As I began this series of articles I listed eight strategic principles I have observed in healthy disciple-making churches. Last week I talked more in-depth about the relational component of disciple-making. Today I will expound on the transformational element.
Effective churches define what it means to be a maturing Christian disciple differently than do most churches. Most of us would say that the more you know about the Bible the more mature you are as a Christian. And there is, without a doubt, a knowledge component to Christianity. However, the Bible describes a maturing Christian as someone whose life is being transformed daily into the image of Christ. As such, effective disciple-making churches reject the popular definition of a mature disciple is simply someone who knows what to do (attends classes, participates in a small group, regularly attends worship, etc.). Their mantra is discipleship is not just about the transfer of information, but it is about genuine life transformation.
Becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ involves doing His will, not just knowing what His will is. It calls for people to walk the walk and not just talk the talk. In other words, it is an obedience-based rather than simply a knowledge-based discipleship model. Knowledge is necessary but is not enough in and of itself. Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’ (Matthew 7:21-23).
In James 2:18-20, we read, “But someone will say, ‘You have faith, and I have works.’ Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble! But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead?” If you read the entirety of James chapter two, you would agree that James is using the word “faith” to describe a person’s emphasis on “knowing about God” and the word “works” to describe a person’s emphasis on obedience—doing what God says we should do.
Paul’s description of a disciple in Romans 12:1-2 includes both a knowledge and an obedience component—both are necessary. “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.” I wish our Bible translations would use the original Greek word instead of the word “transformed” in verse two. It is a word that provides a vivid picture of the Biblical meaning of being “transformed, and it is a word we are already familiar with because we use the Greek word in biology: “metamorphosis.” When we hear the word metamorphosis, we immediately picture an ugly worm being transformed into a beautiful butterfly. The Biblical definition of a maturing disciple is just that dramatic. Paul declares in II Corinthians 5:17, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.”
Jesus’ sharpest criticism was directed at the religious elite--they had great knowledge but were not being transformed by their knowledge. “Then Jesus spoke to the multitudes and to His disciples, saying: ‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do, but do not do according to their works; for they say, and do not do” (Matthew 23:1-3). Jesus then gives a series of exhortations beginning with “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites” describing areas where their knowledge of what is right isn’t impacting their willingness to do what is right.
Throughout the epistles, life transformation is emphasized. Paul’s deeds of the flesh versus the fruit of the spirit in Galatians 5:19-25 is one example:
Now the works of the flesh are evident, which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like; of which I tell you beforehand, just as I also told you in time past, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
Peter’s three-fold emphasis on obedience in I Peter 1:1-2, 13-16, and 22-23 is another:
To the pilgrims of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace be multiplied.
Sunday morning I heard Good News Jail and Prison Ministry Chaplain John Heatley preach at my home church. He shared three questions he regularly asks someone who has landed in jail:
"There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death "(Proverbs 14:12).
"Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths” (Proverbs 3:5-6).
His prayer is that they will admit that doing things THEIR way isn’t working and that they will humbly trust in the Lord and learn to heed God’s word and avoid repeating the mistakes that got them where they are.
Notice that his experience as a jail chaplain has led him to seek the Biblical balance between knowledge and obedience. Remember, “To him who knows to do good and does not do it, to him it is sin” (James 4:17). What does your discipleship-making model reflect relative to transformation?
Yours in Christ,
Mark R. Elliott, AMS
Last week I introduced you to the eight strategic principles I have observed in healthy disciple-making churches. Today I will begin to discuss them in more detail. I would caution you to not think of them as being discussed in order of priority, but think of them as integrally intertwined. I would go so far as to suggest that if you are not firing on all eight cylinders then you will not experience the fullness of what God can do in and through your church.
1. Relational—Leaders of disciple-making churches understand that God’s work is not accomplished in a vacuum or by Lone Ranger types. These leaders understand that deep discipleship cannot take place in a worship format alone and that God (who Himself is a relational being) does His work best in a relational environment: small groups and one-on-one. If a church body expects to have a significant impact upon its community, both its leaders and individual members must be willing to invest in the lives of those who are far from God.
