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The pipeline

nateadamsibsa —  August 10, 2015

Nate_Adams_August10COMMENTARY | Nate Adams

Recently Beth and I had the opportunity to travel to Alaska for our 30th anniversary, and to see for the first time the famous Alaska Pipeline. It is truly a modern marvel, transporting millions of barrels of oil each week over 800 miles from the north slope of Alaska to its northernmost ice-free port in Valdez. Since the pipeline opened in 1977, more than 17 billion barrels of oil have flowed through it, along a route that travels both underground and over the permafrost, in climates that can vary from -80 to +95 degrees Fahrenheit.

The amazing length, cost, and complexity of the pipeline is a testimony to the value of the oil it carries. At $8 billion, it was the largest privately funded construction project ever at the time, and took 70,000 workers and more than three years to build. But it has paid for itself many times over.

Here in Illinois, Baptist churches are working together to build a different kind of pipeline, one designed to carry something of far greater spiritual value than oil. We are seeking to build a leadership pipeline, one that can deliver church planters and tomorrow’s church leaders, both to current churches, and to the under-churched regions of our state.

This summer we laid some major new sections of that pipeline. For the second year, IBSA hosted “ChicaGO Week” at Judson University in Elgin, a mission week experience designed to connect student groups with church planters in Chicagoland. We were delighted to see participation triple over the previous year, as 181 students and leaders from 14 churches invested a week of their lives in numerous neighborhoods where we are seeking to plant new churches.

Earlier in the summer, we laid yet another track of leadership pipeline through IBSA’s Summer Worship University, hosted by Hannibal-LaGrange University. About 130 students and leaders invested a week learning music and worship leadership skills, and then more than 50 of them went on tour to put those skills into practice through the All State Youth Choir.

Super Summer for student leaders at Greenville College, kids camps at Lake Sallateeska and Streator Baptist Camps, and many other leadership development efforts throughout the year are designed to prepare tomorrow’s leaders, and guide them through childhood and adolescence and internships into tomorrow’s—and today’s—church leadership roles. In fact I frequently meet young adults serving in IBSA churches who say they got their start in church leadership through an IBSA leadership development event for students.

A church leadership pipeline is something that we all have to work together to build, in multiple different ways, whether we’re preparing leaders for our own church, or for a sister church somewhere. If we all work at it together, the value of the leaders the pipeline eventually delivers is well worth the cost.

The last day of the ChicaGO Week student camp happened to fall on July 31, which was also my mother’s 85th birthday. So that morning I showed a picture of her to the almost 200 students, interns, youth leaders, and church planting catalysts, and reminded them that missionaries like my mom and dad had invested their lives for decades in the work those young leaders were just now being challenged to continue. I wanted them to see where the leadership pipeline was leading.

After the group joined me in singing “Happy Birthday” on video to my mom, they loaded up in their respective vehicles. But as they drove away, I told myself that they were not just headed home. They are now on a long but important journey, down a pipeline that will one day deliver them to the church of tomorrow, as its leaders.

Nate Adams is executive director of the Illinois Baptist State Association.

HEARTLAND | Nate Adams

Many Illinois Baptists know by now that Melissa Phillips, who was Associate Executive Director of IBSA’s Church Cooperation (Business) Team, went home to be with the Lord on July 2, almost a year after her initial cancer diagnosis.

Melissa was strong and determined, and she managed her initial months of chemo and radiation treatments so amazingly well that we all grew optimistic. And of course we were praying, diligently and daily (often wearing “Team Melissa” buttons). So her rapid health decline in June and then her passing have seemed sudden, especially to those who only saw her occasionally. For those of you just joining us in that grief, I am truly sorry for your loss, too.

Nate_Adams_July20Near the end of the movie, “The Last Samurai,” Tom Cruise’s character, Nathan Algren, travels to Tokyo to present the emperor with the sword of Samurai Lord Katsoumoto, who has just heroically given his life in battle. Somberly, the emperor says to Captain Algren, “Tell me how he died.” And with great respect and tear-filled eyes, Algren instead replies, “I will tell you how he lived.”

