A Few Thoughts on the GRC: Where is our Judea?

Like many bi-vocational pastors I have been busy in my ministry and employment with little time to focus on other issues. Being in that position is like an exhausted man sitting on a railroad track. He doesn’t move until he has to do so. Since the annual convention in Louisville, the Great Commission Resurgence train has gathered enough steam that I am forced to decide either to jump on board or move off the tracks.  So, in the last month I finally started gathering information to assist in my decision. The Great Commission Resurgence was formally introduced at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in a chapel message by the seminary president, Danny Akin. His April 16, 2009, message entitled “Axioms for a Great Commission Resurgence” presented twelve “axioms” for renewing the Southern Baptist Convention’s evangelistic effectiveness and missions efforts. After reading the text, I must ask, “Where is North America in the Great Commission Resurgence?”

I was a laymen or pastor in a number of churches during my twenty years in Alaska and served on numerous associational and state convention boards.  At the time of my departure from the state, I was serving as First Vice-President of the Alaska Baptist Convention. I taught North American church planting and evangelism for nine years in one of the SBC seminaries. Therefore, when I read the GCR, I look at the issue from the perspective of a New Work convention and the lostness of North America. Unfortunately, the tone and content of the document are disquieting.

The majority of Akin’s message consists of points that every Bible believing Baptist must affirm with a hearty amen. However, two axioms and their supporting points reveal the flaws of the GCR:

Axiom VIII “We must recognize the need to rethink our Convention structure and identity so that we maximize our energy and resources for the fulfilling of the Great Commission.”

Axiom X. “We must encourage pastors to see themselves as the head of a gospel missions agency who will lead the way in calling out the called for international assignments but also equip and train all their people to see themselves as missionaries for Jesus regardless of where they live.”

I have grave concerns about the implications of Axiom VIII. The statement reveals a lack of understanding the North American mission context and, in particular, the challenges of the New Work conventions. However, due to limited space, I wish to address most of my concerns with Axiom X. Axiom X also reveals the underlying perspective that colors all of the GCR as stated.

The GCR rightly states the importance of international missions. However, North American missions is largely absent. Notice in Axiom X, pastors are to lead the way in “calling out the called for international assignments.” In the GCR there is one calling worthy of attention, international missions. There are international missionaries, and then there is everyone else. Only the international missionaries are called. Notice the pastors are to equip “all their people to see themselves as missionaries for Jesus regardless of where they live.” That includes the laymen in the pew, the person called to pastoral ministry, the North American church planter, and the person called to work in the vast fields of North America’s lost population. I know North American church planters who have faithfully faced financial, spiritual, and physical challenges, yet feel they are second class missionaries because they are in North America. This impression was instilled during their seminary training. The GCR fails to present North America as the third largest unchurched population in the world.

How lost is North America? According to NAMB and the 2000 Census:

  • The United States has 195 million unchurched people. (Unchurch means they are not attending any religious group, i.e., mosque, synagogue, church, Wicca coven, etc.)
  • Canada has over 20 million unchurched with an approximate 4% Evangelical population.
  • There are more Buddhists than Episcopalians in the U.S.
  • There are more Muslims than Presbyterians.
  • 11.2% of the U.S. population was born in another country.
  • 49% of people under 18 years of age are non-Anglo.
  • 25% of Washington State’s population has NO RELIGIOUS preference.
  • Eight other western states and Vermont have at least 19% of their population with NO RELIGIOUS preference.
  • Los Angeles has the second largest Iranian and Mexican populations in the world.
  • 40% of Communist China’s leaders study in the U.S.
  • 30% of international students are Muslims.
  • Many of these international students are studying in small town colleges or universities.
  • Canada has 31 cities of 10,000 or more people without an Evangelical witness.
  • The “Triangle,” (Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill), has over 13,000 Chinese.
  • 86.6% of the population of the Kenai Peninsula, Alaska, is unchurched.
  • Montana Baptists, using IMB criteria, have identified 200 unreached people groups.
  • North America is the only continent where Christianity is not growing in percentage to the population.

I could go on. The world has come to America. I am currently hosting three Indian college students who are attending a local university and have hosted a visiting professor from Pakistan in the past. As a host, I have more opportunities in a year to talk in-depth about spiritual matters than many international missionaries will have during their first tour.  The professor, a devout Muslim, asked me many questions that could have resulted in his death in his own country.  I can take you to many places in middle class America where you will meet people who have never attended church, read a Bible, or heard the Gospel. Most of New England is three generations removed from participation in Christianity.