My observations are that disciple-making is more caught than taught. You can read all the great books on discipleship—and you’d better begin with the Bible—but unless you have been intentionally discipled by others, you will probably not be willing to invest the relational capital required to make a disciple. Proverbs 14:4, which has become one of my life verses, speaks to this reality: “Where there are no oxen the stall is clean, but great gain comes through the strength of an ox.” A modern paraphrase might be, “Life isn’t as messy when I don’t have to deal with people, but life is ultimately better when lived in community.”
There is an old adage that says, “If you want to go fast, then go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Another with a similar meaning is “Do you want to grow squash or oak trees?” The latter has particular application in a world where speed and size are celebrated above character and quality. My experience is that when you sacrifice quality and character, your speed and size will simply create a bigger and more spectacular crash—and it WILL HAPPEN. If you need proof, I would again refer you to the current podcast series being done by Christianity Today entitled The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill Church.
All of this means that relational evangelism must be the norm for the life of every believer. There might have been a day when there was enough basic Biblical knowledge in our culture for us to see fruit from “hit and run evangelism,” but those days are gone. Gallup recently reported that for the first time in the 80 years they have done polling, church membership has fallen below 50% in America. If that isn’t bad enough, they also indicate that Americans who report no religious affiliation has grown from 8% to 21% in the last twenty years. AND 33% of those under 30 years of age say they have no religious affiliation.
If we are relational in our disciple-making process it means that we are willing to “fight for healthy relationships.” We don’t write off someone because they are going through a tough stretch. We don’t let bad behavior go unaddressed, and we don’t address bad behavior in an unbiblical manner. Yes, it takes time and energy to do things the right way, but it’s what God expects us to do. Let me suggest some general Biblical principles that make my point:
Yours in Christ,
Mark R. Elliott, AMS
I’m sure you have all been waiting breathlessly since I promised in my February 23rd article that, “Next week I will begin to drill down into the Biblical principles I have observed in every ‘healthy disciple-making church’ I have encountered.” After penning that promise, I took an unanticipated nineteen-week detour to discuss current issues in SBC life. Like many of you, detours and distractions are a part of my daily life.
Some of you have heard me say that flexibility in my role will kill me because I live in a fluid world. For those who have been in my office, you know that my motto is “a clean and uncluttered desk is the sign of a sick mind.” Some of that is caused by the reality that at any given moment I will be working on at least a dozen different projects. I don’t share any of that to complain or rationalize, but merely to explain the delay in keeping my promise. A man’s word is his bond, and my goal is to be a man of integrity.
Now regarding my promise…In a little over a week, I will complete my twenty-eighth year of service as an Associational Mission Strategist. During that time, God has given me the privilege of seeing healthy disciple-making churches in multiple contexts: church planting, church revitalization, international missions, and inner-city missions. He also gifted me with the ability to differentiate between cause and effect, or as some might state it, between doing the right things and getting the right results.
I’ve listened to the first two posts of a Christianity Today blog that is garnering a lot of attention. It is entitled “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill.” It’s basically an autopsy on what happens when a church places its focus on getting the right results, while they ignore the reality that they are not doing things the right way. Integrity, character, and relationships ARE important. You cannot brush off collateral damage as simply a by-product of getting the right results. All of us are accountable to God for how we steward our time and talents as we humbly acknowledge that any fruit that might be produced is because of Him (John 15:1-8).
Several years ago I began to write, refine my thoughts, preach, and teach regarding the principles I have observed in healthy disciple-making churches. I began with seven and after bouncing them off of one of the best global mission strategists in the world, Jim Slack who God has since called home, I have settled on the following eight:
1. Emphasizes genuine relationships,
2. Focused on life transformation rather than simply a transfer of information,
3. Willing to hold one another accountable,
4. Self-sacrificing for the sake of the Gospel,
5. Designed and functioning with multiplication in mind,
6. Organizationally aligned from top to bottom,
7. Always intentional and proactive, and
8. Implementing Biblical principles in a culturally relevant manner.
Before I expand on each of them in the following weeks, let me suggest that these principles are imbedded in The Great Commission:
"And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age. Amen”
Jesus’ opening statement, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth,” tells us that He is in charge and He is giving the orders. His concluding promise, “I am with you always” implies that we have access to that power; however, with great power comes great responsibility. God will hold us ACCOUNTABLE for the way we steward that power.
