Ed Stetzer serves as the Missiologist and Research Team Director at the North American Mission Board in Alpharetta, Georgia and as Co-Pastor of Lake Ridge Church in Cumming, Georgia. He earned a Ph.D. from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a D.Min from Beeson Divinity School.

I said “yes” to this conference because I believe the mission will be exercised differently in different contexts, and that is okay. I did not say “yes” because I wanted to dialogue in debate or engage in controversy. If we are going to learn to reach our world, we must learn to do it together. I believe ecclesiology and missiology will be defining issues in the SBC over the next ten years. I am not here for the sake of the debate but for the sake of the mission.

The Term Missional

Missional is not a new word and is not my word. It was first found in Oxford Dictionary in 1907. The normative application of NT Christianity is missional. Part of the debate over “missional” is because it has been used in various contexts in many ways.

Being missional is not about terminology, but focus. We spend so much time objecting to terms that we never get around to changing our churches. We have embraced this idea on the foreign mission field, but this has not been implemented here in North America. A shift is absolutely essential in light of the declining and dying churches. Only 11% of churches are experiencing healthy evangelistic growth.

Missional thinking is not the same thing as missiological support. We have confused missiological support with being on mission where we have relegated the work of the Great Commission to someone else, somewhere else.

Southern Baptist churches must begin to think missionally in their respective contexts. We must learn to connect with current culture without compromising our message. The intersection between theology, ecclesiology, and missiology is where we need to focus.

We do not need to learn the methods of the past, but how not to use those things. Our task is not to pine away for methods; we must not focus on the methods of previous times, but their motives, namely reaching the lost with the gospel of Jesus Christ. We have a different starting point but the same ending point.

There is always a risk in engaging the culture. Some equate contextualization with compromise. Some cannot understand because they are thinking about the paradigms of the past more than the people of today.

“Solid missional and theologically-sound churches can be planted, revitalized, or grown–if we will choose to engage and be part of the solution, not continue to lob grenades of half truths and caricatures into missional church contexts.”

NAMB has officially adopted this language to define a missional church,

A missional church is a biblically faithful and culturally appropriate reproducing community of disciples sent on mission by God to advance his Kingdom among all peoples.”

We Must Contend and Contextualize

Contend (Jude 3)
Contextualize (1 Cor. 9:19-24)

Our churches need to be biblically-faithful, culturally-relevant, counter-culture communities. We have no historical precedent in denominational life for cooperating with such incredibly diverse expressions of church and ministry.

We must be known as the Convention that believes in biblical fidelity and engaging people in the culture. And we must learn to do it together. Today it is still true: “Churches which are methodologically different are automatically suspect.” Although it is no longer 1958, it certainly can feel that way for churches with diverse methodologies when they attend many denominational events. If we continue to treat such diverse pastors as “automatically suspect,” they will choose a different path—and our Convention will be weaker. We need to find ways to cooperate.

The real question is this: Will the Southern Baptist Convention and its entities be seen as partners in the process of raising up new indigenous expressions of Southern Baptist churches? If we can embrace diverse forms of scripturally-sound church and ministry, we can again see the kingdom impact that I believe God wishes to renew in us. Can we cooperate? Or, will our contending be in vain as those who have contextualized to different communities can no longer work with us—not because of their theology but because of their ministry expression.

There is a reason so many churches are forming networks—they are doing so because they do not see ours as their best investment of time and energy. If our seminaries do not teach cultural engagement, our agencies primarily espouse methods from a past era, and our associations reject anything that does not look like a tent revival, it will be little surprise that our young leaders consider us “out of touch.”

Many young leaders have chosen other paths and networks—and as a result we have lost both their influence and the chance to influence them.

I won’t ask them to do it like me and will expect them not to ask me to do it like them. I want to be in a Convention where we agree on enough to get on mission. If we can’t do that, we should start preparing for our ultimate denominational demise.

Let’s not fiddle and fuss while Nashville burns.