|Loving Beyond Your Theology|
|Issue: 81 Page No: 27 Updated: 02/04/2011 02:45 PM|
|Author:||David Sapp , Larry L. McSwain|
In his new book, LOVING BEYOND YOUR THEOLOGY, Larry McSwain has written a detailed picture of the life and ministry of Jimmy Allen, a seminal leader among Baptists. McSwain has extensively researched the life of Jimmy Allen, not only through the published record, but also through detailed interviews with Allen and many of his associates.
The result is a portrait of a leader, a portrait that can be very helpful for future leaders. I once heard Walter Shurden say that moderate Baptists emerged from the divisive Baptist conflict of the 1980s and 1990s with “an aversion to leadership.” Actually, we may have had that tendency even before our denominational difficulties, but certainly this aversion to leadership created a vacuum that begs for a book like this.
McSwain’s book gives a full account of his Allen’s as a prominent pastor, an icon of evangelism, a leader in Christian social ethics, a driving force for effective use of media by Christians, an adviser to the President of the United States, and a stellar president of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Jimmy Allen was the last moderate to serve as president of the Southern Baptist Convention. While he was nowhere near the liberal that his enemies have made him out to be, he did represent the cutting edge of Southern Baptist life. He was conservative enough to lead the denomination, but progressive enough to help many Baptists to dream of a larger future.
LOVING BEYOND YOUR THEOLOGY highlights several remarkable dimensions of Allen’s leadership. Those that struck a particularly responsive chord in me are these: 1) Allen’s leadership was empowered by his dual commitment to evangelism and social ethics; 2) he was both visionary and pragmatic in his approach to every problem; 3) he was not afraid to lead during times of failure and pain when they visited him.
As a young, energetic, evangelistic preacher, Jimmy Allen led powerful revivals and pastured churches that baptized large numbers of people. He had a deep passion for others to know and to follow Jesus. He also took Jesus seriously enough to challenge his culture on critical issues like race. His evangelistic zeal made very conservative people listen, and his deep ethical commitment gave integrity to his evangelism. This is not a balance which has been achieved by many.
In addition, LOVING BEYOND YOUR THEOLOGY paints a portrait of Jimmy Allen as a man who was at once both pragmatic and visionary. Pragmatism was the key to his success as a pastor, and it was a key to gaining concessions from the Israeli government regarding religious liberty in Israel. In fact, he functioned as a pragmatist in every leadership position he ever held.
At the same time, Allen was a visionary. It was hardly imaginable in the 1950s and 1960s that racial segregation would disappear so quickly from so many areas of American life, but Jimmy Allen had the vision to move Baptists strongly in that direction.
McSwain also tells the story of his visionary role during the Iranian Hostage Crisis. He travelled to Iran, sought and gained an audience with influence the Ayatollah Khomeni. He had no reason to believe that he would be successful. He was there because he believed that God could be successful. His pragmatism was no longer driving him but a vision of God’s peace.
Vision also drove him when he implemented an unheard of array of social ministry programs at First Baptist Church of San Antonio. The same was true when he labored so hard to give birth to the ACTS network.
Finally, Jimmy Allen’s leadership was never stymied by pain. McSwain recounts two of the most painful experiences of Jimmy’s life. The first was the failure of the ACTS television network. Allen’s dream was so big most Baptist leaders could not grasp it. He dreamed of establishing a Christian television network that would penetrate the soul of America with the soul of Christ. He was not to succeed.
I knew Jimmy well during that period. He gave the ACTS vision all his considerable gifts, but ultimately had to give it up. The old leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention had their hands tied by their commitment to an old system. Other agencies competing for the funds competed for those funds. The extremist leaders who were just coming into power in the Convention could not allow Jimmy Allen to succeed, nor could they succeed themselves without Allen’s vision and energy
McSwain tells how, in the end, Jimmy plunged himself into financial chaos by taking his life’s savings and paying the people who had been working with him. Here, McSwain gives us a splendid picture of a man who gave all for a dream he believed in and lost. But he lived to lead again.
Pain stung Jimmy Allen and his family yet again in their excruciating encounters with AIDS. These experiences are recorded in his book, BURDEN OF A SECRET. In McSwain’s book he records how Allen dealt with those tragedies, how he learned from them, and how he found healing in the gracious heart of God.
The most remarkable story in Jimmy Allen’s life, however, might well be the story of his survival as a leader. The final pages of the book are devoted to this story. Jimmy has kept getting up when life knocked him down, and he has made some of his most significant contributions since struggling with those tragedies that would have defeated lesser people.
In years when he could well have retreated to the sidelines, Jimmy Allen helped to birth the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. He became the pastor of the Big Canoe Chapel in North Georgia, and stirred it to an even larger life. He worked with President Carter to launch the New Baptist Covenant, an exploratory effort to build relationships between all the Baptist groups in American who were willing to participate. He has energetically and effectively preached, influenced, written, and spoken for the cause of Christ. Now in his early 80s, he shows no signs of retreat.
Jimmy Allen is one of the finer models of Christian leadership in our time. Of course, just like all the rest of us, he has flaws that are real. His record, however, is going to stand the test of time, and this biography helps to preserve the record. As an obligatory matter to mention in a book review, there are far too many printing errors in this book.
Still, as a record of a successful leadership style, LOVING BEYOND YOUR THEOLOGY could help to empower the moderate Baptist movement. If only we could free ourselves from that the generational hubris that believes all things must now be re-invented. Let us pray that this volume will help to inspire leaders yet unfound.
David Sapp is pastor of Second Ponce de Leon Baptist Church in Atlanta, GA
Cite This Page:
Sapp, David , McSwain, Larry L.. "Loving Beyond Your Theology" ChristianEthicsToday.
The Christian Ethics Today Foundation. Winter 2011 (Issue 81 Page 27)