Following the release of a report that directs the country's largest Protestant denomination in a new direction, Southern Baptists have expressed new energy and anticipation for the future.
"Our denomination has much room for improvement, but I am more excited today about Southern Baptists than I have ever been," said Chuck Lawless, dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions and Evangelism at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.
Lawless' excitement is partly due to the Great Commission Resurgence Task Force progress report, which was released last month. The report was compiled by a 22-member panel which offered recommendations on how Southern Baptists can work more faithfully and effectively together in serving Christ through the Great Commission.
After years of growth, the Southern Baptist Convention has in recent years seen a plateau and decline in membership and baptism numbers. The declining numbers served as a wake-up call for the 16 million-member convention.
"I feel Southern Baptists have been in somewhat of a comfort zone," said Dr. Johnny Hunt, president of the SBC and a member of the GCR task force, in a statement Monday. "Now many are listening and watching to see just how serious we are about the unreached, unengaged, and the under-served of this nation and the nations of the world."
The GCR report highlights the massive "lostness" in the world. Three in four people in North America are estimated to be "lost and perishing" and 4 billion of the 6.8 billion people in the world have little to no access to the Gospel.
Recommendations outlined by the panel are aimed at not only penetrating the lostness but also moving the denomination past the infighting and down to their knees in repentance.
"[T]he report begins with a call to repentance over our disunity, arrogance, selfishness and caustic rhetoric," Lawless summarizes in a commentary featured in the seminary's publication. "Southern Baptists have unfortunately assumed that our size is evidence of God's blessings on us, and seldom have we been accused of humility.
"The GCRTF report is a jolting call to repent of our belief that the evangelical world somehow revolves around us. We have no right to think such about ourselves, especially when our denomination is in decline."
Southern Baptists will consider adopting a final report at its annual meeting in June. Lawless expects the process of change may take time.
"Ours is a large denominational ship that is not turned quickly," he noted. "Change is seldom easy, especially when structures and processes to which we have become accustomed are challenged. This report calls for an intense Great Commission focus that will require hard choices. I am praying now that the world will see us discuss the issues with fervor while still rallying around the Great Commission. Anything less will harm our witness."
SBC President Hunt also recognizes the challenges and the sacrifice needed as the convention tries to push a Great Commission resurgence. But with that, he sees better days ahead.
"We have known great days in our Southern Baptist Convention, but it is more than just mere words when I say, 'our best is yet to be,'" Hunt stated.
The SBC annual meeting is scheduled for June 15-16 in Orlando, Fla.