SWBTS General 3

Empower Conference: Christian unity must undergird gospel witness

March 22nd, 2017 / By: Keith Collier | Managing Editor / comments

LAS COLINAS  “Pragmatically, the failure of the Christian church to pursue unity … undercuts all the praying and the crying and the snotting we do about revival,” Kevin Smith told attendees at the Southern Baptists of Texas Empower Conference. Smith, executive director of the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware, was one of about a dozen main session speakers who addressed the 2,082 registered for the annual evangelism conference at the Irving Convention Center in Las Colinas, Feb. 27-28.

Noting racial, political, generational and economic divisions in society, Smith exhorted Christians in a sermon from Ephesians 4:1-6 to not let these divisions put them at odds with fellow believers.

“Stop freaking out, read the Bible, don’t be ashamed of the gospel, and don’t be ashamed of the people that the gospel calls,” Smith said.

“We can’t be ashamed of each other. We can’t back up from our fellowship and our relationship and our love for one another. We live in a divided culture; we live in a divided society; and nothing is a more refreshing witness than the unified people of God of every kindred, tribe, tongue and nation.”

Smith said he does not like to use the phrase “racial reconciliation” because even atheists can champion that cause. While reconciliation between ethnicities is important, he said, additional divisions exist that need reconciliation in the culture, all of which only a relationship with Jesus Christ can fix. 

“It’s more than just race. It is totally understanding that Jesus can save anybody; and if Jesus can save anybody, our congregations will have people coming in and gathering among us who are different than we are, ... and we must be eager about that.”

—Kevin Smith, executive director of the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware

“It’s more than just race,” he said. “It is totally understanding that Jesus can save anybody; and if Jesus can save anybody, our congregations will have people coming in and gathering among us who are different than we are, ... and we must be eager about that.”

Smith spoke of Southern Baptists’ commendable determination in recovering biblical fidelity during the 1980s and ‘90s, saying, “The effort we put into sound doctrine and the effort we put into personal holiness, we ought to likewise put effort into pursuing Christian unity.”

Of course, this type of Christian unity must have theological boundaries, Smith insisted. The seven “ones” outlined in Ephesians 4:4-6 make up the parameters of “the unity of the bond of peace.” 

Within those boundaries, Smith said Christians need not be ashamed of one another and must put forth every effort to show humility, gentleness and patience toward one another.

“As Southern Baptists have pursued different approaches to the political system in a fallen culture, where there are no perfect solutions, our interaction with one another has not necessarily been characterized by humility, gentleness and patience. Sometimes when we don’t understand one another’s church methodology, our interactions are not characterized with gentleness, humility and patience. If we’re going to endeavor to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, we have to have a disposition toward our brothers and sisters where we at least want to give one another the benefit of the doubt. I don’t want to start suspicious of my brother or sister.”

Ed Stetzer, a professor and executive director of the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism at Wheaton College, challenged pastors and church members to reflect Jesus’ compassion for the lost. 

“When we pray that Jesus would send people to his harvest, we feel the depth of compassion for his mission and the people, and in doing so our hearts align with his,” Stetzer said in a message from Matthew 9:35-38. “When we pray, we see people for who they truly are—in desperate need of the Good Shepherd for their souls. 

“I’m actually not so convinced the issues are that we don’t know how to share or whether we should share. I think the issues are that we don’t hurt for people like the Good Shepherd hurts for his lost sheep.”

—Ed Stetzer, executive director of the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism at Wheaton College

“I’m actually not so convinced the issues are that we don’t know how to share or whether we should share. I think the issues are that we don’t hurt for people like the Good Shepherd hurts for his lost sheep.”

Stetzer noted that Jesus’ command to his disciples to pray for gospel workers directly preceded his sending them out as those workers. Part of the answer to their prayer is their own obedience, he said.

“Praying for an evangelistic outpouring without knowing your neighbors is ultimately a fool’s errand,” Stetzer told the crowd. He then narrowed his focus to the pastors in the room and exhorted them not just to preach the gospel but to also share it with their own neighbors.

“If you won’t do it, don’t expect your church members to do it,” Stetzer said.

Jerry Vines, former SBC president and pastor emeritus at First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Fla., delivered a message from Psalm 126 and said every church must prioritize evangelism.

“Intertwined into the warp and woof of all of the programs in our churches has to be the golden strand of evangelism,” Vines said.

“Somewhere along the way we got the idea that the lost are supposed to come to the church, and so we think all you have to do is put up a sign that says, ‘Come on in you sinners and get saved.’ Yet the Bible makes it very clear that the lost are not invited to come to the church, but the church is commanded to go to the lost.

“You know what Southern Baptists need? We just need to get back out there on the field sowing the seed.”

SBC President Steve Gaines, pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church near Memphis, Tenn., preached from Acts 2:14-41 on the necessity of gospel preaching, which he said must be prophetically declared, scripturally based, Christ-centered, evangelistically persuasive, and spiritually fruitful.

“There is nothing going on in this world that God cannot repair through biblical preaching. Gospel preaching, in my opinion, is the need of the hour,” Gaines said.

“God is looking for men who will share Jesus from the pulpit and preach the Word of God.”

In 2018, the Empower Conference will return to the Irving Convention Center in Las Colinas, Feb. 26-27.