As a young child growing up in a relatively small Baptist church in Alabama, I was involved in Bible drills and other exercises of scripture memorization. One of the first passages I memorized was what we fondly call the Great Commission found in Matthew 28:19-20. Those words, in various translations, can still come from my lips and my heart as a basic foundation: (a) for Christian living personally and (b) for missions and evangelism cooperatively.
When I have those flashback moments and think about the times I recited the challenging words of the Great Commission, my spirit soars. I can never forget the joy of learning what being a Great Commission Christian means. My local church nurtured that understanding in me. I truly hope that spiritual exhilaration never abates as I move along in the pilgrimage of life.
When I fast forward to my call to preach and the early years of my ministry, I remember vividly preaching on the Great Commission text on numerous occasions. More than 30 years ago, I was honored to be asked to preach at the State Evangelism Conference in Birmingham.
“What is so great about the Great Commission?” was my title. I recall being scared to death standing before the relatively large crowd of people. My voice was raspy from a siege of the flu, which left me weakened to the point of barely being able to stand, much less preach. Yet, the Lord, who is always faithful, gave me the energy physically, emotionally and spiritually to deliver the message. That moment is etched in my mind.
Years before, as a seminary student at New Orleans, I had learned firsthand what being a Great Commission Christian means in a city known for its pervasive secular influence. New Orleans, the Mardi Gras capital, can party with the best of them.
As a pastor in that city, I tried to impact the lostness through the proven methods of Vacation Bible School and preaching at rescue missions. I saw children come to our church who would have never attended a Sunday service. I shared the Gospel with people so down and out, that they often lived under the interstate overpasses.
As a pastor in Alabama, I sought to lead our relatively strong churches to be on mission with the Great Commission. We were not always as effective as I would have wished, but we never gave up on the Great Commission, with an Acts 1:8 strategy. The churches I served were always concerned about Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth.
Almost 12 years ago, when I was called to state missions, the only real agenda I had was to help Alabama Baptists to be even more committed Great Commission Christians. Since then, Alabama Baptists have become leaders in Cooperative Program giving and in contributions to international missions and North American missions. We have sought to assist people in need through our disaster relief efforts. We have endeavored to be good partners with fellow Baptists in Pennsylvania and Michigan and other states. Our global partnerships with Spain, Venezuela, Guatemala and Ukraine have made a kingdom difference, which only eternity will reveal. I have been an eyewitness to some real breakthroughs in these areas.
My 10 years as a trustee on the International Mission Board was a real education for me. I was able to see the world through the eyes of multitudes of missionaries. I rejoiced to know how our Lord was using them in some of the most difficult places to be Gospel messengers. I do not believe there is a substitute for God-called long-term missionaries living among the people.
I believe in incarnational missions. My seminary professor, Dr. Helen Falls, helped me to understand the worldview of a missionary. She had been there and done that personally. She was a God-send in my formative years of ministry. As a trustee for the IMB, I saw her frequently in Richmond. She worked as a volunteer in the office. Dr. Falls saw me one day and she smiled brightly and asked, “Now, tell me you haven’t forgotten what I taught you years ago.” My response was quick and enthusiastic, “No ma’am, you taught all of us well.”
The Great Commission is the talk of the Southern Baptist Convention today. In a real sense, that can be positive. It has the potential to help us refocus on what being a Great Commission people means for the 21st century.
However, the discussion about the Great Commission should not become a Great Commotion. We do not have to be in conflict over the challenge of being Great Commission Christians in our Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth. There is way too much for us to do in Alabama, North America and around the world to be engaged in intramural conflicts. I am praying for a Great Commission revival to come over us as a people of God. That is a movement which is spiritual, not structural.
I have my opinions about the current debate. In my own feeble way, behind the scenes, I have sought to share my concerns with people I know and trust. These conversations have been candid and frank, but I will not allow our disagreements to define our relationships. As a missions leader, I want to be a good steward of what influence I have for our Lord.
I cannot predict the outcome of this debate, but be sure of this one thing: When the talk is all completed, I intend on trying to lead Alabama Baptists to remain focused on our One Mission, the Great Commission. I will do all I can to lead our people to see the eternal value of being committed to the One Program we have called the Cooperative Program.
Here I stand, I can do no other!