By George Schroeder, Jonathan Howe
The story isn’t a pulpit exaggeration. Mike Stone, the longtime pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church, proudly owns a record for beard length on a turkey. Almost 10 years ago now, Stone bagged a bird with a 16.5-inch beard, which ranks No. 16 in the National Wild Turkey Federation’s world rankings.
The accomplishment has provided an additional platform for Stone, who has recounted the experience at various sportsman’s suppers and men’s breakfasts over the past few years. Each time he builds to the surprising climax:
Although he’s an avid outdoorsman, it was his first – and only – turkey hunt.
The opportunity came at the invitation of a friend. The night before the hunt, Stone bought 10 turkey-load shotshells.
“I still have nine of them,” he says, laughing – and he says the story has allowed him to share the Gospel message to a different audience.
In his 19th year as senior pastor of the church in a small community in rural south Georgia, not far from the Okefenokee Swamp, Stone has agreed to accept a nomination to serve as SBC president at the 2021 SBC Annual Meeting in June. If elected, he says he would use that platform to call the convention to “focus almost singularly … on reaching the world with the Gospel.”
A member of the steering council of the Conservative Baptist Network, Stone is the immediate past chairman of the SBC Executive Committee and a past president of the Georgia Baptist Convention, but describes himself as a “relational outsider” in SBC life.
The Georgia native grew up in a Christian home in Valdosta, Ga. – and was part of a family Southern Gospel group known, appropriately enough, as the Stone Family Singers – but in a Pentecostal tradition. Concerns about conflicts between what he was learning in the Bible and being taught in his church led him eventually to become a Southern Baptist. He later dropped out of law school to enter fulltime vocational music ministry. He was called as senior pastor of Emmanuel in 2002, after five years as the church’s worship pastor.
Stone sat down earlier this month with Baptist Press.
Baptist Press: Tell us about Emmanuel and your ministry here. How do you reach Blackshear, this part of Georgia and the world?
Stone: I’ll give you the pre-COVID answer, because the organizational approach to that is obviously very, very different than it was 10 months ago. The church has been a traditional Sunday school model. The music and the style of the church services is not traditional, but the programming and methodology is. We’ve used age-graded Sunday school. Monday night visitation, we would tend to have 65, 70 people each Monday night come to go out and visit both prospects and guests. I’ve shown our church statistically, I won’t bore you with the math, but statistically our annual baptisms would average whatever we average on Monday night. There are statistical reasons for that when you start figuring how many Gospel witnesses does it take statistically to see someone led to faith and follow in baptism. So we’ve averaged, I think, 63 baptisms a year during my tenure – that’s going back 25 years this fall. And that roughly coincides with the number that we’ve had (participating in Monday night outreach). But just focusing on outreach, Sunday school growth, and just ministering in the community.
We are the largest church in our association and we’re the leading contributor to our association, so we’re very involved in the various things the association does, from a truck stop ministry, benevolence ministries, all those kinds of things.
The music here for most of my tenure has probably been the more contemporary, maybe the most contemporary, among Southern Baptist churches in our region. So part of our identity has been, we have gathered people from different denominational backgrounds. We have many families in our church who, neither one of them came from a Southern Baptist background. But the Methodist wife married the Assembly of God husband. They find stylistically at least a kind of happy medium here. For that reason, doctrine has been a very high priority in our church, and emphasizing in as winsome a way as possible, that here’s who we are and who we will remain: we’re an unapologetically conservative Southern Baptist church. We use that language in our promotional material, our website, etc.
We welcome anyone and everyone to come, but I emphasize to them that when you join, you’re joining us. We did not all go join you. So I have respect for the fact you grew up as a Presbyterian, but we’re not we’re not going to water down, pardon the pun, we’re not going to change or alter our position on water baptism because your sister-in-law is visiting and we’re afraid she’ll be offended. We don’t want to say it in an offensive way, but clarity of doctrine and doing it in an unapologetic way is not only a biblical mandate for us, it’s a necessity in that we’ve attracted people from such diverse denominational and doctrinal backgrounds.
We continue to run a bus ministry, a van ministry. We have a couple of vans that run and mostly pick up children. Elderly or shut-in could call and schedule a ride to church, but for the most part our bus and van ministry reaches underprivileged children. This is a very poor community. There are a lot of mobile home communities, government housing projects around, and our buses run to those areas and into those communities on Sunday morning and on Wednesday nights. The church really has a heart for that particular ministry.