The primary command (main verb) is to “make disciples.” This command requires us to communicate two critical realities: First is the fact that apart from Christ, people are separated from the love of God, stand eternally condemned in their sin, and incapable of finding true joy and peace in this life. This reality should propel us in our willingness to be SELF-SACRIFICING. This also acknowledges that there is an initiating point for becoming a disciple: confession, repentance, and conversion that speak to the evangelistic nature of our self-sacrifice. Second, we understand that the Biblical concept of a disciple is not simply someone who is professing Christ, but a disciple is someone who is possessing a new and different way of life: TRANSFORMATION.
In addition to the one main verb, there are three descriptive participles in the passage. The first is having gone. Greek sentence structure and grammar raises this participle’s impact parallel to the force of a main verb. This provides the English translations with its imperative “Go!” This means that laissez-faire, whatever happens, attitude on our part, is not acceptable. Rather it requires us to be constantly vigilant, seeking to identify where God is at work so that we can join Him. In other words, we must be INTENTIONAL and PROACTIVE.
The second participle is “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” The modifying clause referring to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit speaks to the personal and relational nature of God and the reality that He created us as relational beings and acknowledges that ministry happens at the RELATIONAL level. Baptism has historically provided both a self-identification with the body of Christ and a specific affiliation with a local body of believers. Baptism becomes a symbolic relational connecting point to God and to fellow believers.
The third participle, “teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you,” implies that our instructions are ALIGNED with Divine teachings and practices. And that alignment is not just knowledge-based. It is teaching with the intention of changing lives to “observe all that” Jesus had commanded.
His concluding promise, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age,” means that the task will be multi-generational. Jesus’ parting statement in Acts 1:8 was, “you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” This statement speaks to the geographical expansion that will be required to carry the Gospel to the world. When these two concepts are combined, a process that is constantly EXPANDING and MULTIPLYING is required.
In the Biblical language (Greek), Jesus said our target audience is “panta ta eqnh” (panta ta ethne). Unfortunately, it is poorly translated into English as “all the nations.” A better translation would be “all ethnic groups.” Nations implies a geo-political state while the term “ethnic group” points to the language and cultural differences that exist in every nation. To reach every ethnic group, our disciple-making efforts must be CULTURALLY APPROPRIATE.
In the weeks ahead, I will begin to unpack these principles. But in the meantime, I would encourage you to objectively review them based upon the whole of scripture and not just the Great Commission.
Yours in Christ,
Mark R. Elliott, AMS
After a two-week pause to reflect on the SBC Annual Meeting in Nashville, this is my “swan song” on my series regarding SBC Life. Previously I had taken several weeks to lay out ten strategic principles that I believe we could have used more wisely to avoid some of our current tensions. To them, I will add four more as I close out this series of articles.
1. Sometimes our efforts to solve existing problems only create new problems. Too often we correct existing mistakes by overcorrecting or overcompensating in the opposite direction. I often encounter this problem as I have worked with churches who have called a pastor who has strengths where the previous pastor was weak only to find out that their new pastor has his own set of limitations—and at times they are worse than the previous pastor’s.
Overcompensating simply creates a pendulum swing and a new set of problems. What I have seen is that poorly designed and/or implemented top-down strategies aren’t any better than poorly designed and/or implemented field strategies. Similarly, pointing out past failures without a willingness to admit and correct our current failures benefits no one. We have all made mistakes in judgment. The strategies I personally believe are imperative today are different than the ones I thought we needed thirty years ago. Some of that is due to cultural shifts and some were caused by the fact that I’ve learned a few things in life.
2. Organizations led by feedback adverse leaders WILL falter and if issues go unaddressed they WILL fail. If you need “yes men” around you to affirm you, then you are not a leader. Effective leaders surround themselves with those who bring them to balance and who will speak truth into their life. Healthy leaders encourage debate and invite differences of opinion. They know that it will help them make better decisions and avoid blind spots.
HMB and NAMB used multiple strategies and emphases in an effort to reach major cities but had limited success. In the early days when asked what criteria were used to identify NAMB’s new Send Cities and what metrics would be used to measure success in light of our history, the answer was simply, “We will succeed.” Basically, the answer was “Don’t question our process.” Those who ask too many questions tend to have short tenures with NAMB.
