A Report on the 1998 Founders Conference

The Foolishness of Preaching: a Report on the 1998 Founders Conference

Russell D. Moore

Reformation and revival in Southern Baptist churches will come not through savvy political maneuvering or slick advertising campaigns, but through the “foolishness” of the faithful, exuberant and unrelenting preaching of the Bible, speakers said during the 16th annual Southern Baptist Founders Conference, July 21-24, on the campus of Samford University, Birmingham, Alabama.

The Founders Conference is a national meeting of Southern Baptist pastors and church leaders who embrace the Reformed doctrinal heritage, historically known as “Calvinism” or the “doctrines of grace,” which was held by those who founded the Southern Baptist Convention in the mid-19th century.

Conrad Mbewe, pastor of Kabwata Baptist Church in Zambia, served as keynote speaker, preaching messages from 1 Corinthians 2:1-5 each day of the meeting. Mbewe, known across his homeland as the “Spurgeon of Africa,” argued the primary content of all Christian preaching should be the cross of Christ.

“This is becoming less and less an emphasis in the ministries of so many people who consider themselves to be preachers of the gospel,” he said. “Where are we hearing that certain note, unmistakable note, that when we stepped back to the end of these messages we can say for sure that Christ has been portrayed before us as on a big billboard as one crucified for our sins?”

Mbewe asked preachers to consider if their congregations would testify that they are heralds of the cross.

“Does it pulsate in you?” he asked. “To graduate from that experiential knowledge of the cross is to hand in our resignation from the pulpit. We become useless after that. Let those who have no souls to save consider the preaching of the cross to be foolishness, as being irrelevant, as being outdated.”

He explained a zeal for success has lead many ministers to abandon God’s appointed means of preaching and prayer for “underhanded methods” which are utilized “at the expense of many souls.” These methods have resulted in many professing Christians waking up on the other side of the grave in the terrors of eternal hell, he argued, and ensures pastors find themselves “shepherding goats.”

“What use are the many man-made methods of getting people from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light in the light of these stupendous facts?” he asked, citing the apostle Paul’s numerous descriptions of unregenerate people as blind and dead. “Can an organ playing in the background raise the dead? Can it? And yet, how many decisions are wrung out of people’s hearts by the atmosphere, getting the right atmosphere? We are up against death, spiritual death.”

Despite this less-than-optimistic view of the state of fallen man, Mbewe said Christians have reason for abounding hope because of the invincible efficacy of the Holy Spirit to convert sinners to faith in Christ.

“In our work of preaching, we are not alone,” he proclaimed. “What we may be saying might be sounding as foolishness in the ears of the world, but oh, that we had faith to believe that there is Another with a capital A working alongside us and, if it pleases him, no one can resist. No one, however hostile they might be. Oh, for more faith in the Holy Spirit in our pulpits!” he said.

“Someone may happily accept the authority of God’s Word, and even profess belief in the inerrancy of the Bible,” Mark Dever, pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, warned preachers. “Yet if that person in practice, whether intending to or not, does not preach expositionally, he will never preach more than he already knows.”

Preaching which does not lash itself to the content and message of the text itself will conform the congregation to the mind of the pastor rather than to the revelation of God, Dever said.

“The Roman Catholic preacher too often gives us the church. The liberal preacher too often gives us essays. The evangelical preacher too often gives us stories. The Calvinist preacher too often gives us doctrines,” Dever said. “But what our people really need, and what we need, is the Word of God, and it is our great privilege by God’s call and strength to give it.”

Examining Ezekiel 37 on the prophet’s command by God to preach to a valley of dry bones, Dever compared the “virtual resurrection” of the bones in Ezekiel’s vision to the call of the preacher to proclaim God’s words in calling the spiritual dead in his congregation to new life in Christ. The preacher must deliver to his congregation the same biblical word by which the preacher himself was resurrected from his own spiritual death, Dever said.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentuky, lamented the fact that much contemporary preaching could hardly be labeled, in the words of the apostle Paul, “foolishness to the world,” but instead could be described as “prudential wisdom, good advice, sound counsel, maybe even a therapeutic word or two.”

Preaching of biblical truth proves especially scandalous, Mohler explained, with the onset of a postmodern mind-set which heralds the deconstruction of truth claims, the jettisoning of authority and the rejection of any overarching “metanarrative” which seeks to explain the flow of history and the purpose of the universe.

Tracing the march of postmodern influence in the spheres of architecture, art, literature, philosophy, politics and theology, Mohler defined postmodernism as an attempt by contemporary humanity to claim the “bones” of the classical tradition’s superficial ornamentation while discarding the “marrow” of the world view which stood behind it.

The postmodern assault on universal objective truth is not confined to university English departments, Mohler said, but rears its head in the aisles of Christian bookstores and even in the parish pew. Mohler pointed to the phrase “what this text means to me is …” as a particularly common example of a dangerous postmodern outlook which sees the truths of the Bible as hinging upon personal interpretation rather than upon the meaning intended by the biblical authors under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

The influence of postmodernism could also be heard, Mohler contended, in the recent arguments of professing evangelicals who, in response to the decision of this year’s Southern Baptist Convention in Salt Lake City to add a statement on the family to the Baptist Faith and Message confessional statement, denounced the words of Paul on family relationships in Ephesians 5 as “oppressive.”

“They are right,” Mohler said. “It oppresses our fallen human instinct even as it liberates by the transforming power of the gospel.” Nonetheless, Mohler said, postmodern chaos cannot hold back the tide of the gospel of Jesus Christ through biblical preaching.

