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On Being A First Baptist:
Missions First Baptist
Preached by Robert B. Setzer, Jr.
Pastor, First Baptist Church of Christ
Macon, Georgia 31201
August 31, 2003
Matthew 25:31-40; 28:16-20
Adoniram Judson was a Baptist missionary to Burma in the early 1800s. For the first seven years, he didn't see a single convert. In addition, he ran afoul of the authorities for trying to translate the Bible into the language of the Burmese people. Eventually, he was jailed as a political prisoner.
Fortunately, his tiny cell had a window just above ground. Each day, his wife, Anne, came to visit and passed food through the bars of the window. One day she told him of a letter from their supporters back home. Some stateside Christians wanted to know what they could send to aid the Judsons in their work. From behind bars, after seven years of labor with no visible results, Adoniram Judson answered, "Tell them to send a Communion set. Someday we're going to need it."
Imagine such faith and courage! The Judsons’ bold venture required it. They lived in a world where a voyage to the Orient could take five months. The perils of the voyage were many, from shipwreck to scurvy. The loss of children at sea, or in childbirth, was common. But the Judsons were passionate about proclaiming the good news of Christ to a lost world. For them, no price was too high in fulfilling their Lord’s Great Commission.
Interestingly, while the Judson are now stars in the Baptist pageant of missions, they didn’t begin as Baptists. They began as Congregationalists, stirred by the call of the Baptist firebrand William Carey to carry the gospel into all the world. As they sailed to India, anticipating their meeting with Carey, they boned up on the New Testament so they could defend the Congregationalist practice of infant baptism. But in a shocking development, their study convinced them the Baptists were right in insisting on believers’ baptism by immersion. So the Judsons’ first act upon landing in India, was to be baptized by William Carey. As Ann Judson wrote to a friend back home, "Thus, my dear Nancy, we are confirmed Baptists, not because we wished to be, but because truth compelled us to be."
That description might apply to many of us. We’re not Baptists because we wished to be but because the truth compelled us to be. In the Judsons’ day, as in our own, being a Baptist wasn’t always a popular thing to be. But their reading of the New Testament drove them to the logic of the Baptist position, as has our own.
What does missions and evangelism have to do with being a Baptist? Well, for starters, Baptists ignited the modern missionary movement. Granted, it wasn’t always so. Baptists spent their first two centuries establishing fledgling churches and fighting for religious liberty. They didn’t “send missionaries” in the modern sense of the term.
But America’s Great Awakening created a missionary fervor to reach the lost at home. And a shrinking world due to increased sea-faring travel, awakened a desire to reach the lost abroad. Suddenly, Jesus’ Great Commission--“Go into all the world and make disciples”--was read with new urgency and in a different light. Thus, Carey began his bold venture to India. Later, he was joined by the Judsons. And when the Judson’s handlers fired them for the crime of becoming Baptists, they sent Luther Rice home to raise support. And from that time to this, most Baptists and certainly, our kind of Baptists, have been a missionary people.
Those of you my age and older lived through the glory days of Baptist missions. In the latter half of the 20th century, Southern Baptists deployed the largest Protestant missionary force the world had ever known. When I was growing up, global missions--then called foreign missions--meant only one thing. It meant the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for Foreign Missions. In my boyhood home, making our Christmas offering to Lottie Moon was every bit as important as anything Santa Claus had up his sleeve. And God mightily used that offering to send missionaries to far flung corners of the globe .
In the church I served in Danville, Virginia, an older lady told a revealing story about her son’s childhood. In the late 1950s, a second grade teacher wanted to note the anniversary of Pearl Harbor. She began by saying, "Today is December 7th. Can anyone tell the significance of that day?”
Several hands shot up. The teacher happened to call on a 7-year-old who attended Danville’s First Baptist Church. "Yes, Buddy,” said the teacher. “What is the significance of December 7th?"
Beaming proudly, the little fellow answered, "It's Lottie Moon's birthday!"
The teacher had no idea what he was talking about. Only after calling the boy's mom did she learn Lottie Moon was a famous Baptist missionary to China.
For better or for worse, the days when our children, youth, and adults are that invested in denominational missions are probably gone forever. And it’s not simply because the Southern Baptist Convention I grew up in has changed in dramatic, and in my view, deplorable ways. It’s because the world we live in is changing even more rapidly and radically than the world that birthed Carey And the Judsons. In their day, fast clipper ships brought the world near in a matter of weeks or months. In our day, a 7th grader can reach China with one cyber click of her mouse. And almost any person with Christian conviction and modest means can get on an airliner one day and be doing missions in Sri Lanka or Mozambique the next. Just this past spring and summer, our church alone had members doing missions among the poor of Appalachia, the lame in Equador, the sick in Ghana, and spiritual searchers in Mexico City.
Further, the world is coming to us! Little Macon, Georgia now sports as many language groups as the biblical Pentecost! Two hundred years ago, the Judsons risked everything to begin work in Burma. Today, among the over thirty countries represented in our church’s conversational English ministry, we have a lady from--of all places--Burma! Yes, the world is coming to us!