3. Our ability to work with people will define the limits and effectiveness of our ministry. We know today that one’s Emotional Intelligence is a far better predictor of success than is our Intelligence Quotient. In slang terms, street-smart people do better than book-smart people. In Biblical terms servant leaders who empower others are more effective than dictatorial style micro-managing men who are in positions of authority—notice I’m unwilling to call them leaders. If you are a leader and no one is following, you’re just out taking a walk. You might be able to get people to comply or obey for a paycheck, and still not be a leader. Proverbs 14:28 touches on this principle: “In a multitude of people is a king’s honor, but in the lack of people is the downfall of a prince.”
One huge area that significantly limits many in positions of authority is their conflict style. In fact, that is one key area where God had to get my attention. Those of us with an aggressive and defensive style will function like a steamroller as we plow over anything or anyone in our road destroying relationships. The passive and evasive among us tend to ignore significant issues until the lid on the pressure cooker blows off, and then it’s too late—relationships are destroyed.
It is imperative that we find the right balance between getting the job done and developing and preserving relationships. Sometimes our passion to do things our way and in our timing gets out of balance with doing things God’s way and in His timing.
4. Many of us talk with our money before we are willing to open our mouths. Following the last major recession (2009-2010) total Cooperative Program (CP) receipts declined from their historic high in 2008 of almost $541 million to an average of less than $464 million during the last four years. This is true in spite of the fact that total charitable giving in the US is now at a record high. Our two major national offerings (one for International Missions and one for North American Missions) have both rebounded and set new historic highs since the last recession. COVID has not helped, but neither has it had the negative impact we anticipated. A legitimate question would be, “Why hasn’t CP giving rebounded?”
In my almost three decades of working with churches, I have seen that THE FIRST way Baptists show they are not happy is to reduce or quit giving, withhold giving, or re-direct giving. This happens at the local church level, at the association level, at the state convention level, and it is clearly happening at the national level.
Some churches, including many of our largest churches, believe they can steward their missions dollars better and thus give a lower percentage of general offerings through the CP. Some churches are voicing their concerns by either withholding or directing their CP giving to specific entities. Some churches, including many of our language churches and newer churches, have never understood how CP works—in some places, CP lives up to its name by becoming programmatic rather than being a mission and a vision-driven way to do more together. Some of our older, smaller, and rural churches are still giving, and some of them give sacrificially, but their giving is stable at best.
These numbers reinforce in my mind our need to have honest, loving, and open dialogue on the tensions that our changes have created. It magnifies the need for special emphases like Vision 2025 to help us regain and refocus on the “WHY” of CP. If we don’t do things like this, and do them well, my guess is that our organizational pendulum will continue to swing back to a societal method of funding ministries and missions. If that shift continues, we will lose much of the impact that CP has provided us over the last 100 years.
In this series of articles, I began by discussing exciting changes that I believe have caused some of our current tensions. I also provided significant historical context to help us understand how we got where we are today. In my opinion, we are now facing challenges that could become as significant as those Southern Baptists faced in the 1880s and 1920s. My personal passion, prayer, and energy seek first and foremost God initiated spiritual renewal. If the organizational renewal of churches, associations, state conventions, and SBC happens in the midst of that, then all praise and honor go to God. (Matthew 6:33).
Yours in Christ,
Mark R. Elliott, AMS
The best way to describe the Annual Southern Baptist Baptist Convention’s two-day meeting is “the world’s largest Baptist business meeting.” For those who have experienced a “traditional” Baptist business meeting, no further explanation is needed. I would simply remind you that we went two years without having one. When you throw in the controversy around 2019’s Resolution 9, the overall stress created by COVID shutdowns, the ever-constant blogging that adds fuel to the fire, and the reports related to the resignation of Russell Moore, you have the makings for a “very interesting” meeting.
As I share my “take-homes,” I would simply ask that you recognize your church is very likely a microcosm of what we experience at the national level. I would also remind you that these are my personal reflections and like anyone else’s they are shaped by who I am. And one of my “faults” is a penchant for alliteration. Here were my big five take-homes:
Inerrant: We are a people who value the Bible as the inerrant word of God. While many denominations are debating the acceptance of cultural trends like gender identity and homosexual pastors, we had a floor debate On Abolishing Abortions, and we approved Resolution 2: On the Sufficiency of Scripture for Race and Racial Reconciliation.
