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Billy and Ruth Graham

Ruth and Billy at their Montreat, N.C., home. (Baptist Press photo)

I had the privilege of meeting Billy Graham three times in my life. Each of those encounters gave me a slightly different perspective on both the man and the far-reaching scope of his ministry and influence.

I first met Dr. Graham while a college student at Judson University, where one of his sons was also a student. The chapel was buzzing that morning with news that Billy Graham was present, and I sat down eager to hear the famous evangelist. Instead, we heard the regularly scheduled chapel speaker, and learned that Dr. Graham was there as a parent and fellow worshiper that morning. I had a brief moment to shake his hand after chapel. But the memory I walked away with was of his humility, and that he didn’t need to be in the limelight.

The second time I met Dr. Graham was in the mid-1980’s, when he visited the offices of Christianity Today Inc., where I worked as a mid-level manager. Dr. Graham founded our flagship magazine in 1956, and it had become the primary voice for evangelical Christianity, and a thoughtful alternative to the more liberal Christian Century.

Throughout my 17 years at Christianity Today, we would occasionally discuss whether anyone could personify and hold together the many strands of evangelicalism as Dr. Graham did. The memory I walked away with from those years was that this evangelist, best known for declaring the simple gospel message, also founded worldwide ministries that articulated and defended conservative, evangelical Christianity, even in leading academic and theological circles.

The final time I met Dr. Graham personally was in 1999, when the North American Mission Board and its missionary to the United Nations hosted a dinner for ambassadors and diplomats in New York City. Though the setting was by no means an evangelistic crusade, I listened as Dr. Graham masterfully, disarmingly, and yet directly delivered the gospel message in an after-dinner speech to some of the world’s most influential men and women. I walked away thinking, “That gracious, winsome man uses every opportunity he has to share the gospel.”

In those brief, personal, glimpses, I saw a humble, gracious man, a father and husband who didn’t “need” the spotlight, but who leveraged every opportunity to spread the gospel, both widely around the world and deeply into the most academic and theological circles. I hope that meeting him personally those few, brief times gives me the right to now miss him as personally as I do.

Nate Adams is executive director of the Illinois Baptist State Association. Respond at IllinoisBaptist@IBSA.org.

Fundamental change

ib2newseditor —  February 19, 2018 — 1 Comment

church pews hymnals

Church planting changed me. It was a fundamental change that has continued to influence not only the way I think and feel about church planting, but also the way I think and feel about churches in general.

Before planting, I saw the church as an organization that primarily served its members. It was the group of people that employed my dad, and later me as a youth minister. Our job was to lead worship services and classes, plan programs and activities, and nurture positive relationships. The church membership’s job was to participate, learn more about the Bible, and relate to one another with love and service. Sometimes new people visited and considered joining us.

During and after planting, I saw the church as those who seek and save the lost, and help nurture them into maturing believers who also seek and save the lost. As disciples, we worshiped and studied the Bible and enjoyed fellowship and served. But those weren’t the primary focus; they were things we did along the way as we pursued the mission of seeking and saving the lost.

How can we prioritize the lost and unchurched?

When we left our church plant in the hands of its first full-time pastor and moved to Georgia, we were fortunate enough to find a church that was still behaving like a church plant. Frankly, we had to visit several churches before finding it, and it was a half hour from our home. But it was worth it.

Though this church had its own building, full-time staff, and basic programs, it was clearly focused on engaging and serving its community, more than its members, and on being an inviting environment that expected guests every week. It created multiple entry points for the unchurched, and trained its members to engage them with relationship and with the gospel.

It doesn’t seem right to characterize my before-planting view of church as self-serving, because other church members and I often served each other selflessly. Sometimes we would even invite unsaved friends to what we were already doing, and sometimes we would go on mission trips to look for unsaved people. But we didn’t re-order our thinking and plans and resources toward the lost and unchurched. So, as a church, we were basically self-serving.

This fundamental change in my own life is on my mind and heart right now, because 2017 Annual Church Profile reports have just been totaled. They tell us that total baptisms reported by IBSA churches were lower by more than 11% for the second consecutive year. And about 40% of reporting IBSA churches did not record a baptism.
I love our IBSA churches, including the ones that didn’t see a baptism in 2017! I see so many positive ministries and sacrificial servants in every church I visit, and I recognize that churches are in different situations and settings, and have different strengths. If the gospel is proclaimed faithfully and the Lord Jesus is worshiped sincerely, and believers are maturing and serving, then there is much to celebrate.

