Above: Mike Keahbone, left, speaks during an episode of Messenger Insight, as Todd Fisher listens.
The Baptist Messenger recently interviewed Mike Keahbone, pastor of Lawton, First, and Todd Fisher, Oklahoma Baptists’ executive director-treasurer, about the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). The following transcript is edited for length and clarity. The full interview can be viewed at baptistmessenger.com/podcast.
Baptist Messenger: We want to talk about some key issues in the Southern Baptist Convention. Pastor Mike, can you share about your experience serving with the SBC Executive Committee and also its presidential search committee?
Mike Keahbone: This has been an education process for me. I really didn’t know what all the SBC Executive Committee did. The Executive Committee (EC), along with the SBC EC president, handles everything Cooperative Program, which is the collection of all those funds from all of the different places and distributes them to all of the right places. So Southern Baptists reach people all over the world through the Cooperative Program, starting right here at home. Managing all of that and getting into the depths of all of that is what the EC does, and the president is the one who guides all of that.
I’ve been on a campaign to try to educate Southern Baptists on the importance of understanding how all of this works and about this executive search process. The man we are looking for—and God already knows who he is—must be a man of God that is able to lead well in all kinds of situations because of the certain climate that we are in right now. For me it’s been a process of learning exactly what that looks like, every phase of it. It’s been a wonderful process to be part of; great in a lot of ways, and it’s been hard in a lot of ways.
Messenger: Can you talk about how you prioritized prayer at the heart of what you’re doing?
Keahbone: Yes… as a search team, we were looking at all these previous documents. There were timelines, processes, there’s all these different things, a job description… I kept looking through it to find a place where prayer was an emphasis. I knew in my heart that the search teams before that were in this situation prayed. I knew the Executive Committee had been praying through it, but what I was looking for was where we called on ALL Southern Baptists to pray. The Executive Committee is made up of representation from Southern Baptists from every state that has a Baptist Convention. Oklahoma has a good contingency there. I wondered, ‘Where’s the spot on the timeline where we called all Southern Baptists to pray for such an important position?’ It’s such an important time, and it was not there.
We talked about it and determined that we’ve not really invited Southern Baptists to be a part of this process. We got really excited about that. We began to strategize on what that would look like. We realized that we have a (Task Force) report that’s going to be coming out here in a few weeks before Convention, so it is a natural time to call our people to pray. We put together a strategy to pray. It’s a 21-day prayer guide that we really prayerfully and thoughtfully put together. We’re praying for each other, praying for our families, praying for our churches, praying for the places that we represent and then asking God to help us see with His eyes what He wants us to see and whoever this next SBC EC president should be.
Messenger: Dr. Fisher, why is it important that the ordinary Southern Baptist—the person at the local church—understand polity, and what are some things that you would want to emphasize?
Todd Fisher: It’s not only lay people, but those of us who have been involved in church leadership, who may not fully understand what Baptist beliefs, Baptist polity and the Cooperative Program are. In these months that I’ve been travelling all over the state, I have seen that we need some sort of reemphasis on key tenants of what make us Southern Baptists.
The first one that you mentioned is Baptist polity. Southern Baptists have a polity that is not Episcopalian polity. It’s not Presbyterian polity; it is congregational polity. Congregational polity essentially means that we view the Scripture as teaching there is no authority over the local church except Jesus Christ. So, there is no kind of ecclesial structure that has any kind of authority over the local church. That means that the Southern Baptist Convention is not a top-down organization, it’s a bottom-up organization.
I’ve had people say to me in the past few months, ‘Hey Todd you’ve become the boss of all of the Baptists in Oklahoma,’ and I say, ‘No, no. I went from being a pastor for 30 years where I was kind of a boss, if you will, to having over 1,700 bosses.’ I think we need to have a little bit of a resurgence, a reminder that, if we want to use the phrase ‘Seat of Power’ or authority, it is not in a national convention or in a state convention; it is in the local church. I think in terms of our biblical understanding, and in terms of Baptist polity, it really doesn’t need to look like the state convention is out in front; but rather it needs to look like the local church is out in front.
The convention needs to be behind the church and supporting and serving the church, not steering and leading. The role of the state convention is to come alongside our churches and say, ‘You know your community much better than we do.’ Rather than us trying to impose a strategy, we would say, ‘What is your strategy? How can we encourage? How can we equip? How can we help resource? What can we do to help you?’ We should partner together in that sense. That’s the goal we’re going for, and I believe very much that God is doing that work through the local church.
I’ve also said state conventions don’t call and send out pastors and missionaries, nor do seminaries. Local churches send out pastors and missionaries. The reality is a big part of who is serving right now on church staff and as missionaries—they were mentored in your average Oklahoma Baptist church which is a small church. We’re not just coming up here behind the big church, but we are coming behind all of our churches. All churches matter, and that’s also another part of Baptist polity, especially in terms of cooperation. We have over 1,700 Baptist churches in this state. About 1,400 of those average less than 100 in worship on Sunday morning in attendance, and those numbers are similar across the board nationally. We’re a convention of small churches.
Some lay people in (smaller) churches say to me, ‘Well, what difference does our little church make? We don’t give a lot in terms of a dollar amount.’ I say, ‘The size of your church, the location of your church, the dollar amount that your church gives does not matter. What matters is that we’re all cooperating together.’ Because I’ve said, ‘If you take a small dollar amount to the CP from a small, rural church—yes, in and of itself, that may not be a very large amount. But, when you combine it with all of these other churches, 1,400 other churches that are similar in size, that begins to amount to something very significant in terms of funding missionaries and funding ministries.’ We must get the local church out front, in the spotlight, with the state convention behind and serving.
Next, something important is Baptist doctrine or beliefs. We live in a very challenging time culturally, but if you read the Baptist Faith and Message, it has some very important things to say to our culture that help us. The Baptist Faith and Message has things to say about gender and sexuality and family and so many of the issues that we are facing today, where our culture is moving away from what the Word of God teaches. I think we need a reclamation of a little bit of good ole’ Baptist Faith and Message. I think the Baptist Faith and Message is a right interpretation to the understanding of what the Scripture teaches.
Lastly, I would emphasize the Cooperative Program. If you attend a church that is a Southern Baptist church that’s giving to the Southern Baptist program, when you give to that church, a part of your gift is going to fund all of these things, the International Mission Board, the North American Mission Board, six seminaries, Falls Creek, disaster relief, Baptist Collegiate Ministries, etc. There’s no other religious organization or denomination on the globe that has that kind of structure, where we can cooperate together and fund all of these different missions and ministries. The Cooperative Program really is an ingenious way to fund these things, and it is strongest when we are all cooperating together.