An interview with Jonathan Akin, Part I: getting past differences and to what’s in common

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The interview with Jonathan Akin, 36, is admittedly long, but it may be one of the most significant I have done in my 14 years as editor of The Christian Index. The SBC Executive Committee and North American Mission Board are launching a young leader initiative to better engage pastors between the ages of 25-45. This was the message of NAMB President Kevin Ezell to those gathered for the Executive Committee meeting in Nashville Feb. 24-25. Ezell then announced that Akin, son of Southeastern Seminary President Danny Akin, will join NAMB’s staff to lead the joint effort. He will be transitioning from his role as pastor of Fairview Church in Lebanon, TN.

Some state convention executive directors balked at the selection of Akin due to past differences with some of his comments about state conventions. The following day Ezell asked Akin to meet with some of the concerned state executives and the conversation that occurred was positive, reconciling, and healing. I think you will find the following interview noteworthy and redemptive. Hopefully, the Lord will use the following to bridge the generation gap in the SBC and produce a greater sense of cooperation and camaraderie between the state conventions and the national convention.

For yesterday’s introduction to Jonathan Akin, click here. In today’s section of the interview, Akin comments on how relationships can become strained despite a common passion to spread the gospel. –  J. Gerald Harris

Police walk the city streets of Vietnam. Jonathan Akin, NAMB director for Young Leader Engagement, recollects a mission trip to the country as a turning point to how he viewed the importance of evangelism. IMB/Special

The Christian Index: Jon, based on our recent conversation I am thrilled and excited about you becoming a part of the leadership team at our North American Mission Board. Prior to this week I don’t know that I would have been nearly as excited, but, of course, I didn’t’ know you and we had never had a conversation. I admit to my own preconceived ideas about you and some of the things you had written and asked, “Why do you think we often pass judgment on one another before we actually get to know each other?”

Jonathan Akin: That’s a great question, and unfortunately, passing judgment without getting to know someone is something I have been guilty of myself. Therefore, I don’t think I can expertly answer this question. Let me humbly offer some potential contributing factors from my perspective, knowing that my own struggles in some of these areas have shaped my perspective.

First, some of it is just our sinful nature. We have a tendency to give ourselves the benefit of the doubt while not affording that same luxury to others. We understand the motives for our viewpoints and actions, but it’s difficult for us to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, especially if we don’t have a personal relationship with them, to understand their viewpoints and actions.

That often leads to an absence of grace. We would do well to heed Paul’s words to the church at Rome where brothers didn’t agree on certain diets and holy days. He warned the church not to look down on or judge one another but instead to “pursue what promotes peace and what builds up one another” (Romans 14:19).

Second, I think the social media world in which we live has contributed greatly to this problem. We live in a world where you have “friendships” with people you may have never met. We often only interact with ideas on a screen rather than real people. Those interactions cannot account for tone, intention, and motivation, and those faceless interactions make empathy giving the benefit of the doubt and charity difficult.

This online virtual reality that reduces people simply to ideas has led us not just as a Convention but also as a nation to the place where there’s very little room for civil disagreement without viewing each other as enemies. People are now demonized for their ideas. You’re either all for someone or all against them. There seems to be little room for nuance and unity despite disagreement on some things.

Passing judgment on others before getting to know them is a very unfortunate position for us to be in because I have found that personal relationships go a long way in helping us be unified around the main things (shared theology and mission) while being able to differ on some secondary things.

The Christian Index: You have made some comments about state conventions that may have caused some angst among state missionaries and/or state executive directors. Why were you motivated to do that and how have you altered that position? 

Jonathan Akin: In my early twenties, two events happened in the same year that completely changed my outlook on the world. One, I went on my first mission trip. I went to Vietnam, and I shared the gospel with a young man my age that had never heard of Jesus before! That encounter made me wrestle with the question, “Why was I born into a Christian family who shared the gospel with me from the moment I could talk, and my friend was born in a Communist country where he could live and die without hearing the name of Jesus?”

The second event, later that year, was when I read this line in J. Gresham Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism: “If therefore this way of salvation is not offered to all, it is not the fault of the way of salvation itself, but the fault of those who fail to use the means that God has placed in their hands.” That line coupled with the question of why I was born into a Christian family changed my life. It meant that I had a responsibility to get the gospel to places it’s never been.

I have a passion for global evangelization. I genuinely desire for every person on the planet to come to know Jesus as Savior. For that to happen, the gospel will need to get to places it’s never gone before.

Unfortunately, in my zeal for that passion and a desire to see more resources get to the places with little to no gospel witness, I have at times been guilty of being critical toward other brothers in Christ without getting to know their hearts, of arrogantly assuming that my proposed solution to the lack of global witness was the only right one, of not always aligning my zeal with the knowledge of all the factors involved in multi-level cooperation, and of presenting things as “cut and dried” that are not so “cut and dried.”

So while I hope my passion to see every person saved from Tennessee to the ends of the earth has not changed, I do hope that I’m more mature, humble, and cooperative – building genuine relationships for the sake of doing more together than we can apart. I also hope I’ve grown in my appreciation for how every level of the SBC (national, state, and local) works together in our primary task of propagating the gospel.

I think being a pastor has helped me in this regard. Our entities aren’t perfect but neither am I, and neither is the church I pastor. We are all works in progress trying our best to reach a lost world for Christ, and we will all do better if we recognize we need each other.

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