Thursday, February 9, 2012

An Interview with William Thornton

SBC Today has been doing some occasional interviews of prominent SBC leaders.

Hmmm, I haven’t gotten a call from them. Perhaps they don’t have my number or maybe I’m way down the list and scheduled for an interview two years after I die.

Not to worry. In an awesome display of personal power, I have convinced SBC Plodder to interview William Thornton. Here’s the interview. Enjoy.

SBC Plodder: What do you think are the greatest challenges confronting the SBC?

William Thornton: The greatest challenge we have is the decades long decline of the Cooperative Program as a percentage of church offerings. No one would have predicted thirty years ago that churches would on average drop their CP gifts, as measured by the percentage of undesignated gifts, by 50% but that is what has happened. The economic travails of the past decade, especially the last three years, have been devastating to our cooperative work. The troublesome thing is that no one knows where the floor lies for that percentage. We cannot continue as we have for the past decades if this continues and addressing and overcoming that challenge is the most serious one that we face.

It is not too far fetched to say that the SBC as we have known it cannot continue if we don’t have some resolution to this matter.

And it’s not that I don’t hear denominational leaders talking about this but what they tend to do is to spiritualize the problem. Perhaps it is not their intent but blaming God in a backhanded way for not sending revival, faulting churches for lack of generosity, or casting a wistful eye at the halcyon years of CP giving now long in the past are not solutions.

I also hear many who blame state conventions for keeping too much of their CP dollar, although state conventions are at about where they have always been in keeping CP money in state.

It might help to stop whining and complaining and come up with a fresh approach to our critical funding stream. I don’t see anyone doing this.

Also, Calvinism is an issue and a challenge but I wouldn’t put it at the top of the list as Frank Page did. I have one eyebrow raised here because of some of the things I see in churches with Calvinist pastors.

SBC Plodder: What do you see as the greatest opportunities open to the SBC?

William Thornton: The greatest opportunities lie in the locales with the greatest numbers of lost people and that would be outside of North America. The SBC is blessed to have thousands of young people who feel called to this work, many of whom sacrifice some of their prime post-college years to live overseas and learn the difficult languages and cultures where the Gospel is needed. I think that we are wasting resources and squandering the opportunities that God is giving us in not recognizing God’s hand in this and marshalling all the resources we can to this work. We are not being good stewards here.

SBC Plodder: What are your thoughts about a possible SBC name change?

I have no strong objection to it so long as we retain the word “Baptist” in it and I understand that is what the name change committee intends to do. I don’t think it would be worth spending millions of dollars to accomplish. Aside from that, I’m rather ambivalent. We Southern Baptists have a penchant for grand, showy, simple solutions to complex problems. We like the idea of doing something big but largely symbolic followed by a declaration of victory. Then we go back to business as usual.

I hope the name change isn't one of those deals but I’m not expecting much in the way of results out of it.

SBC Plodder: How do you go about sermon preparation?

William Thornton: As of yesterday, I haven’t preached in more than two months, so I haven’t done a lot of sermon preparation lately. Perhaps you could put my name out there for some pulpit supply. Thanks.

SBC Plodder: What is your evaluation of contemporary preaching?

William Thornton: I don’t think you can put contemporary preaching in a single category and address it. I hear some contemporary preaching that is very good, very solid, and very biblical. I hear other that seems to make a fetish out of the use of media, popular culture, provocative statements, and current fads. The latter leaves me cold and leaves Scripture behind, although it has proven to be good entertainment. While I am not a technophobe, I hate to see us act as if there was not great power in simple proclamation apart from all the ancillary technology and contemporary culture stuff.

SBC Plodder: What is the key to being a faithful/effective/successful pastor?

William Thornton: The key is to love God and love your congregation. That covers everything.

SBC Plodder: What is one key mistake that you see pastors and/or church staff members making that causes them problems in their churches?

William Thornton: Almost all SBC pastors will spend their career in small churches as single staff. Such ministry is almost completely relational so the pastor had better develop some skills in building, maintaining, and improving relationships.