In 1903, this church gave the money to build the first Southern Baptist hospital in a foreign land. The historical marker on the church’s front lawn tells the story that hospital, built in the Shantung province of China. But more recently, a Chinese young man studying at Mercer became a Christian through the witness of this church. He gave up a lucrative career in the states to return to China as a Christian witness, indeed, as a missionary. Surely, God had a hand in that. Because today, China--the world’s largest nation--has closed its doors to western missionaries in the tradition of Lottie Moon.
I could go on but I hope you see my point. The days when it was enough to give money, send missionaries, and pray for missionaries are over. In my lifetime, the missionary frontier has shifted from “over there” to “over here.” Now we must do more than glory in Baptist missionary heroes of the past. We must grow Baptist missionary heroes for today. And some of them, maybe most of them, will be ordinary folk with an extraordinary calling, whether they walk the streets of Peking, China or Macon, Georgia. After all, Jesus didn’t give the Great Commission to the professionals. He gave it to every Christian.
I know some of you are giddy with excitement at the return of college football. The church’s need for a clear sense of mission is illustrated by the crusty old coach instructing his young assistant in the art of recruiting players. “Now, son,” said the grizzled veteran, “I've been at this job a long time and I know the different kinds of players. For example, some players get knocked down and they stay down. That's not the kind we want!" The assistant nodded eagerly.
"And some get knocked down and knocked down and knocked down, but every time they get knocked down, they get right back up!"
Giddy with excitement, the young assistant cried, "That's the kind of player we want, isn't it, coach! The kind that get knocked down but get right back up!”
"No!", the old coach roared! "We want the ones knocking everybody down!!"
When it comes to the church’s mission, where do we find missionaries that do the knocking down? Where so we find people of purpose and passion to be missionaries in the new millennium? We find them first of all among rank and file believers. We find them right in that pew where you are sitting. In fact, we hope to find them . . . in you.
The earliest Baptists didn’t send missionaries. They weren’t big enough or strong enough, nor so inclined. But they did grasp and live the radical biblical truth that every baptized believer was a priest to the world. In fact, some early Baptists ordained every new convert, while the waters of baptism were still wet upon them. They wanted those folks to remember that living and speaking the good news is every Christian’s vocation.
Missions begins Monday morning in the home, on the job, in the class room, or wherever you land during your waking hours. You are called to be a priest and a witness to those God places in your path. Recently, I drove out of a local church parking lot with signs posted at the exits. The sign reminded departing church members, “You are now entering the mission field.” And so we are!
Secondly, missions in the new millennium will be more centered in the local church. That is one of the gifts in the growing distrust in large, denominational bureaucracies, so characteristic of our age. People want a say and more than that, an investment in how their mission dollars are spent. And many want to do more than just give money. They ache for a hands-on experience where they can put their faith into action and see it make a difference.
On September 21rst, our church will break ground on its 4th Habitat House. It’s one way we attempt to live out Jesus’ words that in ministering to the least of these, his brothers and sisters, we minister to him. From Habitat Houses to Conversational English for Internationals, the local congregation must become Ground Zero of the church’s mission.
And finally, a biblically-based missions for the new millennium, must have a global reach. The temptation to pull up the draw bridge and retreat into the castle of the local church is strong. But Baptists at their best have entered into cooperative relationships, doing together, what no church could do alone.
Someone has defined a net as “a collection of holes tied together by string.” Baptist associations and conventions have the consistency of a net. They are pliable and ever changing because the connections linking Baptist churches are completely voluntary. But such connections are also essential if we are to fulfill Jesus’ command to take the gospel to the “ends of the earth.” That’s not something we can do alone.
In recent years, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF) has emerged as an important missions partner of this church. The CBF’s commitment to focus on the world’s unreached peoples--those without another gospel witness--is in the best tradition of Carey and the Judsons. it is also heeding Jesus’ call to be ever mindful of the “least of these, his brothers and sisters.” On the first Wednesday Night in October, Shari Hunter, a CBF missionary to Indonesia will speak to our Wednesday night crowd. If you want to know more the global reach of this congregation, plan to be present.
Individual believers on mission. The local congregation as the epicenter of the church’s mission. And missions partners that give us a global reach. That’s the shape of missions in the new millennium.
At the dawn of the 19th century, William Carey, the Baptist cobbler who launched the modern missionary movement, had a motto. His motto was, “Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God.” Might that become our motto at the top of Poplar as we enter the new millennium.
There’s something about the Baptist spirit that grows a mission heart. I think it is the love of the scriptures read in the light of an ever-changing world, and a deep love for people, especially those who are lost and don’t know their way home. Pray God will grow such a heart in each of us and in this congregation. For unless we are passionate about our mission for Christ in a broken world, all our proud talk about being Baptist doesn’t really matter.