How pastors can finish strong

A conversation with Bryant Wright of Johnson Ferry Baptist Church

July 23, 2019

Johnson Ferry Baptist Church was founded 35 years ago by pastor Bryant Wright, in a doctor’s office. The church has since grown tremendously. Since its founding, Bryant Wright has transformed from a church planter to an influential pastor in the Southern Baptist Convention.

Everything about Johnson Ferry, from the parking lot to the church foyer to Wright’s office, emphasizes missions and spreading the gospel at any cost. Johnson Ferry is a model church with a model pastor. This is why it seemed out of place when Wright announced his plans to transition as the pastor. In sit-down interview, Wright shares from his heart why he thought this was the best time to do it.

Maina Mwaura: Can we go back down memory lane to when you were called to plant a church?

Bryant Wright: I grew up in the Atlanta area and came to know Christ through Young Life. I was called into the ministry working in the sales department of a Chemical Company for three years. I thought I would follow my father’s footsteps in business. After being called into the ministry, I went to seminary and graduated. I thought I was going to pastor after I graduated from seminary, so it was a detour when I received a call from Ed Young, who was influential in my life, asking Ann and me to come on staff and start the singles ministry at Second Baptist Church Houston. I enjoyed my time seeing a church impact its city like Second Houston did. When I came here to start JFBC, we met in a doctor’s office, with no land, no staff, and only about 20 families.

MM: When did you know that God was leading you to transition from pastoring JFBC?

BW: It was over a year-long process of praying and asking the Lord for direction. I can tell you where it began. I was leaving an elders meeting in the spring of 2017, which had nothing to do with secession planning by the way. I was talking to one of the elders in the parking lot, who was just talking about millennials and their likes and dislikes with building and construction concepts. He’s in the construction business.

He happened to mention that when millennials walk into our atrium, they immediately know this is not a church for them; it’s a church for baby boomers. Millennials are looking for something different, less rigid in structure. It got me thinking that when I came here I understood and knew the baby boomer culture. I just instinctively understood the culture of boomers, but with the millennials, and now Generation Z, I’m not going to instinctively think as they do. Over the next year, I just began to pray.

MM: What did your wife think when you told her about transitioning from the pastorate?

BW: When I told my wife, Ann, she wasn’t for it initially. She just thought it would blow over, honestly. She thought maybe I needed a vacation, but it’s not a matter of fatigue. I really don’t feel tired. I think there’s still plenty of gas in the tank.

MM: What do you plan on doing afterward?

BW: We are in the process of looking for the next pastor, and when the committee lands on someone and calls  him to be our next pastor, the plan is to stay for three to six months to help him with the transitioning process. I hope God’s going to use me somewhere. I really do. I’ll keep doing my personal ministry, “Right from the hHeart.” I want to keep mentoring young pastors. I love doing that. I also would like to keep preaching.

MM: What do you enjoy about mentoring younger pastors?

BW: I love mentoring younger pastors in hopes that they will finish strong. It is a two-year process and meets once a quarter. I’m just trying to pour into [them] the basic principles of how to finish strong. There are so many shipwrecks that I’ve seen along the way; I don’t want them to be one of those guys. I learn more from them than they get from me. After transitioning from JFBC, my hope is to keep multiplying that.

MM: What has God taught you through this process?

BW: Through the process, I felt like God was asking me, “Are you willing to lay down your Isaac?” God loves JFBC more than I ever could. When I finally came to the decision, I told the elders and key staff.  The peace I had in doing that was a key indicator to me in knowing that I was doing what God had called me to do. It’s been very emotional, the times of just walking the halls and remembering stories along the way.  But I have such peace that it’s time to hand it off to a younger man. Hopefully an older millennial, younger Generation X kind of guy that could build on this foundation.

MM: What one thing comes to mind when you’re thanking God for being able to pastor JFBC?

BW: You’re walking on holy ground in people’s life. The stories they tell you and the moments that I’ve been a part of in their lives are in their times of joy and crisis. As a pastor, you get to be there in moments like that. It’s been such a joy watching over 2,000 of our people go on mission trips each year—that’s more than half of the church—and seeing 140 people called into full-time ministry. There’s been so much joy in seeing that and being a part of that.

The interview with Wright started just like it ended—with prayer. As he prepares for what lies ahead, Wright is aware that he will be handing JFBC over to another pastor, but he’s even more aware that JFBC is not his church—she belongs to God, and He will continue to sustain her.

Maina Mwaura

Maina Mwaura resides in Atlanta, Georgia, with his wife, Tiffany, and daughter, Zyan. He is a graduate of Liberty University and New Orleans Theological Seminary and has served on staff at several churches. You can find Maina‘s written work at mainaspeaks.com. Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24