Often the pastor sees himself as the ultimate authority in a church. Since most pastors don’t stay at a church long enough to have acquired the credibility, respect, and confidence of the church, they will never have the power and authority that they belive should automatically comes with their position; consequently, they would do well to acquire some problem solving skills. If the pastor sees himself as the ultimate authority come what may, that will be a problem.

You’ll have to ask someone else about the 10 percent of churches that have heavy administrative demands.

SBC Plodder: Who are two or three of your “heroes in ministry”?

William Thornton: Adrian Rogers would be at the top of that list. I often wonder what he would be saying about Calvinism, about the gaggle of shirt-tailed contemporary pastor/rock stars, and other things.

I think that Gray Allison, founder and president of Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary is the single greatest figure among Southern Baptists of the latter half of the Twentieth Century although he will never get credit for it.

SBC Plodder: What is the toughest lesson you have learned in ministry?

William Thornton: Most of us thrive on being liked and appreciated but, alas, some church people aren’t keen on appreciating or even liking their pastor. That is a tough lesson to learn and live with. On the other hand, once you learn that lesson, you can choose to focus your efforts on pleasing God rather than all the people around you.

SBC Plodder: What are the most significant doctrinal issues that the church will struggle with over the next few decades?

William Thornton: I have come to the conclusion that some expressions of Calvinism are more of a concern than I thought a decade ago. I appreciate many who self-identify with that theology but I am wary of a good many as well. Established churches will have to make themselves informed on both the doctrines and the manner by which some seek to implement those doctrines in a local congregation. It looks to me like the farther down the Calvinist road that we go as a denomination, in our institutions and agencies, the more troublesome it will be for us.

I also think that the egalitarianism/complementarianism issue will prove to be far more of a problem as time passes. It’s not just the old issue of women as senior pastors, but the hyper-authoritarian, patriarchical approach to family and church life that will be a problem. On gender issues, Southern Baptists may be in danger of becoming either latter day Mormons or Neo-Muslims, something that is neither good nor necessary. I hate to see it.

SBC Plodder: What do you do for fun?

William Thornton: I fish and then like a good fisherman, I lie about it. I have been a serious bird watcher for about 25 years and have enjoyed birding on five continents. I enjoy reading and read about one book per week on a wide range of subjects. You can have your Kindle, I think a library is one of the most wonderful places on earth.

SBC Plodder: Anything else you would like to tell us about?

There is a certain very cute granddaughter…well, never mind.


Mitch Kimbrell said...

Mitch Kimbrell here. I'm a friend of Michael and Christy. My wife, Sara, lived with Christy for a time. I've subscribed to your blog, and I always get a kick out of reading. Despite currently wrap up my Master's studies here at MABTS, your assertion about Dr. Gray was eyebrow-raising initially, but the more I think about it, the more I'd agree with you. You'd doubtless lament, as I do, how little it seems Dr. Gray is revered here at the school he founded. I do what little I can to correct my snotty-nosed classmates' view of this man of the great God.

William Thornton said...

You are the TV star, no need to introduce yourself.

Email me on MABTS/Dr. Gray. I'd like to know more...

Dr. Gray started that school, literally from scratch, with nothing but a vision. He had no funding stream like CP or a TV ministry.

Anonymous said...

"On gender issues, Southern Baptists may be in danger of becoming either latter day Mormons or Neo-Muslims, something that is neither good nor necessary. I hate to see it.


Boy is this ever true. Recently, I had to delve into Mormon doctrine on women for a project and was stunned to see how much it sounded eerily familiar and close to much on the CBMW website of which I am quite familiar! It was chilling.


Dave Miller said...

Interesting interview. I've heard the guy can be difficult in interview situations. Did you find him to be troublesome?

William Thornton said...

Peach of a guy, Dave, though can be contrarian and somewhat cynical.

Matt Richard said...

Interesting remark about gender issues. Being a Texas Baptist, I see the two extremes coming from both Southwestern and Truett (my alma-mater).

While the faculty I was taught by was mostly egalitarian (not hyper-egalitarian), a good number of the students were feminists (the kind that think women are better than men).

I'd be interested to know if some of the students coming from Southwestern follow this same trend of being more "over-the-top" than the faculty. If so, I'd agree we are in trouble.