“Calling is not a special experience for a sacred few. It is a basic element of the Christian life.”
Don’t miss Part 1 of our interview, where J.D. Greear unpacks why we must keep the gospel above all, and addresses the recent crises in the Southern Baptist Convention over the issues of sexual abuse, gender injustice and abusive or callous leadership.
In the book, you ask, “How will the recovery of something we already know take us to places we’ve never been?” This “never been” is intriguing. What do you mean by it? What’s your vision for our future?
This is exciting stuff. By “never been” I mean asking, “What does a radical gospel movement in this day look like?” We know the gospel is capable of leading us into a new reality. God’s arm is not shortened that it cannot save. His ear is not dull that it cannot hear. If we are encountering a barrier, it is not with God, but with us. However, with the gospel returned to our center, I think we are primed for a gospel explosion like never before in our culture.
What are the hallmarks of that new vision?
My vision for the future shouldn’t feel terribly new. It’s founded in Jesus’ Great Commandment and the Great Commission. At The Summit, we summarize our vision for the future with four value statements: We prioritize the gospel above all; we do whatever it takes to reach all people; we make disciples, not just converts; and we send every member.
Obviously that is a future that needs to be chosen. What will choosing it require of pastors, congregations and everyday Christians?
We need to be genuinely dedicated to those four values. In keeping the gospel above all, we need to ask, “Are we removing every distraction we can to make the gospel as clear and compelling as possible?”
In doing whatever it takes to reach all people, we remember that Jesus said there would be more rejoicing over one sinner who repented than over the 99 who were already in the fold. Because he prioritized those outside the fold in his ministry, we prioritize them in ours, constantly asking what we can do to bring the gospel to more people.
In making disciples (not just converts), we remember that the final command Jesus gave his disciples was to make disciples, teaching them to observe all that he had commanded. Heaven does not count professions of faith; heaven counts disciples of Jesus. So we are committed to developing and discipling all those God has entrusted to us.
And in sending every member, we teach often that calling is not a special experience for a sacred few—it is a basic element of the Christian life. When believers accept Jesus, they accept his call to join him in his mission. The question, then, is not if our people are sent on mission, but only where and how.
How do we deal with the (understandable) reality that the gospel does not feel like good news to many people and populations in the modern world? How can we relate with sympathy and honesty to those for whom Christianity is perceived as a religion of oppression or ignorance?
There have always been cultural barriers to the gospel. As good ambassadors, we need to listen deeply to the issues that are keeping people from hearing the gospel as the good news that it is. But this shouldn’t frighten us. After all, we know that the gospel did not appear in the first century as a religion of oppression. It came as good news to the broken, the shameful, the sinful and the outcast. We follow a Savior who laid aside his power to suffer with us, who died in our place and who calls us to follow that same pattern.
So if Christianity has gotten tangled up with heinous acts, we should be straightforward in pointing out how incongruent that connection is. And we should continue to live out the grace and truth of the gospel, knowing that God still has the power to change hearts. We don’t need better PR. We need his Spirit to move.
In contemporary Christianity, how do we keep to the “above all” gospel without falling prey to legalism or empty religiosity? After all, the shadow side of this is a brand of pharisaical faith—doctrinal perfection, with dead bones inside.
True depth in theology doesn’t make our feet cold. It makes our feet move. Gospel depth leads to effective missiology, because the deeper we go into the gospel, the more we stand in awe of God’s grace toward us. The more we see God’s grace toward us, the more we will be motivated to share that grace with others.
Let’s unpack those “moving feet.” In the book, you tell the story of a dinner you shared with North American Mission Board representatives who said their greatest need wasn’t for money, but “for qualified planters. We just don’t have enough qualified church planters to invest in.” That’s surprising. What story does that need tell you? What opportunities or calls exist for church planting today?
The need of the hour is for more and better discipleship. The reason we don’t have enough qualified planters is that our churches don’t have intentional pipelines for leadership development. Our failure to raise up church-planting leaders is symptomatic of our failure to raise up disciples in our churches. It seems that very few of our people are engaged in, much less skilled at, making disciple-making disciples.
At its root, the problem often goes back to a faulty idea of calling. Calling is not a special experience for a sacred few. It is a basic element of the Christian life. When believers accept Jesus, they accept his call to join him in his mission. The question, then, is not if our people are sent on mission, but only where and how. If people believed that, we’d see a lot more applications to join in church plants.
You write, “Everything we do in ministry should flow from or lead toward making disciples. Disciple making is, after all, the key component of Jesus’ Great Commission (Matt. 28:19–20), and it ought to be the standard by which we judge every ministry in the church.” From your vantage point, what practical correctives need to be taken for churches to live this out?
One of the key ways to do this is to celebrate the right things. At our church, we often say that success in ministry isn’t about seating capacity so much as it is about sending capacity. We drip this kind of vision into our services so often people get sick of hearing it. But we need to keep the focus on reaching and sending, because we naturally turn inward. As I heard one pastor say it, the first thing on your body to go cold is your feet.
In our day, disciple making will have to happen outside the church more often than in it. The number of people identifying with no religion (the “Nones”) is growing, and may reach 25% of our population within our generation. These people have no plans, for any reason, to set foot in a church. If we care about reaching them (and we do!), we need to go to them.
This is why we’ve developed initiatives like “Who’s Your One?” in which every member of every Southern Baptist church identifies one person to pray for, share the gospel with and invite to church. Or “Go2,” in which we’re challenging every college graduate to devote the first two years after graduation to being a part of a church plant.
You write, “Gospel doctrine that is not accompanied by gospel grace is deadly both to the culture and the church that is dispensing it.” I love this commitment to a lived—not just an intellectual—gospel. But flesh this out. What are the barriers to this? What happens when doctrine and grace come into conflict—which they, from my perspective, truly can do? How does a congregation grow in the second without losing the first?
Grace and truth. The apostle John described Jesus’ ministry as one full of “grace and truth.” Either of these without the other is not the gospel. Grace without truth is sentimentalism. Truth without grace is fundamentalism. If we want to impact our culture with the gospel, we need to approach people with both.
True belief in the gospel will lead us to become like the gospel—full of grace. How can it not? A nongracious gospel is a contradiction in terms. The problem with those who are not gracious and generous is not that they are too dogmatic about the gospel. They don’t believe the gospel too much; they believe the gospel too little. Their ungracious attitude reveals it.
The challenges you’ve faced as leader of the SBC have been deep—ranging from engaging racism in your ranks, to the denominational sexual abuse crisis, to dealing with fallout from Paige Patterson’s actions and comments during his tenure. How have you personally handled these difficulties? What has it taught you about leadership—especially leadership in a culture of growing transparency?
Coming under fire is never comfortable, and it often makes little difference if the critiques are fair or not. It hurts. But it’s important for leaders to prioritize integrity and transparency anyway. Leaders need to care more about doing the right thing for their people and less about their reputation before others. Our first commitment is to God and his flock, not to saving face or preserving institutions.
The way of the cross is the way of humility. This means the best leaders admit mistakes—really admitting them, not spinning them or hedging on them, but accepting them without posturing. It means listening deeply for even a shred of valid criticism from the most uncharitable sources. And it means accepting persecution even when it is unfair. In the end, God will vindicate those who have been honest and pursued justice. We often want to help him make those vindicating remarks early, but it’s best to let him do his thing.
THE SUMMIT CHURCH
Durham, North Carolina
Denomination: Southern Baptist
Read more from J.D. Greear at OutreachMagazine.com/j-d-greear.
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