Expounding upon the Bible’s testimony of its own threatening “two-edged” self-designation in Hebrews 4, Mohler diagnosed the anemic state of many contemporary churches as resulting not from a dearth of creative programs, but from the absence of unhesitatingly biblical preaching. Preachers must not seek to “reach people where they are” by building a “bridge” between them and the biblical text, but must realize that no one is beyond the “reach” of a Scripture which promises to perform “sovereign surgery” on its hearers.

Mohler added preachers must not recoil from the sufficiency of God’s Word by co-opting the world’s obsessions with therapeutic “authenticity,” self-esteem modification and trendy cause movements, but should follow the apostolic model of preaching the Word and getting out of the way.

“Brothers and sisters, we pray for reformation in our churches,” Mohler said. “But it is not going to come by any program and it is not going to be the result of any meeting and it is not going to come by the wholesale adoption of any theological system. It’s going to come by the preaching of the Word.…The Word must do this thing.”

Don Whitney, assistant professor of spiritual formation at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Missouri, asked the assembled ministers how any of them could hope to be prepared to preach when “people, without consulting our schedules, inconveniently decide to die on Friday.”

Pointing to the Apostle Paul’s admonition to his young protégé Timothy to “watch your life and doctrine” in 1 Timothy 4, Whitney told ministers “the first priority of a man of God is to be a godly man.” The goal of prayer, devotional study, fasting, keeping a prayer journal and all other spiritual disciplines, Whitney explained, is to be conformed to the image of Christ.

“The ministry does not make you more godly,” he said. “The ministry in fact can be the means of making you more unlike Christ. It can foster political maneuvering and infighting. It can foster greed. It can foster power plays. It can foster so much that is antithetical to Christlikeness. And the only way we will keep that from happening is to do what this passage says and watch our lives.”

Paul also commanded Timothy to pay attention to his teaching, Whitney said, asserting that most contemporary ministers are more interested in psychology and methods than in doctrinal truth. Those who see doctrine as dull or irrelevant to their ministries are in violation of a biblical command, he noted, and do not understand that doxology is ignited by theology.

“Burning hearts are not nourished by empty heads,” he said. “Doctrine is the fuel for the fire in the heart. That is what keeps that passion burning.”

Warning that one can “preach about the gospel without preaching the gospel,” Fred Malone, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Clinton, Louisiana, exhorted attendees to center their preaching on the person and work of Jesus Christ. Christ-centered preaching, he elaborated, is more than periodically repeating the name of Christ or tacking a reference to the atonement onto the end of a sermon on the sovereignty of God. Preachers, he asserted, must consistently explain to their congregations “who was crucified” and must magnify God’s redemption through Christ as it fits in the context of every text preached.

Tom Nettles, professor of historical theology at Southern Seminary, contended that gospel preaching is relevant for all people in all cultures because of the image of God and the intrinsic moral nature within all human beings. Such a realization, he argued, provides an impetus for Christians to cross racial, ethnic and geographical barriers with the gospel.

Preachers must not create “false issues of conscience” by which hearers follow the preacher’s instructions in performing some physical action which makes “overcoming timidity tantamount to repentance and faith,” he said. Instead, preachers must persuasively articulate to those indicted by their own consciences that there is no other sacrifice except for the atonement accomplished by Christ which can rescue them from their wrath-deserving condition.

“We can move from our own culture into a group with which we may be completely unacquainted,” he said. “And while we may make many mistakes, while some cultural things we may not understand, if we come to the heart of the biblical revelation we will find that there is something that is transcendent about his truth. There is something internally present in all of those that he has created, that have grown from Adam’s vine, that will witness and that will indeed pierce the conscience.”

Jim Elliff, consultant for the Center for Biblical Revival at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and president of Christian Communicators Worldwide, tackled the question of how pastors can more biblically lead those convicted of sin to “close with Christ” in response to the gospel. Citing what he claimed to be large numbers of unregenerate members on Southern Baptist church rolls, Elliff described the prevailing contemporary practice of pastors and evangelists granting immediate verbal assurance to individuals based upon the professed convert’s sincerity and the accuracy of the repetition of the “sinner’s prayer” during a post-sermonic altar call. He contrasted this method with a “corrected way” which centers on persuasive evangelistic preaching, an emphasis on repentance and faith in conversion, and a reliance upon Spirit-given assurance related to the presence of spiritual fruit, confidence in God’s promises, and inner witness.

Tom Ascol, conference planning committee member and editor of the Founders Journal, told Baptist Press the theme of preaching was selected because “we are witnessing a crisis of confidence in preaching today.”

“Churches are giving up on it in favor of drama, movies, therapeutic talks and a myriad of other substitutes because they have wrongly concluded that it simply won’t ‘work’ in our modern age,” said Ascol, pastor of Grace Baptist Church, Cape Coral, Florida. “But the Bible clearly teaches that God has ordained to use the foolishness of preaching to save people, and the apostle Paul’s command to ‘preach the word’ will never become outdated.”

Ascol and other committee members expressed a surprised delight at the record-breaking registration of more than 400 pastors, laypeople and ministerial students who registered for the conference in addition to hundreds of others who will attend the four different regional conferences in the coming year. Approximately half of this year’s total are first-time attendees, Ascol said, which, along with increasing journal subscriptions and nearly one million visits to the group’s Internet site (www.founders.org), “indicates that interest in biblical reformation is spreading.”

The conference saw the announcement of three new titles from Founders Press, the ministry’s new publishing arm. These include Fred Malone’s A String of Pearls Unstrung, which defends the Baptist doctrine of believers’ baptism, a hymn booklet and a CD-ROM which packs an array of Southern Baptist books, sermons and back issues of the Founders Journal in an electronic format.

The committee also announced that next year’s conference, centering on the theme of world missions, would meet July 20-23, 1999, on the Samford campus. John Piper, pastor of the Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis and a widely known evangelical author, will be the keynote speaker.