Baptist Press: What’s something in the SBC that you’re really enthused about?
Stone: I’m very enthusiastic and excited about a renewed emphasis on the Cooperative Program. Totally supportive of Dr. [Ronnie] Floyd’s Vision 2025. It is one of the things that first intrigued me when I was becoming a Southern Baptist, during my freshman year in college, the idea that Southern Baptists would partner together – and I don’t have to explain the Cooperative Program to you guys, but as I began to understand what that was, I could not figure why other churches did not want to be a part of it, especially if they were Southern Baptist. So I think the CP and the missions emphasis is what made me a Southern Baptist. Doctrine and missions emphasis is what made me become a Southern Baptist in the first place. So I’m very excited about that renewed emphasis. I’m very excited about that.
Baptist Press: So as president, how would you champion that?
Stone: I shared with a group of pastors recently that the primary way I would seek to do that – as you know, you would only have one year, two at the most, serving in that position – I’d love to see us focus on our mission and the subject of evangelism. Because as much as we can try to champion a program – the Cooperative Program has the word ‘program’ in its name – I have discovered in my congregation, certainly as a pastor, people give to vision and to mission more than they give to program. We see a generation coming along that is not brand loyal. They’re not brand loyal when they go to the grocery store. They’re not brand loyal when they come to church. And so if they have an opportunity to give to something they think is a bureaucracy versus an opportunity that may – there may be an opportunity that’s in their Instagram feed, where they can hit a button and give now, and that money is in Haiti today – there’s a sense in where we’re competing for those things. So what we have to do, I believe, and I’d want to do as president, is to champion the mission that Southern Baptists are on, which I think would be beneficial in some other areas as well. But here’s what your money is going to: not to paying bills and not to these formulas and these allocation budgets. That’s all necessary to work it through the [Executive] Committee, present it to the convention. I’ve done enough of that to know the nuts and bolts administratively are a necessity. But to try to champion the mission that we’re on, taking the Gospel around North America and ultimately around the world, and here’s what you’re giving to.
Baptist Press: So if someone asks you about the mission and vision of the SBC, your answer is?
Stone: I would like to see us focus almost singularly, during the time that I would have the microphone, on reaching the world with the Gospel. By that I mean, there are other things the Southern Baptist Convention has to address. Just the necessity of our own internal work, cultural issues that necessitate a word from Southern Baptists. But when we come together, particularly for our annual meeting, I would love to see the program itself championing evangelism and missions.
One of the things that I have begun to share is that as president, if elected, I would like to call the convention to a wave revival. It’s an old-fashioned method but it has worked every time we’ve used it. By that I mean, pick an eight-week period, for example, and work together with the North American Mission Board and all the other entities and resources of the SBC and challenge churches across the convention to host evangelistic events and evangelistic emphases, thematic and be providing resources, logos, all the different resources.
Baptist Press: Sort of like ‘Who’s Your One’?
Stone: That is a tremendous, tremendous emphasis that we have used and emphasized here that deals a lot with personal evangelism. This would be a little different in that it would call the church, from a programming perspective, an event perspective, to an evangelistic emphasis. Obviously that would have to be done in a way that’s very customizable from methodology to schedules to even soteriological emphases. Not every pastor wants to have a five-night tent revival with an evangelist coming in. But even the most reformed pastor could be challenged to say, ‘Would you invite your people? Tell them that on this day I’m going to be preaching a sermon based on a salvific passage, and do your best to bring your unconverted friends here. We’re going to preach the Gospel.’ Now, that pastor may not even give a public invitation, consistent with his own practice. I give a public invitation every time that I preach but I’m not mad at people who don’t.
But a customizable evangelistic emphasis where anyone, wherever they are on that spectrum, soteriologically, methodologically, even their schedule, would be able to tie into that. Part of that, I would want to challenge even churches that are in more reached areas. You talk about cooperation among Southern Baptists, to take a youth team from south Georgia, where at least figuratively we say there’s a Baptist church on every corner, to say we want to make our spring break mission trip, we’re going to go to Idaho and we’re going to be knocking on doors, canvassing, helping the First Baptist Church of Anytown, Idaho, prepare for their ‘whatever the name would be.’ And that even state conventions would partner. We’ve seen many times in recent years state conventions that have more resources – Georgia, Alabama, Florida – enter into partnership with other state conventions. I could see that as being something very helpful. In Georgia, for example, a few years ago we had a partnership with Utah-Idaho.