So let me write just a few words here about how Melissa Phillips lived. Melissa was one of the most loving, serving, capable professionals I have ever known. She was intelligent, intuitive, poised and articulate. I trusted her completely, and she brought the highest integrity and work ethic to every decision she made and every task she performed. She was often the first person at her desk in the morning, and the last to leave at night.

Melissa was 18 when she started at IBSA. It was just a few days after graduating from high school, and marrying her sweetheart Doug. As I said during her funeral service, in her 35 years at IBSA she not only trained a husband and two daughters, she trained six different executive directors. I am privileged to have been the most recent, and now the last.

Melissa was a reluctant executive, preferring to serve others and work behind the scenes for the good of IBSA, its churches and leaders. Yet she led well, and was strong and decisive when she needed to be, or when I needed her to be. Her moral compass and her wisdom were rooted deeply in her relationship to Jesus Christ and her understanding of God’s Word and his ways.

A few years ago, our son Caleb and Melissa’s daughter Laura got reacquainted at the annual IBSA family picnic. Talking led
to writing, and writing led to visits, and then a courtship led to marriage. So while Melissa has now gone on to be with the Lord, our families continue to be lovingly intertwined. And so in addition to all she gave me personally as a friend and staff member, through God’s providence she and Doug also gave us a daughter, one who seems to me to grow more like her mother every day.

As I watched hundreds of people patiently file through during the funeral visitation, and then pack every square foot of Springfield Southern Baptist Church for Melissa’s home-going service the next day, it became evident to me how many people loved and respected Melissa. The sentiment many expressed could be summed up by the question, “How can we go
on without her?”

This of course is the question Jesus’ disciples were asking themselves after his seemingly sudden death. Yet because Jesus then conquered death, and because he sent his Spirit to be present with us, and help us continue his example and his mission to the world, we find joy and purpose in moving forward, longing eagerly to see him again. How like Melissa to follow Jesus’ example, and leave those of us who loved and depended on her so much with that same wonderful assurance and hope.

Nate Adams is executive director of the Illinois Baptist State Association.

HEARTLAND | Nate Adams

Nate_Adams_June29I am writing this just a day after returning from the 2015 South­ern Baptist Convention in Columbus, and four days before my wife, Beth, and I celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary. So, as unromantic as it may sound, I find myself reflecting today on both the past three days with more than 5,000 other church messengers, and the past 30 years with the one woman God gave me for life.

They’re not entirely dissimilar. To both my wife and to the Southern Baptist Convention, I have made deep commitments that, by God’s grace, are standing the test of time. With both I share impor­tant beliefs and values. And with both I share purpose and direction that allow us to walk together joyfully.

That’s not to say we agree a hundred percent of the time on a hundred percent of the ques­tions or issues we face. There were times this past week in Columbus when I read or heard something and thought to myself, “Why on earth would we want to do that?” or “Don’t you see what needs to be done over here?” or “I’m not sure he’s the best person to entrust with that.”

But the truth is Beth and I have both asked those kinds of questions of one another over the past 30 years too. In fact, a few years ago when James Merritt was President of the SBC, I remember him saying that he and his wife had agreed long ago that he would make all the major decisions in their marriage, and that she could make all the minor decisions. Then he quipped, “And I’m proud to report that in 25 years of marriage we’ve never actually had a major decision.”

There’s quite a thread of truth in that silly exaggeration. When you share a deep commitment to someone over time, you simply don’t allow relatively minor disagreements to threaten either your relationship or the overall pur­pose you’ve embraced, whether it’s raising a healthy family or obeying the Great Commission. You defer to one an­other whenever possible, and you reserve strong words for truly important subjects. Then, most of the time, you move forward by consensus rather than casting ballots, or stones.

That’s why I was able to spend at least as much of my SBC time out in the hall­ways, or exhibit area, or in collaborative meetings, as I did in the voting sessions, most of which went forward smoothly and without dissent. And I noticed I was not alone. As important as the main sessions were to those attending, it was the hall­ways, restaurants, and hotels that were the settings for countless informal reunions and meetings, for prayer, for collaboration, for counseling, or simply for much needed encouragement.

There certainly are occasions during our long commitments over time when we need to gather in big meetings to confront big things. And there are times when we need to come together for celebrations and worship, or for special efforts like the Tuesday night session in Columbus when thou­sands of us gathered to pray for awakening and revival in our land.