On the abortion issue, some of the ardent among us wanted stronger language demanding an all-or-nothing approach to eliminating abortions. For example, they denounce any effort or politician who would work for a bill making partial-birth abortions illegal, because that bill would still permit other abortions. The authors and supporters of the resolution opposed the final vote on it because they felt a single-word amendment completely altered their intent. As approved one of the “Be it Resolved” clauses reads “that we will not embrace an incremental approach alone to ending abortion…”
Some of the passionate among us wanted a repeal of 2019’s Resolution 9 (which we were told is not possible under our resolution process) or a resolution clearly denouncing Critical Race Theory. For them the statements “We reject any theory or worldview that finds the ultimate identity of human beings in ethnicity or in any other group dynamic; and…that sees the primary problem of humanity as anything other than sin against God and the ultimate solution as anything other than redemption found only in Christ; and…that denies that racism, oppression, or discrimination is rooted, ultimately, in anything other than sin” were not strong enough statements.
I’m excited because our difficult conversations are about nuanced approaches on how best to apply historical Christian beliefs not debates about the adoption of current cultural trends. I’m also excited we have a platform through our resolutions where honest open debate can take place. I reminded you in last week’s article that resolutions are non-binding reflections of the messengers who were present at a specific convention, and that over time those opinions and positions have changed on a variety of issues—slavery is probably the clearest example.
Informed: As I listened, what continued to reverberate in my mind is that we are a people who want complete, accurate, and unbiased information about what is happening in our SBC world. A convention of churches as large and diverse as we are will inevitably have incomplete, inaccurate, or innuendoed communications. What can make them “intolerable” are the next two issues I will mention.
Intentional: There are multiple coordinated agendas running in the background at every SBC Annual meeting. Political activity is ever-present. Those who are intentional can at times be very narrow and extremely passionate in their focus. When that happens they are rarely open to information that does not support their position or conversations that don’t revolve around their area of interest. That approach can work in a single church or with a smaller group of churches, but in a convention of churches as large as we are a balanced BIBLICAL (remember my first “I”) approach will generally win the day.
Involved: As Baptists we are passionate about the Priesthood of All Believers. We value people who are willing to step in and step up and become part of the solution instead of remaining part of the problem. However, in our shift away from a hyper-congregational polity where we have to vote on the color of plastic silverware we use in the kitchen, we have swung the pendulum too far. Anyone who knows me has had to endure my rant on balancing God-called, appointed, and equipped leadership with the priesthood of all believers. Many of our larger churches have moved to a top-down decision-making process that simply informs members what was decided. We have filled SBC leadership positions with individuals from the latter paradigm who can lose the distinction between herding cattle and leading sheep.
Does your church encourage everyone to be engaged at an appropriate level of your decision-making process? In other words, are you creating sheep that will simply follow your lead and watch you work, or are you making disciples who will be willing and able to help you with the work God called His church to do?
Inspired: Yes the annual meeting is primarily a business meeting, but we also know that we need to be encouraged and inspired. That’s why God-honoring worship and God-inspired preaching are also included. But efforts in this area will fall on deaf ears if people aren’t confident that things are being handled well, and that we are heading in the right direction.
We are far from a perfect convention of churches, and that is because there isn’t a single perfect church (and yes that includes your church), and that is because there isn’t a perfect professing Christian (and that definitely includes you and me). I left for Nashville uncertain where we would be at the end of the convention. I drove home pondering and praying about what I heard and experienced. Today, I’m even more convinced that God is still in charge! That He is still my Lord! And that He is still in the process of patching and using broken vessels! Pliable clay in the Potter’s hand always has a future (Jeremiah 18:1-10).
Yours in Christ,
Mark R. Elliott, AMS
The 2021 SBC Annual meeting officially begins today in Nashville. Because of COVID, we are meeting for the first time in two years. Pre-registration indicates that it will be the largest convention this millennium and maybe even since the 1995 Convention in Atlanta. Significant prayer, political maneuvering, discussion, and debate have been taking place since the 2019 meeting in Birmingham. My hope is that God will heed the humble prayers of the broken-hearted, admonish the arrogant and contentious, and grant us all His unmerited grace and peace.
If the Lord blesses us with life, breath, energy, and grace, Phyllis and I will be attending as messengers of our church. I will also be attending meetings prior to the convention as the SBC Executive Board representative from our state convention. Most of you will read this article from the comfort of your home or office, and thus you will read or hear about the convention’s activities second hand. My encouragement to you is to always remember that God is in charge, not Southern Baptists. Remember, every SBC church is independent and autonomous and the actions taken and resolutions approved are not dictates to be heeded, but they are the reflections of the messengers who attended and voted at this particular convention and are only something to be heard.