As I read the GCR Axioms, I do not see a grasp of North America’s lostness. There are the sentences dealing with church planting “that assaults the major population centers of North America” and  “urban centers such as New York, Washington, DC, Boston, Los Angeles, and Seattle” which are “almost completely bereft of evangelical influence.” But a few comments out of a fourteen page text reveals North America’s need as an afterthought.

The North American church, including Southern Baptists, has been given a great opportunity. Do the cities need to be reached? Yes, but God may choose a church plant in Bozeman, Montana to reach New York City. We never know how God will work. In the last few years, 50% of the new residents of Bozeman, Montana are “trust fund babies.” These are individuals who have never worked and have decided to move to Montana to get away from New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles. Is it possible they may be brought to Christ away from the “major population centers” and then used by God to reach their home cities?  They have the resources, know the culture, and have the relationships essential to an urban strategy. I have seen the same occur with Latino converts.

I do not see an appreciation of convention entities in Axiom X. As a person with a New Work convention perspective, I do not recognize the world of “bloated bureaucracies” and “If folks in the pew knew how much of their giving stayed in there (sic) state they would revolt and call for a revolution!” One would believe by reading the GCR that our associations and state conventions hoard the money and need to release it for international missions. Is there some redundancy and occasional waste? Yes, but it is less common than conventions who are committed to reach the lost in their state. The GCR assumes the worst and paints with a large brush. I have visited almost every state in the U.S. and three of Canada’s provinces. Most of the Baptists I have encountered are struggling against daunting odds. Our state conventions have some of the finest missiologists that can be found.

I fear that instead of seeking a revival in our land, and the subsequent awakening, the GCR will divert our focus by shuffling organizations and labels instead of prioritizing the spiritual. There are many elements I can affirm, although I reject the underlying tone. I wish there were some people from the mission fields of North America as members of the Great Commission Resurgence Task Force, instead of so many institutional leaders and mega-church pastors. North America should be a pivotal piece of our world evangelism strategy. I pray that the GCR would have as great a burden and urgency for North America as it does for the rest of the world. Jesus began with Jerusalem, Samaria, and Judea when he commissioned his disciples.  At this point, I will be stepping off the tracks as the GCR rumbles by and will continue working in the fields that are white unto harvest with people from all over the world.

POST SCRIPT ON FEBRUARY GCR TASK FORCE STATUS REPORT:

The GCR Task Force gave a status report at the SBC Executive Board which had six main points. I have not read the full transcript of Ronnie Floyd’s  presentation, but I am pleased with what I have read. It was good to see the emphasis on the need for spiritual awakening and the recognition of North America’s lostness. For years I have held the position that we need to use our international missionaries wherever their particular people group may be. The CIA and FBI may not be restricted by borders, but God’s work needs a global strategy. We have a tremendous influx of internationals who need to be reached. Our international missionaries can be a resource for our work in North America. I look forward to the final recommendations which will be presented at the summer Southern Baptist Convention.  2/26/10

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5 Responses

  1. Bill,
    I’m praying for a Great Commission resurgence in the SBC, but you’re right, it must not minimize reaching the vast lostness of North America. Thanks for your thoughts.

  2. Bill: I appreciate your insights. While we can not ignore the international aspects of missions, neither can we weaken the North American aspect. In Alaska 95% of our population is unchurched & 90% of them do not know Jesus Christ as Lord. In addition, there are 100 communities (1/3 of our communities) with no church of any denomination.

    • Mike,
      I thank God for my years living in Alaska. You gain a different view of America when you see a whole culture that does not include Christ. My years there come to mind every time I teach people preparing for ministry. Thanks for all your years of ministry in a place that will always be home.

  3. […] Seminary himself and now giving leadership to the distance-learning program at Liberty. You can read his thoughts here. This is not the first time we’ve highlighted concerns with the GCR document; this link will […]

  4. Bill, this is a very good article and you raise some very good concerns. Most American Christians are unaware that the US, their own front yard, is one of the top unreached nations of the world. Here are some additional thoughts of what I call the hole in the GCR.

    http://drthomreece.wordpress.com/2009/06/29/the-hole-in-the-great-commission-resurgence/

    Blessings!

    Tom Cocklereece

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