But most of our long commitments over time are lived out between big anniversaries and annual sessions. We believe the Bible together, we serve our churches together, we send missionaries and support missions projects together, and we worship together. And so my deep commitment over time to the imperfect yet wonderful Southern Baptist Convention continues.

And as Beth and I continue to make the bed together, raise the kids together, pray together, serve churches together, and face the challenges of life together, my deep commitment over time to her continues as well, now for 30 years and counting. May the Lord bless you as He has me, with a life of deep commitments over time.

Nate Adams is executive director of the Illinois Baptist State Association.

HEARTLAND | Nate Adams

My work has always involved a fair amount of travel. And so early on, I discovered the value of joining various reward programs, where the airline or hotel chain or rental car company gives you a certain number of reward points each time you use their services. Those reward points can then be redeemed for free flights or stays or rentals.

Nate_Adams_June8I know many travelers actually choose the company with which they travel based on the reward points they are seeking to accumulate. That’s exactly the kind of loyalty the company is seeking to achieve with its program.

However, I’ve always felt that I should try to choose the least expensive option, whether using my employer’s travel funds or my own. So over the years, I’ve ended up joining multiple rewards programs, hoping to earn at least a few points, no matter what hotel or airline happens to be least expensive.

I think that’s why a certain television commercial caught my attention a few days ago. It was advertising a new rewards program, one that multiple companies of all different types were cooperating to sponsor. There were nationwide chains of supermarkets, gas stations, retailers, and insurance companies, as well as the option of earning points through online ordering. And not only could you earn points in these multiple ways, you could spend them in multiple places!

Now I’m not mentioning this program to endorse it or encourage anyone to try it. But I have to admit it was very attractive to someone like me, who wants to choose the best option for my employer or me, regardless of which company is providing the service. These individual companies had chosen to work together to provide rewards in ways that were more beneficial to me, their shared customer.

It then occurred to me that this is actually one of the reasons that I find our Southern Baptist Cooperative Program so attractive and compelling. What if individual SBC mission boards or ministries chose to compete with one another for my loyalty and support? What if I had to choose between state missions, North American missions, and international missions?
What if my missions dollar only “earned points” with one “service provider,” to the exclusion of the others?

Part of the genius and effectiveness of Cooperative Program missions is that it allows me to “earn points” in multiple mission fields and ministries, along with every other faithful giver in my church. A portion of each dollar I give through my church is set aside for the larger cause of SBC missions and ministries. And as those points are accumulated with the gifts of other
churches, they grow and can be “redeemed” through multiple service providers, not just one.

How many “points” for missions does your weekly giving through your church earn? If you don’t know, that’s a good question to ask your missions or finance committee, or your pastor. My home church designates 10% of its undesignated offerings for Cooperative Program missions. That means a dime out of every dollar I give each week earns multiple “rewards,” through the International Mission Board, the North American Mission Board, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, our six world-class seminaries, and, of course, right here in Illinois through IBSA.

I really like the title of that rewards program I saw on that TV commercial. They simply call it “Plenti.” The idea, I think, is that there are plenty of points to be earned, and plenty of service providers to provide plenty of benefits to plenty of customers. It’s not competition and scarcity, but rather cooperation and generosity that lead to plenty. It’s a truth that we as God’s people should model, especially through our missions giving. Cooperation is the pathway to plenty.

Nate Adams is executive director of the Illinois Baptist State Association.

HEARTLAND | Nate Adams

Nate_Adams_May15A few years ago I transitioned from a publishing career in the Chicago suburbs to a new role at the North American Mission Board near Atlanta. For our young family, the move required a number of minor adjustments, from snowy winters to no winters, from bluegrass to Bermuda grass, and from bad traffic to worse. Other transitions were far more significant, like the transition from smaller churches to much larger churches, and from the realities of the evangelical Christian publishing world to those of the Southern Baptist denominational world.

In many of those new arenas, I found that I looked at things differently than my new friends and coworkers. I had different life experiences than most of them. As a result, I often found myself expressing a minority opinion.

Of course this may have been partly because I was initially the only non-Southerner on our executive team. After a few months, Randy from New York joined us. It was then that the rest of the guys started affectionately calling both of us the
“NAMB Yankees.”