I would also remind you that just because you read or hear something, doesn’t make it true. Everything you read or hear will be second-hand information. It will have been filtered through the mind, experiences, and emotions of the person who is sharing their personal perspective.
As Phyllis and I do our morning devotionals, we are currently reading through Proverbs. We have received both exhortations and encouragement from several verses. Our prayer is that the wisdom we find in Proverbs will dwell in our hearts and minds and flow from our lips, and this will also be true for every messenger who attends this year’s convention. Here are some verses that have specific applications during a convention:
"Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all sins. Wise people store up knowledge, but the mouth of the foolish is near destruction.”
A final reminder, as Baptists we don’t get our marching orders from convention votes or convention offices, but from the eternal word of our Holy God. Thankfully, as Southern Baptists, we have historically chosen to work together for greater Kingdom causes always keeping a watchful eye and ear to make sure biblical integrity is being maintained. Far more important than the decisions made at the 2021 SBC Annual Meeting are the decisions we and our churches make every day as to whether we will be obedient to the Great Commandments and the Great Commission! Are we growing personally as disciples of our living Lord and are we showing others by word and deed how to find the narrow way? (Matthew 7:13-14) We can choose to debate and devour one another, or we can choose to work together to be His witnesses in our “Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
I again embark on some strategies principles that I pray we will implement better as we move forward. To the five I have already listed, let me add the following five:
In the early years of Kevin Ezell’s leadership, NAMB ignored all but one of its ministry assignments as listed in the SBC Organization Manual, and that was planting churches. With that singular focus, entire departments at NAMB were eliminated. Over the years the other five assignments have slowly garnered some attention. If approved at this year’s convention a seventh one will be added related to supporting collegiate ministries. NAMB’s challenge will be to find the right balance as they move forward.
When you place a laser focus on only one of the several assignments you have, you open yourself up to selective blindness. At the same time, you create a huge rift between your organization and those who value the other ministry assignments that are being ignored or eliminated. A singular focus can be helpful during certain times, but not during a season of critical evaluation or with the ongoing responsibility to fulfill multiple ministry assignments.
Good leaders take time to understand what is truly happening AND why it is happening before they design and implement needed changes. A Proverb that has application here is “Do not remove the ancient landmark which your fathers have set” Prov. 22:28.
That was a question we faced in our historic 2019 floods. After a bit of head-scratching and a little head-butting, we were able to find some workable options. We discovered that well-oiled and time-proven systems resist change. We were just a microcosm of the challenges that have been encountered at the national level when NAMB announced Send Relief, and, from the perspective of Southern Baptist Disaster Relief, diminished their role. Our goal should never be to sustain a proven structure, rather it should be to design a structure that effectively does the job in our current context with a constant eye on fulfilling our gospel mission.
History is full of such people. Two examples can be found in I Kings 11: “So the Lord became angry with Solomon, because his heart had turned from the Lord God of Israel, who had appeared to him twice, and had commanded him concerning this thing, that he should not go after other gods; but he did not keep what the Lord had commanded” (verses 9-10). Pride and unchecked passions had replaced Solomon’s wisdom, and God removed His hand of blessing.
A few verses later, I Kings 11:37-38, we read that God sent the prophet Ahijah to Jeroboam with a message: “If you heed all that I command you, walk in My ways, and do what is right in My sight, to keep My statutes and My commandments, as My servant David did, then I will be with you and build for you an enduring house, as I built for David, and will give Israel to you.” But Jeroboam feared that people who went to Jerusalem to worship would eventually return to Rehoboam, so he built places of worship at Dan and Bethel. In each, he placed a golden calf, and he led his people to repeat the sin of false worship that their ancestors had done in the wilderness. Politics and power won Jeroboam’s heart.
Do you struggle with any of these five strategic principles? What are you doing to address the issue? If you’re not, then let me hit you with a few more strategic principles next week!
I shared two strategic principles last week that if applied well “might” have kept us from experiencing some of our current tension. I will share three more today knowing that when implemented well they too can help us avoid future problems. As I mentioned in the previous article, I have experienced the negative side of each of these strategic principles.
