Bryant Wright is the pastor of Johnson Ferry Baptist Church in Northwest Atlanta, a church he began and which now has nearly 8,000 members. At this summer’s Southern Baptist Convention, he was elected to be the new president of the SBC. He is author of a new book Seeds of Turmoil: The Biblical Roots of the Inevitable Crisis in the Middle East published by Thomas Nelson. He recently visited with Michael about the SBC, the book and about preaching.
Preaching: The most recent Southern Baptist Convention voted to adopt the recommendations of its Great Commission Resurgence Task Force, which offered a series of proposals about trying to realign funding priorities and put a new missional emphasis on Southern Baptist life. What do you see as the significance of that action?
Wright: I feel that the Great Commission Resurgence Task Force has been a huge step. It’s only the beginning, because I think it’s simply a huge first step that Johnny Hunt, our previous president, courageously challenged the convention to move in this direction. I think it was courageous because Johnny was willing to acknowledge that Southern Baptists is now a convention that is in decline in the sense of reaching people for Christ, in the sense of the number of people being baptized as a testimony of following Christ, and the hour for doing this within our convention has really been urgent.
I know it’s been controversial within some churches and among some entities concerned about what the changes are going to mean, but I think it’s a very exciting first step of faith in really re-prioritizing us toward fulfilling Christ’s great commission.
Preaching: A major emphasis of the report is the need for us to realign our priorities and to take the gospel to the nations. Obviously that’s something that should have an impact and influence beyond Southern Baptist life, shouldn’t it?
Wright: It really should, and I think all denominations and non-denominational churches that are really serious about the great commission—really serious about a clear mission statement that Christ has given His church—would see a greater urgency today when you look at the nation in which we live.
When we look at the growing population of the world and literally the billions of people who don’t have a positive witness for Jesus Christ, there’s really an urgency in this hour way greater than ever before. So I hope that it’ll be a positive influence on other denominations and non-denominational churches.
Preaching: One of the things you’ve talked about and have challenged churches to do is mission trips. What does your church do in this area, and why do you think that’s important for any church?
Wright: I just cannot adequately describe the spiritual impact that people going on mission trips has had in the life of our church.
In the early 90s, our youth ministry was kind of floundering a bit. We had plateaued, and I asked our student pastor to get away for a few days of prayer and fasting to see just what God was going to tell him about any new direction for that ministry. He came back with the idea of challenging our high school students to give up their spring break—when they would normally go to the beach—and go work among the poorest of the poor in Mexico, building houses and sharing the gospel door to door. They had about six weeks of training.
To make a long story short, I think that first trip had about 30 students; but from that experience there has been a steady growth in the life of the church to when in 2009, we had more than 1,500 adults and teenagers go on 70 mission trips to 26 or 27 nations around the world.
What that does to the spiritual vitality of the church is just fantastic. These people came back with a world vision and passion for sharing their faith in Christ. They’re stronger in their faith. They’re more excited than ever about supporting missions and giving to missions. I just can’t say enough about the impact of what God has done in the life of Johnson Ferry Church.
God has done it, because it’s not like we have a hard sell begging people to go on these mission trips. They just keep expanding in number and in participation every year. The good thing about the short-term trips is we now have 80—we call them units—that are either singles, couples or families who started by going on a short-term mission trip; and they’re now in some sort of full-time mission work in the States or around the world.
Preaching: How does this mission emphasis impact your preaching?
Wright: I think missions just seems to be a part of messages now—whether it’s a comment, illustration or focus—far more than the early days here at Johnson Ferry. There’s also just a consciousness of people groups out there—a lot of times in the past, I’m not even sure folks going on these trips even knew where the nation was that we were going to. It’s just given us all a greater sensitivity to that world vision and what Christ is calling us to do. So I think it impacts preaching in that regard.