This is not reinventing the wheel as much as it is trying to activate some tools that we’ve used in the past. And churches in Georgia, for example, say we’re in a Georgia-California partnership and we’re asking churches in Georgia to partner with churches in California providing resources, those kinds of things.
So to your question, with the president, you’ve only got two things the president can do. There’s some appointment powers, but the bigger thing is just kind of the microphone, so to speak. And when the annual meeting comes together, to begin in Year One promoting and God willing in Year Two celebrating those things. I think that would be a great emphasis that would be a point of, God willing, of unifying. Because we are an extremely diverse convention, and I don’t have to explain that.
And so you have friction and you have many opportunities for not just disagreement but for division. And I don’t think those two have to coexist. You can have disagreement without division. But I don’t know of any Southern Baptist congregations that would not affirm at least verbally, ‘We believe people without Christ need to hear the Gospel.’ That is why we’ve come together. Our founders called it ‘one sacred effort.’ So from a programming perspective, that would be what I would try to emphasize.
Baptist Press: There’s obviously tension now within the SBC on multiple levels, multiple fronts, from multiple different points of view. But specifically as it relates to what we typically talk about in diversity – ethnic diversity – especially with our African American leadership in the SBC, how would you foster as president, cooperation with diverse groups in the SBC, understanding it’s pretty tense right now?
Stone: It absolutely is. This would ultimately get into a discussion of the recent discussion of Critical Race Theory and Intersectionality and the various statements that have come out, whether that’s Resolution 9 or the Council of Seminary Presidents’ statement. All that goes as background into this: With all due respect, I think the more that we talk about it with extrabiblical tools and extrabiblical language, it leads to greater ethnic tension. I think if we would focus on what brings us together, that is the person of Jesus Christ and His Gospel, that racial reconciliation – I prefer the word ‘ethnic’ reconciliation, because theologically I’ve taught our congregation here that there’s only one race and that’s the human race – which as a footnote means you can’t even have interracial marriage, because you have to have two races to have interracial marriage. And that’s not been a popular position, by the way, in part of the southeast.
But back on point as far as it relates to the Convention, I believe that some of the conversations that we have that focus on some of our differences and unduly focus on ethnic diversity actually lead us to greater ethnic tension, not greater ethnic reconciliation. And I recognize that there are people who fundamentally disagree with the position I just stated. One of the things that I would hope to foster is the understanding that we have the same goal. We really do have the same goal. And the reason I may disagree with your method or your approach of getting there is because I don’t think that that method works, but I’m in agreement with the goal. When I served as [Executive Committee] chairman and president in Georgia, I looked very intentionally and strategically for like-minded people that were non-Anglos to serve in key positions, with different appointment powers that you would have, and then giving instructions to our nominating committee. Not at the expense of doctrinal position. But we need to be more diverse, not just so that we can put on an appearance but we need greater diversity ethnically because that’s the population God has given us to reach. I was asked yesterday about the growing Hispanic population in the United States and I mentioned a guy who’s running for second vice president [of the SBC], Javier Chavez. I just use him as an example. He’s doing a tremendous work. He does not need the Georgia Baptist Convention, the Georgia Baptist Convention needs him because we need his voice, we need his leadership, we need his insight into reaching the growing Spanish-speaking population in the state of Georgia. And obviously that’s a microcosm somewhat of the SBC.
So I embrace the need for ethnic reconciliation, but I think some of the conversations that we have had, the assumption, the accusation that if you don’t agree with this approach that you are a racist, if you don’t appoint this person you’re a racist, if you don’t move in this direction, your decision was racially motivated – I think that kind of language, I know personally it’s hurtful, it’s certainly not helpful to the progress of the Convention. The Convention, I would suggest, has made wonderful strides in ethnic reconciliation. You go back to the resolution in 1995 on that historic anniversary where we corporately repented of the sin of racism that was even a part, a significant part no doubt, of the founding of the SBC. When you look at the passing of a resolution in that context, that’s not suggesting that Southern Baptists were starting on this issue in ’95. We had seen tremendous progress. There have been other resolutions, there’ve been other statements, there’s been more action in these intervening years. And I think we have seen great progress when we’re focusing on our Gospel mission and desiring to have greater ethnic diversity and involvement in SBC leadership. But when the CRT conversation was injected into SBC life formally in Birmingham, I see it as a source of tension that has not helped us but has hurt us and has set us back.