An example of a good strategy done poorly is what NAMB faced ten years ago. I am referring to the DoM/Church Starter Strategist positions that all new work conventions had used for several decades and one that I served in for almost twenty years. NAMB believed funding the dual role position was not a good strategic investment. However, today NAMB is encouraging the use of church-based Church Planter Catalysts. These are individuals who are currently serving on a church staff and are asked to pick up the responsibility to catalyze at least one new church plant per year. I would argue that this “new strategy” is identical to the traditional dual role that was previously declared ineffective.
However, I will quickly admit that this strategy, whenever it is used, requires individuals who can function EFFECTIVELY in dual roles. They cannot be living examples of “a jack of all trades and a master of none.” I will also quickly acknowledge that ten years ago too many DoM/CSSs could not do both roles effectively—it looked good on paper, but was not being executed well. The old cliché “don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater” has application as you consider NAMB’s early approach to this deeply engrained strategy. Effective leaders deal with ineffective staff, they don’t make rules that punish their effective staff, nor do they change their entire strategy simply because the current strategy isn’t being implemented well.
These realities mean we will need all kinds of church starting strategies. Unfortunately, some of the strategies that are available in old-line states are not always available in new work states. I have been directly involved in church planting for almost 35 years and only in recent years have I seen SBC church strength in our immediate area sufficient enough for a “hiving” or “campus” strategy to work. I would quickly add that it is a model that is still not available in much of Nebraska or in huge areas of other new work states. NAMB’s top down, single focus approach has relied heavily on the “hiving” model. They have shown “some” flexibility, but a limited feedback loop still exists which magnifies the problem of focusing on a singular strategic model.
I was serving in Iowa when the Iowa Southern Baptist Fellowship became the Baptist Convention of Iowa. At that time it fell far short of meeting the criteria needed to gain representation on SBC entity boards that have historically been granted to state conventions. The only “advantage” was the prestige of being called a state convention. The move came with a small financial “penalty” (HMB provided some financial support for the state executive position for a fellowship but none for a convention), and it still did not provide board representation. However, I learned growing up in Wyoming that it doesn’t do any good to close the barn door after the horses have already gotten out. So the question remains, how do we move forward in a truly cooperative environment?
NAMB has unilaterally suggested that some new work conventions should be combined. Yes, COVID has proven that technology can be used to maintain connectivity, but I would suggest that cooperative partnerships and ministry to churches will always require healthy relationships. Those relationships are created with face-to-face connections over time—not by FaceTime type technologies alone. Before new work convention restructuring can be addressed, I believe the fractured relationships between NAMB and new work conventions must be healed. Only with healthy relationships and trust, can difficult conversations take place where we can put in place rules that provide mutually beneficial accountability to those who provide a significant amount of the gold.
So far I have listed five strategies that we have not always implemented well in the past. The last two really demand more clarification, but space limitations do exist. My question for you is, which of these strategies has given you the greatest problems in your ministry setting? What would be the right next step that would help you resolve the issue?
Next week I will be listing additional strategies that could have been better implemented
Yours in Christ,
Mark R. Elliott, AMS
The SBC Organization Manual states that NAMB “exists to work with churches, associations, and state conventions in mobilizing Southern Baptists as a missional force to impact North America with the Gospel of Jesus Christ through evangelism and church panting.” However, over the last ten years, NAMB’s shift from the historic convention partnership model to a societal top-down model has created significant relational challenges because of the way they work in new work states. Things came to a head in June of 2020 as NAMB made more unilateral changes to the cooperative agreements with new work conventions.
Ten years after the GCRTF report was approved, which called for those cooperative agreements to end in seven years, additional changes that would have to extend the agreements through September 2023 resulted in a letter being sent to NAMB and the Executive Committee by six new work area state convention executives. The letter basically asked the Executive Committee to mediate ongoing issues they were experiencing with NAMB. Other new work state executives had concerns, but they were working towards a more conciliatory letter. Here is a link to that letter: Letter to NAMB from New Work Area States
NAMB officers offered a response a few days later. Here is a link to that letter: NAMB Responds
On separate occasions, the SBC Executive Committee staff and officers met and discussed the various issues with both parties. In January 2021 the Executive Committee issued a white paper entitled “Cooperation is the Way Forward.”