The nice thing about our new team, though, was that we respected each other enough to patiently listen to one another’s different perspectives. “That’s not how megachurch pastors think,” one of my new colleagues would say, and I would have to admit I didn’t have a lot of experience in that world. But then later I would hear myself saying something like, “That may work in the Bible belt, but it wouldn’t make any sense in Chicago.”

Somehow, in the midst of that verbal sparring, we saw the “wisdom of many counselors” emerge. Our multiple perspectives gave us a more complete view of reality, and of the diversity of the SBC churches we served. As a result, I think we made better decisions, and became better leaders.

It’s the wonderful value and synergy that can come from multiple perspectives that leads me to challenge all of us that possibly can to travel to Columbus, Ohio, for the Southern Baptist Convention next month. The Southern Baptist Convention needs Midwest perspective.

Many of the folks that attend the SBC each year are from the larger and more numerous churches in the South. We need that perspective. Many are there because they serve at a national SBC entity or on an SBC board or committee. We need those perspectives too.

But there is something unique about being Southern Baptists in the North, and in the Midwest, that makes our perspective equally needed, and valuable. Many important insights come from average people, in average churches.

Last January, when we hosted more than a thousand leaders from 10 Baptist state conventions here in Springfield, I heard over and over from national SBC conference leaders how impressed they were with our people. “Your folks are so devoted to ministry, and so eager to learn. We don’t see this kind of enthusiasm and dedication everywhere. We are so encouraged by what we see here in the Midwest.”

I’m encouraged by what I see in the Midwest too, and by our unique perspective on ministry and Great Commission causes. We have a lot to offer to the national SBC dialogue. In fact, I think a stronger Midwest perspective might have led to some different, perhaps better, decisions over the past few years. And with the 2015 SBC in Columbus and the 2016 SBC in St. Louis, we now have two years in a row when our strong participation can be more practical and affordable.

IBSA will be hosting a reception for Illinois Baptists at the Columbus SBC on Tuesday night, June 16, following the evening session. Watch for details on IBSA.org and in the Illinois Baptist newspaper.

I hope to see you there. The Southern Baptist Convention needs our Midwest perspective.

Nate Adams is executive director of the Illinois Baptist State Association.

Friendly mergers

nateadamsibsa —  April 27, 2015

HEARTLAND | Nate Adams

Recently I attended a memorial service in Dupo, Illinois, for Wendell Hooks, who was my grandfather’s cousin. Wendell was 96 when he passed, and was a longtime member and deacon at the First Baptist Church there in Dupo.

Nate_Adams_April27I could certainly write more about Wendell and his life of dedication to his family, his work, his church, and his Lord. But I didn’t know him long. In fact, he was 90 when we first met in person at a Baptist associational meeting, just about the time he was transitioning from his home to an assisted living facility. It was there that we got acquainted over the past few years.

I didn’t have to spend much time with Wendell to realize that we were of the same family. From years of observing my mother and my grandparents, I quickly recognized the Hooks sense of humor and the familiar twinkle in his eye whenever he was
expressing it. I recognized the strong work ethic, the personal disciplines, and the tenacious dedication to both church and pastor. Yes, he was definitely a Hooks.

And he helped me remember that I am a Hooks too. Most people probably think of me as an Adams. I look like my dad, and I’m in a ministry profession like my dad, and I write pieces in this paper, like my dad did.

But cousin Wendell reminded me again how much Hooks is merged in to my Adams. My personality, my drive and discipline, my organizational bent, and yes my sense of humor, are all probably more Hooks than Adams. And I could have just as easily been a Sunday school teacher or deacon as an executive director, because it is really a layperson’s commitment to church and pastor that motivates me, more than a desire for ministry vocation. That’s the Hooks in me.

Chances are you enjoy that same “friendly merger” of family traits in your life. You are a blend, not only of your mom and dad, but also of grandparents and even generations before them. Some of those traits you recognize, and some of them you are still discovering.

I like to think that same sort of positive “blending” is happening in my spiritual life too, and in yours. Each of us is the unique, eternal person that God “knits us together” to be in our mothers’ wombs. But that person is also born in sin and needs redemption. Once I come to know Christ, he doesn’t discard my human identity. He simply redeems it and transforms it. He returns it to his image, to what it was supposed to be.

