By James A. Smith Sr., Florida Baptist Witness Executive Editor
NASHVILLE (FBW)—As Southern Baptists debate a Feb. 22 preliminary report of its Great Commission Resurgence Task Force, little attention is being paid to what Chairman Ronnie Floyd calls Southern Baptists’ “number one need”—a “return to God in deep repentance” and to “experience a fresh wave of [the Holy] Spirit.”
About 10 pages of the 32-page “progress report” address the spiritual condition of Southern Baptists, painting a bleak picture of spiritual lethargy and relative Great Commission ineffectiveness in the nation’s largest Protestant denomination even while pointing to signs the world is on the “brink” of a “global harvest.”
“I believe with all my heart that God is calling us to return to Him now in deep repentance of our sin, in brokenness over our sin, denying our pride and selfishness and returning to God with complete humility,” Floyd said in the progress report.
Rhetoric bemoaning “our dismal baptism numbers, our declining and plateaued churches, and our economic selfishness” should “cease and the repentance personally and corporately must begin,” he said.
Although Floyd’s report gives high priority to spiritual awakening and makes a general appeal for repentance, the GCRTF offers no recommendations on how Southern Baptists can seek renewal.
Asked by Florida Baptist Witness if specific proposals concerning spiritual matters may be forthcoming, Floyd said, “absolutely,” adding the final report to be released May 3 will address these matters “more effectively.”
Floyd said “we felt we could wait on some matters” in order to permit the initial report to deal with issues “our Convention needed to be aware of and be able to respond to us about.”
That may explain why most discussion about the progress report has centered on the GCRTF’s recommendations to re-structure various aspects of denominational life.
But the GCRTF asserts Southern Baptists’ first need is a spiritual awakening, and Southern Baptist leaders interviewed by the Witness agree.
Don Whitney, associate professor of biblical spirituality at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said while there is “much to be grateful for” there is also “much to be concerned about” in the SBC.
Whitney is the founder and president of The Center for Biblical Spirituality and has written widely on spirituality issues.
According to Whitney, SBC seminaries are producing “record numbers of pastors who are committed to preaching the Bible and who care deeply about biblical reformation of churches,” and there is a “growing desire to return to basics such as, ‘What is the Gospel?’, ‘What is a Christian?’, and ‘What is a church?’”
Additionally, “I see a fresh emphasis on the Baptist principle of a regenerate church membership and a growing passion to take the Gospel to the
nations,” he said.
Yet, Whitney warned, “At the same time there are so many churches where many of these issues are taken for granted, and no sense of the need for eternal vigilance about them.”
Tom Elliff, former SBC president and former senior vice president of spiritual nurture and church relations at the International Mission Board, said an “awakening” is “desperately needed in our Southern Baptist churches,” noting he prefers “awakening” to “revival” because “revival presumes pre-existing life. We have clear evidence that such life in Christ does not exist in the hearts of many current church members.”
The need for awakening is broader than Southern Baptists, said Elliff, a former pastor for 42 years and founder of Living in the Word Publications.
“The United States is in dire need of a spiritual awakening on the order of the great awakenings in our earlier history,” he said. “We have completed the first century in our history without such an awakening.”
Don Walton, pastor of New Hope Baptist Church in Zephyrhills, Fla., and self-described “revivalist,” said while he is thankful and proud to be a Southern Baptist, the SBC deserves a failing grade because the “world’s influence upon us is increasingly pervasive.”
What are the appropriate indicators for assessing the spiritual condition of the SBC? Spirituality experts don’t point to church and denominational statistics.
“Love—for Christ, for Christlikeness, for His Word, for the Gospel, for His people and for the lost,” Whitney said.
“Contrary to popular opinion, I don’t believe the true barometer of spirituality is the counting of nickels, noses and baptisms,” Walton said, adding that “church purity is a better gauge of our true spiritual condition than church growth,” pointing to 1 John 2:18-29.
