Ministry focus, biblical depth keys for future of LifeWay, Rainer says at SBTS

Communications Staff — March 9, 2007

As LifeWay Christian Resources examines its future it must maintain a proper perspective by considering itself a ministry first and a business second, LifeWay President Thom Rainer said Feb. 28 during a presentation at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Reviewing the history of the Christian resource provider, Rainer noted that LifeWay has been self-supporting since its inception in 1891 as the Sunday School Board. Despite this legacy, which clearly has its advantages, Rainer said the Southern Baptist organization must always maintain a ministry focus.

“One of the dangers we have at LifeWay is that we are so focused on being a business that pays its own way, that we forget that our primary purpose is not revenue production, but it is to do ministry for the benefit of local churches, primarily in the Southern Baptist Convention,” he said.

“Because we are self-sustaining and self-supporting sometimes we act too much like a business. We are first a ministry and when we forget that, we have forgotten who we are, who we serve and who owns us.”

Rainer was on the campus of Southern Seminary to present his vision for the future of LifeWay. Before beginning as LifeWay president Feb. 1, 2006, Rainer served for 11 years as founding dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism and Church Growth at Southern.

In addition to the challenge of maintaining a ministry focus, Rainer identified several other issues the organization must address to effectively minister to local churches.

“One of the challenges is our sheer size, bureaucracy,” he said. “When you have an organization that has 3,000 full-time equivalent employees, and 7,000 total employees, there is a tendency to have an organization that is not nearly as streamlined as it could be. It is big, and sometimes it can be cumbersome. As a result, there are times when we respond like a bureaucracy, responding slowly or not responding at all.”

Another challenge Rainer noted is meeting the needs of the numerous and varied constituencies within the Southern Baptist Convention.

“I had no idea of the diversity of theological views, within orthodox theology, that makes up the Southern Baptist Convention,” he said.

“We have an academic constituency, such as this seminary. We have a constituency that thinks we cater too much to the academic constituency. It is a constant challenge to serve the Southern Baptist Convention, but that does not mean that we will not strive to do that.”

In presenting a vision for addressing these challenges, Rainer said LifeWay must achieve biblical depth in its materials.

“LifeWay employees have heard it from me again and again: we must pursue biblical depth,” he said.

“It is a challenge to present a Sunday School lesson [with biblical depth] that people will cover in 30-40 minutes, but we are going to do it. Recently, we created B&H Academic. B&H Academic is important to me, because it will influence the influencers. It will influence the pastors and lay leaders in the church. If we can have a small role in influencing the influencers then we will have made at least some contribution.”

Rainer said LifeWay would seek to present this biblical depth in a relevant way, which is one of the reasons he founded the LifeWay Research and Ministry Development department.

“There is often the assumption that to mention the word relevance means that you abandon biblical depth and a biblical framework,” he said. “I will say that this can occur and often does. But, we have to touch the generations of today. We have to reach out to those who have not been hearing our messages in our churches.

“We also want to attempt to listen to our churches better. We do not want to be the organization that decides we have a product we want to dump on the churches. Instead, we want to be the organization that listens to where churches are and tries to respond to churches needs.”

Finally, Rainer said LifeWay would be unapologetically evangelistic.

“I have a heart-burning desire to be an entity that reaches people for Jesus Christ,” he said. “It is my prayer that — for the glory of God — when the ministry of Thom Rainer is done evangelism is something I will be remembered for emphasizing at LifeWay.”

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