Preaching: Speaking of the world, you’ve written a book called Seeds of Turmoil: The Biblical Roots of the Inevitable Crisis in the Middle East. It’s going to be published by Thomas Nelson. What led you to write a book about this controversial part of the world?
Wright: It’s certainly a light topic! Back in the early 90s, Anne and I took our first group from Johnson Ferry—about 19 of us—on our first Bible study trip to Israel, about a 10-day trip. I became fascinated with that part of the world, and we’ve continued to take a lot of groups—people [from] Johnson Ferry and their friends who would go with us to Israel, so we loved going there.
I began to study the biblical origin of this conflict in more detail. My first sermon series related to this topic was about eight or nine years ago, but several other series have evolved out of that through the years. So, it has just been a passion for me: helping people to understand the biblical origin of this conflict and understand how it affects what they read in the news every day. Not only that, but then they can have the bigger picture of where biblical history is unfolding and where a great deal of prophesy will be fulfilled. It just gives you the big picture of how God is in control of history.
Preaching: You make it clear that the conflict in the Middle East is not something that simply dates to the creation of modern Israel in 1948, or even to the development of Islam in the seventh century, but that there really are biblical roots to this. What do you see as the biblical foundation of all of the controversy that we see play out today?
Wright: It all goes back to one man’s sin: Abraham who is the father of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Out of that you really see a sibling rivalry, a family feud that came about because Abraham and Sarah were unwilling to wait on God in providing them their covenant child.
When they took matters into their own hands and Abraham slept with Sarah’s maid Hagar, she gave birth to Ishmael who is the father of the Arab people. If they had waited on God’s timing to give them a child, all along He had planned on that to be Isaac.
God in His grace told Abraham that He would bless Ishmael, that a great nation would come from him. Obviously when you look at the millions of Arabs in the Middle East, that prophesy clearly has been fulfilled. These are people whom God loves and Christ died for on the cross, but the original game plan that God had was for Abraham and Sarah to give birth to Isaac. It was a supernatural conception obviously for their age—from that, the Jewish people; and from the Jewish people comes Jesus.
Jesus is not only from the Jews but is the Son of God and supernaturally conceived; so from Israel comes Jesus and Christianity. When you understand the origins of all of that, it really helps people have a better grasp of what is happening in the news today in the Middle East.
Preaching: In the book, you explore these issues from a Christian perspective, a Jewish perspective and from the Islamic perspective. You talk about how some of the roots of Islam help contribute to what is going on. How does the history of Islam impact contemporary events, and how do contemporary Muslims look at all these issues?
Wright: Well you can imagine the resentment the heirs of Ishmael carried. He was the elder son of Abraham but was not the covenant son. He was not conceived out of faith; it was a conception out of sin. You can imagine the resentment the heirs of Ishmael have. Think about the prophecy God gave in
You realize prophecy feeds into so much of what is seen in Islamic terrorism in our world today. What is happening in the Middle East is not just Jews versus Arabs. It’s not just Jews versus Islam. It is also Muslims versus Muslims—Sunni and Shiite Muslims—so much of the suicide bombing now is Muslims killing Muslims. What you see is an incredible fulfillment of the prophesy God gave in
There are teachings of respect in Islam to those other religious persuasions, but there is still a lot of hostility and a lot of teaching that involves violence. Islam is really about submission to Allah, and with that it’s about power. Military might is often a part of that. What has evolved in our world today is a clear fulfillment of the
Preaching: Based on what you learned through your own study, if you were to counsel Christians on how they might speak to and witness to their Muslim friends or neighbors, are there any insights you might share about more effective ways to do that?
Wright: I think you want to start from the standpoint that in Islam, Jesus is a respected prophet. He’s not considered as great a prophet as Mohammed, but He is a respected prophet. Even in Islam, it is taught that He was supernaturally conceived by the virgin Mary.
The big difference is that only Allah is God; there is no other. The idea of God having a Son, of Christ being the God-Man, is very contrary to Islam. I think the key is to start at the point of respect that Muslims have to what they see as the prophet Jesus. Start at the point of how we all have the same father of our faith, Abraham—Jews, Christians and Muslims.