Elliff suggested a lengthy list of indicators of spiritual vitality: “Hunger for the Word; sacrificial living under the Lordship of Christ; selfless lifestyles marked by eager giving of ourselves and our resources; a comprehension of the need for evangelism and church planting on a global scale; fearless pastors; spirit-filled lives; passionate, faithful approaches to discipleship; love for others; and an eagerness for authentic worship.”
The leaders differ on the role of the Convention corporately in encouraging an awakening among the SBC’s 50,000 congregations.
“The task force is obviously eager for spiritual awakening, and is urging us to set the table for such a move of God, but they are aware that we cannot organize a spiritual awakening into existence,” said Elliff.
“Awakening is a sovereign act of God,” Elliff said. “We should not presume, however, that we are not in need of a fresh look at the manner in which Southern Baptists are structured.”
Walton counters, denominational streamlining is “laudable” but “it is no spiritual solution to what is obviously a spiritual problem.”
Walton, founder of Time For Truth Ministries, insisted:, “No matter how sleek a Convention we can build, it will prove to be nothing more than a pretty corpse without the life of the Spirit surging through it. … Revival is now a matter of our survival.”
In the progress report, Floyd points to Joel 2:12-17, which the GCRTF
embraced as speaking to the spiritual situation of Southern Baptists. In the passage, Floyd explains in the report, God calls on Israel to hold a sacred fast and solemn assembly to “return to Him in total surrender, complete humility, and with a new attitude.
Asked by the Witness if the GCRTF has weighed calling for a comparable special spiritual observance among Southern Baptists, Floyd said “we have considered this and still are considering this.”
Floyd noted his own church observed a 21-day fast in January, in part to focus prayer on GCR.
Whitney, who is completing a Doctor of Theology in Christian spirituality, said it would be a “great idea” for the GCRTF to call Southern Baptists to a fast and solemn assembly, noting in addition to “national fasts in the theocracy of Israel” that “congregational fasts” were practiced in the New Testament, such as the church in Antioch (Acts 13:2).
Walton has “no problem” with a call for a special spiritual emphasis, adding Christians should personally and corporately fast and pray, and “continue to do so until God meets with us in a solemn assembly, granting us repentance and revival.”
Nevertheless, Walton said, “Southern Baptists need to stop trying to calendar a move of the Spirit.”
The GCRTF progress report asserts the world is on the “brink of the mightiest outpouring of the Holy Spirit to have ever occurred in the world,” citing as evidence Christian conversions in some of the most difficult places for Christianity in the world.
Whitney expressed hope the progress report is correct, but said historically it’s difficult to “discern when a great outpouring of the Spirit is about to occur.”
Still, Whitney has seen more than ever before “widespread, growing interest in joining together with all those who love the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” citing various types of evangelicals.
“I believe this truly is a growing work of the Holy Spirit. The Bible
repeatedly promises that there will be a time when the knowledge of the Lord will cover the earth as the waters cover the sea,” he said. “There are various views of the end times regarding when this will come about. Nevertheless, it will happen someday. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see it in our own lifetime?”
Elliff told the Witness many other Christians “around the world are
already crying out to God for a great moving of His Spirit.”
Southern Baptists should stop worrying “about whether we can be perceived as leading the way,” Elliff said. “It is high time for us to rend our hearts in a passionate cry for awakening, devoid of selfish pride and pettiness. We must cast ourselves on the Lord, frankly confessing our spiritual poverty, indifference and waywardness.”
Walton believes “our day is more indicative of the biblically predicted perilous times of the last days,” citing 2 Tim. 3:1-13, adding he hopes Floyd’s assessment is correct “and I am wrong.”
“One thing is for sure: whether revival ever again comes to this world, it can come to our Convention,” he said. “Whether it ever comes to our Convention, it can come to my church. And whether it ever comes to my church, it can come to me. And believe me, no one in our Convention needs revival any more than I do.”