At the same time, I would invite us all to simply ask whether a fundamental change is needed in our perspective. Many, many good things happen in a church where the members worship God and serve one another. But the best thing happens when the lost are saved and welcomed into the family of God. And that happened almost a thousand times less in our churches over the past two years.

For me, planting a church brought fundamental change to my heart and mind, that the church should seek and save the lost as its first priority. That’s now what I look for, and long for, in every church I enter. I believe it is the fundamental change that is needed in many churches, to reach the millions of lost people that live in our Illinois mission field.

Nate Adams is executive director of the Illinois Baptist State Association. Respond at IllinoisBaptist@IBSA.org.

Why I miss Nellie

ib2newseditor —  February 15, 2018 — Leave a comment

Woman praying with her bible on table

Joe Oliver met me at the front door yesterday. One of our faithful zone consultants, Joe was in town for the monthly team meeting before returning to his ministry field in the Chicago suburbs. “We’re praying for you,” he said, helping me pull the door open. His wife, DeWanna, had said the same thing to me on the same spot the month before. And in that moment, I realized that I still miss my mother-in-law.

Folks at my house have been on the injured-reserve list for a while, and I took my turn recently. In this protracted season, I have witnessed Christ at work through coworkers and their wives who have fed us and cheered us and prayed for us. The same is true of church family, who prove they are truly family, when you need them. The soups and casseroles have been terrific, but it’s the assurances about praying for us that stick with us most.

“We’re praying for you” really means something when you know it’s true.

I used to call my grandmother on occasion and ask her to pray for me, especially during college exams. (Desperate times, desperate measures, you know.) And where she left off, my mother-in-law picked up. “Call your mother,” I’d say to my wife. Especially as a pastor in a troubled inner city, I knew we needed to send for back-up. And we got it from 600 miles away. She prayed faithfully, and she would call back wanting to know the results—because she expected results. Nellie has been with Jesus 12 years now, telling him more directly, I hope, that we need his help. Baptists don’t have a doctrine of the communion of the saints, but I hope in the Hebrews 12:1 cloud of witnesses, a picture of the packed stadium at an Olympics-style event, that there’s room for my mother-in-law and so many others still cheering us on toward the faithful completion of our own race.

And not Nellie only.

Over the years, I have counted on the prayers of Louise, Leo, Ruthie, Ethel, Pat, Pam, Carole, Sheila, Yvonne, Bev, Sherry, Millie, Bea, and Arlene, among others. And more recently Susan, Beth, Robin, Kathy, Tammie, Jean, Miriam, Ashley, Diane, and many, many others. And that’s just the women.

I’m beginning to understand why Paul’s “conclusions” to his short letters are so long. There are so many people who deserve a “thank you” for their faithful intercession. If I haven’t said it adequately out loud, please know I’m saying it in prayer.

– Eric Reed

Amid decline, churches called to new commitments

Pioneering Spirit

Throughout 2018, Southern Baptist churches in Illinois are invited to accept challenges in four key areas: evangelism, church planting, missions giving, and leadership development.

The challenges, focused on the “pioneering spirit” needed to advance the gospel among more than 8 million lost people in Illinois, were laid out last November at the Annual Meeting of the Illinois Baptist State Association. Their urgency was reinforced by new data based on the 2017 Annual Church Profile reports completed by 95% of IBSA churches.

“The 2017 ACP data from IBSA churches tells us that, while some churches are thriving, many are struggling,” said IBSA Executive Director Nate Adams. “For example, about 40% of IBSA churches didn’t report a baptism in 2017. And the sum total of information from all churches shows flat or steadily declining dynamics in many key indicators, including baptisms, worship attendance, Bible study participation, and church planting.

“This doesn’t do justice to the many bright spots where effective ministry and growth is happening, but it does give an overall picture.”

In 2017, IBSA churches baptized 3,441 people, a 13% decrease from last year’s total of 3,953. Other measurements also were down, including professions of faith, church membership, and missions giving. Giving through the Southern Baptist Cooperative Program totaled $5,924,029 in 2017, compared to $6,032,407 the previous year.

A highlight of 2017 was growth in the area of missions participation, as 21,607 people engaged their Acts 1:8 mission fields through projects and partnerships.

“It was studying last year’s ACP numbers, and really the last several years’, that led us to the important theme for the 2017 IBSA Annual Meeting,” Adams said. “Advancing the gospel through Baptist churches in Illinois has, and always will, require a ‘Pioneering Spirit.’ That means continuously engaging new people, developing new leaders, making new sacrifices, and going new places with the gospel.