Then encourage them. Would they be willing to read what the Bible says about Jesus? Would they be willing to read what the Bible says about Abraham, how Ishmael and Isaac were conceived and what evolved from their birth. Then you’ve got a point of entry.
Preaching: You planted the Johnson Ferry Church, didn’t you?
Wright: When I came here, there were about 20 families meeting in an empty doctor’s office, from about three different churches, in what is the East Cobb Community in North Atlanta. I came here to be their first pastor in this church plant.
It’s been a joy to be here all these years and grow with them. I was the only staff person for awhile. It was a little lonely in those early days, meeting in that empty doctor’s office—especially during the week when I was the only one in there—but it’s been a joy to grow up with the church. Our three sons all have grown up here in the church. I’m really amazed the Lord has allowed us to stay in one place all these years.
Preaching: As you’ve led the church from 20 people to more than 8,000, obviously you’ve experienced preaching in a very small church and all sizes up to where you are today. During those years, have you seen your preaching change at all?
Wright: Well it certainly changes with more biblical content, with more hopeful life wisdom. I realize the number of years doesn’t give you more wisdom automatically, but hopefully there is more life wisdom through the years. I think there is also just more biblical content from studying and preaching all these years in the same place.
One thing about staying in the same church is you are now allowed to recycle. For years I was hesitant to come back to the same texts I had preached on; but after a while, the elders here encouraged me. They said, “Bryant, great passages such as
It’s been fun to have all sizes of churches. My wife, Anne, tells people her husband has pastored 10 different churches, but they’ve all had the same name!
Preaching: Tell me about your style and approach to preaching.
Wright: I’m very much an expository preacher with topical titles. I don’t always succeed in this; but I work hard on having topical titles, especially for what is seen on the marquee outside of our church. [I’m] always hoping it’ll create some interest with those who are not Christians, those who have no biblical understanding.
One thing that is interesting to me is that my schedule for sermon preparation has not changed that much. It just involves more study now than it did in the early days. From the very first week at Johnson Ferry, I set aside all day Thursday for study, half a day on Friday and half a day on Saturday for review and preparation for Sunday. That really has not changed, no matter how big the church has become.
One thing I would say to any pastor: No matter what size your church is, you want to establish your weekly preparation schedule. That doesn’t have to change. What has happened in time is we have more staff, so I now take a Wednesday every four to six weeks to do long-term sermon preparation and plan for future series. Then each quarter, I take a few days at a stretch to get out of town, where I’m also working on long-term sermon series and outlines for the next three to six months.
Preaching: So you plan about six months out?
Wright: Pretty clear, about six months out…the shortest time frame would be about four months. With the six morning services we have at Johnson Ferry—with all that worship and arts has to do with three different styles of worship—there’s just no way I can decide on Monday night before Sunday that this is the theme I’m going to use. They are working on the music and all the preparation related to the thematic approach we seek to have every Sunday in worship with the sermon.
Preaching: You preach in series primarily?
Wright: I preach in series. I very much believe in that. It allows good teaching to take place in the life of the congregation. There will be occasions of a stand-alone message, but that is very rare.
Preaching: For example, what would be the series you’re in right now or have done recently?
Wright: Well it’s one of the hardest ones I’ve done in awhile. I am preaching through the Book of Lamentations. It’s a six-week series; man, what a challenge! It’s a great challenge in a series because of the similarities of the themes within each chapter.
I try to have at least one book-study type sermon series during the year, or at least a portion of the book. Awhile back, I did
Very often I’m taking a portion of the book rather than a whole book. I try to alternate between Old and New Testament, and we’ll have a lot of biblical character studies. I love to do biblical character studies of the old covenant. That’s just a joy to teach those, so much life application there.