To the question of what would I do, one thing I would do and have been willing to do in my ministry from the beginning is sit down and have conversation and talk to anybody, any particular group that has a difference of opinion. Social media, of course, is a major part of the tension on any issue in SBC life, because we talk past one another, at one another and about one another instead of speaking to one another. Maybe that’s the nature of the beast and a casualty of the technological times, but it is a challenge.
Baptist Press: That sort of leads to another question: Do you see a problem – regardless of the vehicle or method of delivery, is there a problem in the SBC with regard to respecting others and treating them in a Christlike fashion? If so, how do you handle that? How do you go about reducing the volume or changing the tone?
Stone: Absolutely. You start by example. I have, like most people, on occasion not spoken as graciously as I know the Lord would have me. And the answer to that is to repent, apologize. Ideally and preferably in the same forum in which your offense was committed. One of the challenges that we have is the rhetoric is so high – in my life, I want to be sensitive to the Holy Spirit, but any of us can become desensitized to the Spirit’s work. And one of the things that I believe Satan uses to desensitize God’s people to conviction in this area are the likes and the retweets and the attaboys. It’s hard to hear, harder to hear the voice of the Holy Spirit saying, ‘That was unkind; put your position out there, but you don’t have to do it in a rude way,’ when your closest friends are all retweeting, liking it and saying, ‘attaboy, go get ‘em.’ So, there’s only so much that one person can do. I think Dr. Floyd would certainly amen that, because I don’t know anyone who tries to use social media in a more positive, winsome way than someone like Dr. Floyd. But you do have these strident voices out on social media. And one of the things that I’ve tried to do is to not like them, retweet them, engage them myself. It’s hard when you’re the victim of it.
I was asked recently my thoughts about the other men who’ve been nominated. And I did my best to honor them and to share, ‘Here’s what I think Dr. [Ed] Litton would say would be a distinction he may have from me. Here’s what I think Dr. [Randy] Adams would say about himself.’ And if I take a question in a meeting, let me give you 30 seconds and tell you why I think Randy Adams would love to serve and to try to tell you what I think he would say. And if I err on that, it’s not intentional and I would love to stand corrected if someone here says, ‘No, I don’t think that’s his position.’ I’m not afraid to draw distinctions, but I want to do that in a Christ-honoring way.
There’s not a liberal running for SBC president. These are men that love the Lord, love His Word and I believe love the Southern Baptist Convention. And they’re my brothers. One of the things I have tried to foster even in committee meetings, you wouldn’t know it to read SBC Twitter commentary about those meetings, is the ability to have even tense, weighty discussion, but to have it in a way that honors the other people in the room. So one way to tone down the rhetoric is to model it better.
Baptist Press: Why are you uniquely positioned to serve as SBC president?
Stone: Well for one thing, and I say this not as a character flaw or an attack against two of the candidates in particular, but I do not believe that it is best or wise to have convention employees or entity leaders serve as SBC president. I felt that way – my first discussion of that conversation was 20-something years ago when I was a music minister going to the convention, and Dr. [Paige] Patterson, at that time president of Southeastern [Baptist Theological Seminary], was to be elected. I didn’t think that was wise. I shared with my pastor at that time, ‘Can you do that?’ I was not familiar with the bylaws at that time.
That would be a distinction. I know we’re saying why I think I’m uniquely positioned. Some of that involves why I think I’m better suited at this time than this person. And all of that is under the umbrella of, I love Al Mohler. I’m grateful for his leadership and how God has used him. I don’t know Dr. Litton or Dr. Adams as well. I’ve met them in passing, don’t have any personal or particular problem with them. To the specifics of your question, in Dr. Mohler’s case, I believe there are two distinctions, one being the entity head. But in this particular time in SBC life, the entity head conflict of interest is even more substantial perhaps than in times past, because I believe that our entity heads, collectively the GCC [Great Commission Council], but I believe that our entity heads have an undue, unhealthy amount of power in the SBC that leads to a top-down, hierarchical reality even though that doesn’t exist in terms of our polity. I think we need greater influence of grassroots Southern Baptists. Whenever you have a concentration of power – and by power I also mean influence, and I don’t begrudge any leader their influence; that’s a gift from God, and Dr. Mohler has used it to God’s glory; I’m just speaking of him in this case. But power and influence is what it is. And someone else, anyone else, serving as SBC president does not diminish his level of influence. And so I think it’s a good opportunity to share that platform, so to speak, instead of consolidating it even more in one person.