“Churches that are not intentionally and effectively reaching out into their communities with a pioneering, missionary spirit, face inevitable decline.”

The lower numbers in Illinois reflect national trends, according to the most recent data available. (National ACP data for the previous year is released in the summer, prior to the annual Southern Baptist Convention.) In 2016, baptisms in SBC churches decreased by 4.9% from the previous year, and worship attendance declined 6.8%.

“I would encourage any church that is struggling or simply desiring assistance to invite IBSA, its local association, or perhaps another like-minded church to come alongside and help,” Adams said. “Often another trusted leader’s perspective can make all the difference, along with the experience and resources that others can bring.

“For our part, IBSA is eager to bring training, consulting, and resources in any of these areas, and to any IBSA church. That’s why we’re here, and we really want to help.”

The power of ‘one’
A decline in baptisms over the past decade is behind this spring’s “One GRAND Sunday” emphasis, which calls IBSA churches to participate in baptizing at least 1,000 people on April 8, the Sunday after Easter.

Last year, 352 IBSA churches reported zero baptisms. The churches that did report baptisms had an average of 6.4 baptisms per church.

The ‘GRAND’ goal is lofty, IBSA’s Evangelism Director Pat Pajak has acknowledged, particularly amid the current downward trend. But he’s urging church members to focus on the “one” part of the challenge, and to pray for one person to come to Christ and be baptized. That idea was recently echoed by prayer leader Phil Miglioratti.

“And as my ‘one’ is added to your ‘one’…as their church’s ‘one’ is matched by that church’s ‘one’…as a Sunday class prays for ‘one’ and is joined by a fellowship group asking for ‘one’…a youth group in a southern association, a seniors’ class in the center of the state, a planting team up north, a children’s ministry along the eastern border, and a WMU along the western border, each claiming, petitioning, pleading for ‘one’…one plus one equals two. But in God’s mathematics, ‘one’ plus ‘one’ times prayer could equal ‘One GRAND Sunday!’

“Even the smallest church among us can ask in faith for ‘one,’” Miglioratti said.

Sign up for the “Pioneering Spirit” challenge at pioneeringspirit.org. Register for One GRAND Sunday at IBSA.org/Evangelism.

Detour sign in New York

I learned to drive when finding your way around still involved maps—ones that were printed on paper with different size dots to represent population, and different width lines to represent what kind of road it was. To get from place to place, you would locate where you were and where you wanted to go and, most of the time, map out the shortest distance.

This worked well until you came to one of those big orange triangular signs that said “Detour.” Typically, you would be directed off the road with a sign or two and then left to your own resources to find your way back. The objective was to get back to the main road as soon as possible so you could continue your journey. On occasion, getting back to the main road seemed impossible, and you had to find a new way to get to your destination.

Personally, my life recently took a detour (with a cancer diagnosis). Not only am I now on a different road, I am headed for a new and different destination. To be honest, my wife, Robin, and I aren’t sure we know what the new destination will be. This detour is not simply a short-lived excursion, it is a brand-new road.

Sometimes God takes our lives on a detour, at least from the plans we have laid out and from the destinations we were headed toward. And trying to get back to the old road, the former route, is to miss what God wants to do in our life. As one author puts it, the detour has become the new road.

What do we make of this? Is God playing a mean trick on us, or has he changed his mind about his purpose for our lives? As I have thought (and prayed) about this, I have come to a new understanding and appreciation for what God might be doing when he interrupts our personal road maps and seeks to take us to a new destination.

Even a cursory reading of the Bible reveals that many of God’s choicest servants, men and women, experienced some incredible detours. Consider Abraham, who was told to leave his home land and go to a place God would show him (eventually). Ruth, a young bride-turned-widow, also journeyed to a foreign land. Peter, Andrew, James, and John left the family fishing business to wander with Jesus, and the Apostle Paul detoured from persecuting the church to being the planter of churches.

These are just a few of the dozens of examples we could mention. Let me suggest a few possibilities for what God might be up to in the detours of life:

1. You detoured when you trusted Jesus. The truth of the gospel is that we were enemies of God until he intervened and offered us salvation through Jesus. In our old life, we charted our own destination, and it was leading us to separation from God. Our repentance—doing an “about face”—represents the first and most important detour as a disciple of Jesus.

