By Eric Reed
Ben Mandrell held a meeting with the employees at LifeWay last week, the first since he was elected by the LifeWay trustees to serve as CEO of Southern Baptists’ publishing entity. The meeting was invigorating, by all reports, as the Nashville team saw Mandrell’s passion for spreading the gospel and for advancing LifeWay’s mission in a mostly-digital era. Dressed in the jeans and plaid shirt common among church planters, and with his charming wife, Lynley, on stage with him, Mandrell said he had not sought the position, and only accepted when it was made clear to them both that God was leading in his nomination.
Whatever doubts outsiders to the selection process may have concerning the visionary large-church planter’s lack of publishing experience may have been assuaged by his assessment of the issues facing LifeWay—and especially in relation to these challenging times in our culture.
For us Southern Baptists ministering outside the deep South, Mandrell’s apparent understanding that what still works in the Bible Belt doesn’t work as well in the Midwest any longer is encouraging. As a native of Tampico, Illinois (“I will always have a heart for Illinois people! Those are my people,” he told this newspaper in June), his Midwestern background will well inform key decisions leading what was once the Baptist Sunday School Board. Successful ministry as a church planter in Colorado will illuminate further advancement of the gospel in places that are gospel-ignorant and even gospel-averse.
The whole of American culture is moving that way, even in the South. People like Jeff Iorg, from his outpost as a seminary president in San Francisco and now in Los Angeles, have warned us for years that what becomes legal and acceptable in the West (and we would add, the Northeast) is a nascent wave that will sweep the rest of the nation. Certainly we are seeing that in Illinois, with much redoubtable legislation shaking the moral ground beneath our feet.
Perhaps Mandrell can join Iorg and others in sharpening the skills needed by Baptists—Southerners, Midwesterners, and all—to uphold Christ and advance his gospel in an increasingly dystopian world. “Lord,” Mandrell prayed at that team meeting, “give us a servant’s heart and help us to be willing to do whatever we need to do to make LifeWay what it needs to be.”
To that we would say, Amen.
– Eric Reed