In the case of Dr. Adams, I would say the same thing in terms of an executive director of one of our conventions and specifically a convention that right now has an ongoing controversy with one of our major entities. I understand and as best I understand it, I agree with his concern. But again, that creates a conflict of interest.
In Dr. Litton’s case, I believe we probably – and I would underscore that, ‘probably,’ because we have not had this discussion – but based on what I’ve read, I think we would have a different approach to the ethnic reconciliation issue. Although I am confident that we would be 100 percent in agreement with the desired goal and the desired aim.
One thing that also makes me unique, at least among these men, is that I pastor in a small, rural area, in a more normative congregation. Emmanuel is not a small church by Southern Baptist standards, not at all. But I’ve not pastored a megachurch that has characterized most of the pastors who have served as SBC president, certainly in more recent memory. And I still serve in a small town where – and I’m sure every pastor has this to some degree – but I visit the hospitals, do counseling, people stop by, ‘Is Pastor in and available?’ So it is a more normative church. The places that I preach tend to be very small or rural churches. So I do think that’s a distinction. I don’t know that Redemption Church in Mobile [the church in Saraland, Ala., pastored by Litton] would be characterized as a megachurch. I think that [Litton] has – and again this is not a character flaw, but I do think it is a distinction in that he has served with a lot of people who are very influential already in Southern Baptist life. I do think that’s a distinction.
Baptist Press: Pushing back a little bit, when you’ve been the chairman of the SBC Executive Committee, you’ve kind of been in the middle of all of that.
Stone: I’m certainly not an organizational outsider. But I am definitely a relational outsider. If you look at who is critical of my ministry and leadership, it tends to be the ‘who’s who’ of the Southern Baptist Convention. So I am definitely not an organizational outsider. This is one of the things that I think makes me unique in this moment and is one of the things that my wife mentioned to me when she initiated a conversation about the possibility of me being nominated: that it is unusual to have someone who has the organizational knowledge, who has served in these positions, that doesn’t also have those close relationships with all of the entity heads and people that are the primary voices of influence across the SBC, ones that critics would call, and I’m not saying this, but critics would call the big dogs or the powerbrokers. I don’t prefer those terms because I think they’re diminutive and they’re critical of people that God has just blessed and given a platform. But those are not the people that I tend to run with, [even though] I count them as friends. I can talk to them.
Baptist Press: If you could sit down one on one with a Southern Baptist, what is the one thing you would like that person to know about Mike Stone?
Stone: One thing is because of social media there has been a great mischaracterization. I believe people who know me would find me to be a person of peace that seeks reconciliation and unity. I’m not afraid of diverse voices. I think that has actually been modeled in many ways through work on the Executive Committee and in our state convention. It’s one of the reasons that I joined Conservative Baptist Network. And that organization, too, I believe has been mischaracterized. There are people in the SBC who share strong sentiment that the Convention is moving in an unfavorable direction and they are disengaging and in many ways disinvesting from the work of Southern Baptists. I see that a lot in the Southeast where I tend to preach. Especially pre-COVID, I had a very busy outside preaching schedule: Georgia, north Florida, South Carolina, Alabama, Tennessee. And many of these churches are leaving the SBC because they don’t feel they have a place, don’t have a voice. And my desire is to say this is a group that represents a significant portion of who the SBC is. Not a unanimous, monolithic voice, but a significant part of it. And you don’t have to leave the SBC. Stay in. Stay involved. Stay engaged. You don’t have to leave. Stay a part.
Something that has been a help to me, especially in the last year in particular, is to try to assume, to give the benefit of the doubt, that this person’s Twitter personality, the way they have either presented themselves or maybe been mischaracterized, maybe as mischaracterized as I believe that I have been by many people. And I don’t think the way some people see me on Twitter is within a million miles of who I actually am. And I try to give that benefit of the doubt and deference to others.
I’ve not done that perfect, any more than I’ve perfected any other area of my Christian experience. But I think that we could benefit as Southern Baptists by a good dose of Philippians 2:3-4, which among other things says [to] consider one another as more important than yourselves. Let me give you the deference that I would want you to give to me.
This article was originally published at Baptist Press.