2. Your detour may last for many years before you see the benefit. Joseph was enjoying his time as the favorite son of a wealthy father. Then his brothers threw him in a pit and left him for dead. He was sold into slavery to a foreign king and later thrown into prison, even though he did nothing wrong. Quite a life-changing detour! But after decades and several more detours, Joseph’s position in the foreign land was used by God to meet the need of his people in a time of severe famine. You may not see the benefit or the blessing of a detour for many years to come.

3. Your detour may have a Kingdom impact. Saul, who became the Apostle Paul, may have had the most dramatic detour recorded. From hunting down and wanting to kill followers of Jesus, he became the greatest missionary ever, planting churches all over the known world. Only in heaven will we know how many people came to be followers of Jesus because of Paul’s ministry. This was certainly not his original life’s ambition. Yet you and I have heard the gospel because of Paul’s dramatic detour.

4. Your detour may be for the blessing of others. Consider Abram. He was a herder of livestock. God told him to leave home and set out for a place that God would show him. Not only would God bless Abram, “all the peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Gen. 12:3). Abram’s detour resulted in all the nations of the earth being blessed.
So, don’t get in a hurry to get back to your original route. Allow what seems like a detour to be the new route of obedience for your life.

Van Kicklighter is IBSA’s associate executive director for the Church Planting Team.

The Briefing

Ken Hemphill to be SBC president nominee
Ken Hemphill, an administrator at North Greenville University and a former Southern Baptist Convention seminary president, will be nominated for SBC president, a coalition of Southern Baptists announced. Hemphill was president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary from 1994-2003 and national strategist from 2003-11 for the SBC’s Empowering Kingdom Growth (EKG) emphasis, an initiative launched in 2002 calling Southern Baptists to renewed passion for God’s Kingdom.

More ‘nones’ heading back to church
About 6 in 10 people who identify their religion as “nothing in particular” stayed that way over the years, while the rest made a switch. About half of the defectors moved away from traditional faith to atheism and agnosticism (20%), while almost as many moved in the other direction and returned to the church (17.3%). Of the 2010 nones, 13.3 percent became Protestant, and 4 percent became Catholic.

After ’08 tornado, Union “united as never before”
At the 10-year point since a tornado devastated the campus, Union University marked the anniversary with a day of activities Feb. 2 featuring former administrators, students and others closely involved with the event. Former Union President David S. Dockery, in a Founders’ Day chapel address, spoke on providence, hope and unity the university experienced from the Feb. 5, 2008, tornado.

Ontario deals blow to religious freedom
Physicians in Ontario who object to performing abortions or euthanasia on moral or religious grounds must refer patients who request those procedures to another willing doctor, the Ontario Superior Court ruled. A group of Christian doctors and professional organizations said the policy infringes on rights to freedom of religion and conscience guaranteed under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The Ontario Superior Court justices said, while the policy does violate physicians’ rights to religious freedom, such limits are justified when weighed in balance with the need to ensure access to care for vulnerable patients.

Plan hatched to save Zimbabwe seminary
A Southern Baptist missionary from Kentucky is hatching a plan to help pastors in Zimbabwe get the training they need to lead a new generation of Christians. Nick Moore, who serves as a professor at the Baptist Theological Seminary of Zimbabwe, said few pastors can afford to attend Bible classes. But with help through the Cooperative Program, and a few local laborers, Moore has started building chicken houses as part of a community development project.

US Judge blocks deportation of Indonesian Christians
A federal judge blocked the deportation of 50 Indonesian Christians who have been living illegally in New Hampshire. The group includes people who fled violence in their country two decades ago and had been living openly for years under an informal deal with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Judge Patti Saris in Boston ruled ICE cannot move forward with deportation until the Indonesians have a chance to make their cases for legal residence by arguing they would face persecution or violence if sent back.

Sources: Time Magazine, Christianity Today, BP News (3), The Christian Post

Summit gathers 1,000 church leaders for learning, encouragement, and reminder of shared mission

MLS main session

Springfield | Ministry in the Midwest has ups and downs, successes and struggles. The work of advancing the gospel in a diverse, large region requires creativity, perseverance, and a willingness to sacrifice personal preference.

With their common calling in mind, more than 1,000 leaders from 13 Midwest states gathered in Springfield Jan. 23-25 at the Midwest Leadership Summit, a meeting organized every three years by Southern Baptist state conventions in the region.

