission structures that have made Southern Baptists the most prolific church planting people in the world.

We need to bring a new generation of Southern Baptists to the table to partner with older generations in the cooperative missions of the SBC. There is a new wave of excitement about the SBC, but many newer generations of churches are still sitting on the sidelines. We’ve been given a rich legacy, and it’s time we pick up that torch, taking personal responsibility for the entities of the SBC and stepping up to own the mission.

I also want to tell the younger generation that we recognize that God is doing some new things in Southern Baptist churches, and we want to have a Convention that responds to that. That doesn’t mean we jettison the old, but that we respect the autonomy of churches, celebrating (for instance) Great Commission Giving as faithful obedience to the Great Commission.

Finally, I tell them that great days are ahead. Throughout Scripture, we see that “past graces” are evidences that God wants to bestow future graces. There can be no doubt that the SBC experienced some unusual grace in the Conservative Resurgence. Why would the Holy Spirit have done that if not to give us an unprecedented effectiveness among the nations? God does what he does not to preserve institutions, but for the sake of the Great Commission. It’s all about the Great Commission. That means the best days of the SBC are ahead of us. They have to be! There are still over 6,000 unreached people groups in the world, and history cannot end until they have been given a gospel witness. It is time again to expect great things of God, and then attempt great things for God.

God has given us wonderful institutions and mission entities–the best in the world. Tim Keller has written on the need that movements and institutions have for each other. We’re used to talking about how institutions need fresh movements: without movements the institutions grow cold and lifeless. But movements need institutions too, he says, to have staying power. By God’s grace, in the SBC we have both.

  1. How do you explain the decrease in baptisms in the SBC and what do we need to do to address this issue?

Declining baptisms should make us ask some difficult, though faith-filled, questions. I think the primary problems are spiritual: First, we have lost the urgency of the gospel message. Many churches in our Convention have grown complacent, and don’t have the same evangelistic drive that they used to. We need to recover that urgency, so we can say, as the famous Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon did, “If sinners will be damned, at least let them leap to Hell over our bodies. And if they will perish, let them perish with our arms about their knees, imploring them to stay. If Hell must be filled, at least let it be filled in the teeth of our exertions, and let not one go there unwarned and unprayed for.”

Secondly, we are no longer known as a people of prayer. Prayerlessness is a sign that either we believe we no longer need God, or that we no longer believe he is ready to move as he promised. Jonathan Edwards, who got to experience the Great Awakening, the largest revival our country has yet seen, knew how central prayer must be in all that we do. As he said, “Prayer doesn’t bring the revival; prayer is the revival.”

Thirdly, we are not raising up enough leaders to lead in gospel ministry both inside the church (pastoral ministry) and outside the church (in the community). At its core, that is a deep discipleship issue in the SBC.

Fourth, many churches are too tied to their cultural preferences and ways of doing things to keep up with what the Spirit of God is doing in a new generation. In many cases, we have simply failed to adapt with our culture. Some churches have simply lacked the leadership in doing so; others have entrenched themselves into old forms at the expense of reaching their communities. Some seem to care more about preserving their traditions than converting their grandchildren. And that’s tragic, when you think about all that God did in those churches in previous generations. I’ve heard it said, sadly, that the biggest enemies of what God wants to do next can sometimes be those with a front row seat for what he did last.

On the other side of that issue, however, are some “newer” churches that have abandoned the power of the simple gospel for modern fads and church growth gimmicks. What grows the church in any age does not change: deep belief in the gospel, commitment to the authority of Scripture, deep commitment to prayer, and a willingness to do whatever it takes to win the lost.

Finally, I do wonder if we have grieved God in making an idol out of the Convention itself. How can it not grieve the Holy Spirit to prioritize the maintenance of our particular institutions at the expense of the Great Commission? I am a big believer in institutions, but our Convention does not exist for the sake of preserving its institutions. It exists to get the gospel to the ends of the earth, and everything we do must be evaluated to that end.

  1. How did you lead a congregation in need of revitalization? What lessons did you learn that you could share with pastors in a revitalization effort?

I’ll tell you what kept us from revitalizing for a while. It was me.

I’m not exaggerating. I remember the scene vividly. One afternoon I was praying for massive revival in our city. In the midst of that prayer, it seemed as if the Spirit of God asked, “And what if I answer this prayer … and send a revival into Raleigh-Durham beyond all you’ve asked or imagined … one that they will talk about for hundreds of years … but I choose another church through which to do it? What if that church grows, and yours stays the same?”

I would love to say that my answer was an emphatic, “Yes, Lord! You must increase and I must decrease!” But the answer that bubbled up from my heart was, “No.” Yes, I wanted to see the city reached, but I also wanted to see my church succeed, my kingdom enlarged, my name magnified. Somehow “thy kingdom come” had become all jumbled up with “my kingdom come.”

At that point, I knew that I needed to repent for my idolatry in ministry. While I can’t say that I’ve completely gotten over my self-interest in ministry, that afternoon marked a turning point in which, by God’s grace, the eyes of my heart began to shift to building God’s kingdom instead of my own. We began to measure our church’s success not by seating capacity, but by sending capacity.

Whether you’re trying to revitalize a dying church, or experiencing unprecedented growth and excitement and fame, the lesson is the same: God calls us first to an altar, not a platform. I’ve had a hard time remembering that at times in my ministry, but God has been gracious to remind me of it, again and again. As Jesus said, “Except a grain of wheat fall to the ground and die, it abides alone. But if it dies, it bears much fruit.” The kingdom of God works on the principle of the harvest: we reap only as we send out; living comes by dying; gaining comes by losing.