I love it that the Holy Spirit allowed the writers of the Bible to continue expressing their own unique identities and personalities and styles. Yet they also wrote with a perfect consistency and harmony, demonstrating that their individual voices were each inspired by the Holy Spirit.

During cousin Wendell’s memorial service, I was able to reflect for a few moments on the Adams and Hooks families that have blended into me, and for that matter the Adams and Schultz families that are blending into my children. With each new generation, there is consistency, and yet uniqueness.

And the same is true of my spiritual identity in Christ. I am not a clone of any one person, or even of God. I am a one-of-a-kind blend of both God’s unique workmanship and his redemptive work in Christ. Like David in Psalm 139, I am fearfully and wonderfully made. And so are you.

I’m grateful to cousin Wendell for reminding me that I am a friendly merger of both Adams and Hooks. And we can all be grateful to God, for giving us identities that are unique, and yet that enjoy a friendly merger into His likeness, day by day.

Nate Adams is executive director of the Illinois Baptist State Association.

HEARTLAND | Nate Adams

As Easter approaches each year, I frequently find myself returning to the music of “Jesus Christ Superstar.” Perhaps it’s because I was a teenager in the 1970’s, when Andrew Lloyd Webber’s groundbreaking rock opera was immensely popular. They say the music of our teen years can shape us for the rest of our lives, and certainly hearing these songs again brings back many memories and emotions.

Nate_Adams_April6But really more than the music, it has been Tim Rice’s lyrics that have stuck with me. To this day I can recite most of the words Rice penned over 40 years ago, including the powerful dialogue where Pilate angrily demands of Jesus, “Why do you not speak when I have your life in my hands? Why do you stay quiet? I don’t believe you understand!”

Jesus’ reply in the rock opera, though imaginary, is consistent with the Bible’s message. “You have nothing in your hands,” Jesus meekly replies. “Any power you have comes to you from far beyond. Everything is fixed, and you can’t change it.”

Those simple words powerfully convey the confidence and courage of Jesus as he went to the cross for us, and also the providence and sovereignty of God in securing our salvation. Each time I hear them, they make me want to cheer for God and His great victory on our behalf.

To their credit, Webber and Rice took moments like that from the passion week of Christ and, with some admitted license and imagination, placed them in the contemporary music and language of their day. The result was memorable, and therefore enduring.

And yet, as critics and Christians alike noted even during the height of its popularity, Jesus Christ Superstar has one obvious and major shortcoming. It concludes with the crucifixion.

Apologists for the rock opera observed that the ending was deliberately left to the faith or skepticism of the observer. Even Christians noted with appreciation that it at least served to place the name of Jesus on peoples’ lips, and the story of his life in their minds and hearts, in many cases for the first time.

But there was no resurrection. No Easter. No delivering the good news that death was not the end for Jesus and that it need not be the end for those who believe in him.

Yes, ultimately Jesus Christ Superstar sadly reminds us that it’s possible to stop the story too soon. It’s possible to focus so much on the various overtures to Easter that we don’t truly celebrate the finale.

It happens all around us. Immediately after Valentine’s Day, the candy and toy aisles at every store in town switch their ruby red treats and treasures over to the pastel, Easter versions. Clothing catalogs tell us that we need something new to wear. And florists and garden centers remind us that a properly decorated Easter requires lilies. All these traditions paint the days before Easter with an elaborate pageantry. Then the big day comes, and we are left to wonder whether all the preparation overshadowed Easter itself.

We can even do it in our churches. For weeks we can invest in preparing musicals, programs, decorations, and children’s activities designed to help us celebrate Easter. All these things are good. But they are not the finale. They are not the really big part of the story that must be celebrated and that must be told.

The title song from Jesus Christ Superstar is sung by, of all people, Judas, near the end of the rock opera. In it he asks Jesus, “Who are you? What have you sacrificed?” In our churches and in our conversations with others, we need to make sure to get to the part of the story that answers those questions with truth and faith and confidence. As important as what happened before Easter is, it’s what happens after Easter that makes all the difference.

Nate Adams is executive director of the Illinois Baptist State Association.