“We share the same love for our communities and vision to see people come to Christ,” said Tim Burgess, a pastor in Mt. Vernon, Mo., “and getting together is a great reminder that we are not working at this alone.”

The large-group sessions and more than 90 breakouts tackled specific ministries—college campuses, church planting, missions, women, youth, and Disaster Relief, to name a few. Underlying each session was the need to advance the gospel in a culture that’s moving farther away from biblical truth. In our culture of change, one thing has stayed the same, said Detroit’s Darryl Gaddy.

“You look around and notice that nothing stays the same,” said the urban church planting specialist in his keynote address to open the Summit. “Nothing is as it was ten, five, or even two years ago.

“But actually there is one thing that does stay the same. Sin. Oh, the consistency of brokenness. It never takes a vacation. But friends, we are the church. And we, like Peter who raised the lame man up in the name of Jesus Christ, are called to speak into the brokenness.”

Gaddy urged Midwest leaders to be “agents of change” in their communities, which will require obedience when it’s not convenient, becoming less so others can become more, and giving up their rights to someone else—Jesus.

“We have received information for our heads, inspiration for our hearts, and implementation for our hands,” Gaddy said. “Let’s not leave here the same way we came.”

God at work
Like the Midwest itself, leaders in Springfield for the Summit represented a wide variety of contexts, including places where new churches are making inroads into previously unreached communities. North American Mission Board President Kevin Ezell facilitated a discussion with four planters who took to the main stage to talk about strategy, cooperation, and the power of prayer.

“There is a quote that I always go to when I think about our church,” said David Choi, pastor of Church of the Beloved in Chicago. “When men work, they work. But when men pray, God works. The great church planter is the Lord. Recruit prayer warriors to lift up your ministry because that’s truly the secret sauce.”

In a few years, Choi’s church has grown from one—himself—to encompass hundreds meeting for worship every weekend. He credited God for the growth, and the prayers of people who live far from his city but have made it a point to lift up Church of the Beloved.

Ezell also introduced Paul Sabino, pastor of Candeo Church on the campus of the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls. Sabino is part of The Salt Network, a family of next-generation churches working together to plant churches in major university cities.

“We are seeing the power of God on us and it’s like holding a Dixie cup; it’s overflowing and we can’t contain it,” Sabino said. “Jesus said he would make us fishers of men. The fish are on college campuses and they are hungry. They are crying out for the living God to impact their lives.”

The focus on church planting was encouraging for Christine Watkins, who came to the Summit as a member of Jachin Baptist Church, a 10-month-old church plant in Flint, Mich. Her husband, Derrick, is pastor of the church named for a word found in 1 Kings 7:21. Jachin means “the Lord will establish,” Watkins said.

“I think attending this summit and hearing all the great knowledge and stories of how God has blessed young church plants is part of how God is opening doors and giving direction in how he is going to establish our church.”

‘Pray bigger prayers’
Jeff Iorg, President of Gateway Seminary in Ontario, Ca., understands what it means to advance the gospel in difficult environments.

“Much of what you are experiencing now in the Midwest we experienced 30 years ago in California,” he said during the Summit’s final session. “It seems like an impossible task with formidable obstacles…Yet, I’m here to tell you the gospel is advancing on the West Coast, and healthy churches are growing with denominational influence and cooperation.”

Iorg said the reason for the gospel’s advancement, especially in a hostile cultural environment, can be found in John 14.

“Jesus said in verse 12, ‘I assure you: The one who believes in me will also do the works that I do. And he will do even greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.’

“‘And he will do even greater works than these’—that is quite a sober declaration of Scripture,” Iorg said. “Do you believe the word of God? Do you believe Jesus meant what he said?”

Iorg encouraged leaders to pray and ask God for what is worthy to be asked for in Jesus’ name and to surrender control to the Holy Spirit.

“Confess your powerlessness and ask the Holy Spirit for the filling, guiding, and directing,” he said. “So often, we start to rely on our own strategic plans. That’s not going to work. We must depend on the filling of the Holy Spirit to get the mission done.”

The last step to advancing the gospel in this cultural environment is to teach people to read, understand, and obey the Bible. Iorg said the only time he has seen people transformed is when they engage God’s Word.

“No games, no gimmicks,” Iorg said. “Pray bigger prayers in the name of Jesus. Work in the Holy Spirit’s power and trust him to do supernatural things in you. And find a way to teach people to internalize the Word of God. That’s it. Now let’s go home and do it.”

Kayla Rinker is a freelance writer living in Missouri.