Yet I love coming back to the gospels, too, and taking a section or focus of Jesus’ ministry and focusing on that. That’s usually done pretty much February through April leading up to Easter. Then there’s Christmas season, different special days, the 4th of July or Mother’s Day. Usually when I have a family or parenting-type series, it’ll be somewhere around Mother’s Day or Father’s Day.
I will say this: When you stay in the same church, it is a real challenge at Christmas and Easter because of the sameness of the topic, which is an exciting topic, but it’s just a real challenge to stay fresh.
One thing I did the first 12 years here is role-play on Easter Sunday as a different disciple. I talked about what it was like spending those three years with Jesus, sharing the gospel, about His death and resurrection…I began to preach gospel/resurrection type messages after that, but that was kind of a tradition around here in the early days.
Preaching: After 12 years, you ran out of disciples!
Wright: That’s right. I needed to go back and start over.
Preaching: How long is a typical sermon for you?
Wright: Well I’m kind of long. I’m usually about 40 minutes, sometimes a little longer; but because my style is a teaching style with an evangelistic thrust to it, it just takes longer in developing the text and application.
Preaching: How do you go about deciding what series you’re going to do?
Wright: Every time I get away—whether one of those Wednesday’s or once a quarter when I get out of town for a few days to work long term—I’ve got every sermon I’ve preached by book of the Bible, by date. I take all that with me, and I’m always praying through where I need to focus next. What have I been too heavy on? Have I preached too many messages on the old covenant this year? Do I need to go the new covenant? Too much on a biblical character? Too much that has topical or an ethical focus, a family focus?
I want to keep a balance going through the Scripture. I’ve shared with the congregation that my goal early on was to preach through the Bible in the first 20 years at Johnson Ferry, if God allowed me to stay; but I haven’t come close to going through all of the Bible. I’m embarrassed to say that after 28 years, there are still a few books—a few of the minor prophets—I’ve never preached on. That’s embarrassing, but there are so many great texts that I’m going to get to them if the Lord allows me to live that long. I just haven’t got to them yet.
Preaching: Is there something you’ve learned about preaching through the years that you wished you would have known when you were starting out 28 years ago?
Wright: Like any young preacher, I used to say our goal at Johnson Ferry was to make Scripture applicable to everyday life—to make it relevant to everyday life. I kind of laugh about it now, because nothing is more relevant and applicable to everyday life than Scripture. We don’t have to make it relevant. The Holy Spirit and the teaching of the Word will do that as God is working through the life of the preacher.
I would just say I always want to be relevant. Every Saturday night, I tell Anne, “Oh my goodness, I feel like my illustrations are so weak, and I hope the applications are going to come through.” Of course at that point, I’ve gone through it so many times that [I] can get a little bored with it at that point.
I would just say trust the text. I’m in no way saying that the application is not important, because obviously we have to have that if people are going to apply the Word of God to their everyday lives; but we don’t have to make it relevant. We just have to let the Holy Spirit guide us in that relevance.
One other thing that I was hesitant to do in the early days of preaching was use personal illustrations. Most of my illustrations in the first five to 10 years were just life illustrations, news story illustrations and different things like that. I got enough prodding from folks in the congregation saying, “We want to hear what’s going on in your family, Bryant. We want to hear life stories you’ve experienced.”
I was concerned that you don’t want the sermon to be too focused on the preacher, but Phillips Brooks’ statement, “Preaching is truth through personality,” is really one of the greatest definitions of preaching I’ve ever heard. The truth obviously is Jesus Christ. We always want the focus to be on Jesus Christ, but He uses personalities to communicate His truth.
If He’s going to use those personalities, you have to be willing to open up about your life experiences. I think when we open up, we want to be sure we’re being vulnerable and admitting areas where we’ve blown it, where we have fallen short—not bragging about what a fine Christian we are or [saying] “be a good Christian like me.” I know the apostle Paul could get away with it, but I just never felt comfortable doing that.