Shortly thereafter, NAMB trustees approved a resolution in response to the white paper. RESOLUTION OF THE BOARD OF TRUSTEES ON COOPERATION AND MISSIONAL STRATEGY
A few of you will be interested enough in the topic that you will take time to read the information on the above links. For the rest of you let me simply say that the issues remain unresolved. NAMB and the new work conventions have struggled to figure out how to work together with or without cooperative agreements. I would ask you to pray that the core values and the seven principles mentioned in last week’s article will actually take root.
The issues we face with SBC home missions are not new and are very complex, and they will require humility, confession, and divine intervention before we can move forward in a true spirit of cooperation. I have observed a number of strategic principles being misapplied in the last ten years that have contributed to our current environment. Here are two of them—more will follow in subsequent articles:
NAMB’s third president arrived acting like there were no healthy associations or state conventions in the new work area, and that NAMB 3.0 would do it right. That is a bit ironic since NAMB’s two previous presidents resigned under pressure, and the GCRTF report’s recommendations primarily addressed NAMB’s ineffectiveness. Jesus gave us all some counsel about trying to remove the speck from someone else’s eye when we have a beam in our own (Matt 7:5)
Because of our polity, most of the ineffectiveness has to be treated with benign neglect. That is until the unhealthy are ready to address their problems, or there is a leadership transition. What we can do in the meantime is focus our time and energy on supporting and partnering with the healthy among us and celebrating what God is doing in their midst. If that celebration enlightens, encourages, or convicts the unhealthy among us, then to God be the glory.
In the business world, the financial crunch of inefficient and unaffordable structures are eliminated by bankruptcies, structural changes, or acquisitions. In the government world, politicians simply raise our taxes and ignore the structural problems. In the church world, it usually takes a major intervention or financial collapse before we are willing to make necessary changes. A great example of healthy organizational intervention is recorded for us in Exodus 18 where Jethro gave wise counsel to his son-in-law Moses.
One example of how we expanded structure is how we dealt with the overwhelming geographical challenges in some of our new work states. Over time the five states that formed the Northern Plains Convention were transformed into four separate state conventions: Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, and the Dakotas (North and South together). The new conventions solved a huge geographic challenge, but they also created a financial burden as they staffed a traditional structure in each convention. In 2010, those conventions had a staffing structure that was not financially sustainable without continued NAMB support—and the GCRTF report’s approval meant those dollars were going to disappear.
God is still in the redemption business. To be able to join Him in His work, we must all be willing to seek “True Wisdom.” That is not only the wisdom from above that is found in scripture, but it is also the wisdom we can glean from past successes and failures. I will point to additional strategies I have learned from the school of hard knocks in the days ahead.
Yours in Christ,
Mark R. Elliott, AMS
Last week I began to shift our focus from SBC Home Missions History into the current events world. But before I set out a series of events that have been ten years in the making and that have now elevated the conflicts between NAMB and new work states onto the national stage, let me share principles and practices I have learned from reading and experiencing that history. Every organization will rise and fall on the basis of its leadership. When a church or any SBC entity is struggling, its current leadership has to change before it will experience effectiveness. That change usually comes in one of two ways: 1) Current leaders have a truly changed heart and mind—God is always in the redemption business, or 2) A new leader arrives who is able to cast vision, build relationships, and develop and implement effective strategies.
My choice has always been to pray and work for option number one, with the realization that changed hearts are the purview of God. I have suggested that the current tensions between new work conventions and NAMB are the result of missteps by current and former leaders. I also suggested that litigating those errors is not as beneficial as learning from them and changing our hearts and minds so we can move forward with God-honoring cooperative efforts. With that in mind, let me share some principles I’ve learned:
Yours in Christ,
Mark R. Elliott, AMS
Mark is in his twenty-seventh year of serving as an Associational Missions Strategist. He served in western Iowa for almost eight years, and is in his nineteenth year with HCN. He has a passion to see pastors and church leaders grow in their abilities to lead their churches. He continues to have a heart and desire to see new churches planted and God continues to use his strategic thinking skills in this area. Mark also has a wealth of experience in helping churches clarify who God has created them to be, and what they can do best to reach their community. He has had ample opportunities to help churches in times of conflict, and has seen God do exciting things to restore a spirit of harmony, returning churches to a time of fruitfulness. He also helps churches in transition by working with search committees. Mark and Phyllis who were married in November of 2018 have four children and three grandchildren. They will enjoy their combined 87th anniversary in just a few days.