LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP) — Helping churches reach the nations with the Gospel — both abroad and in North America — was the focus of Thursday’s (Jan. 16) Southern Baptist convention state partnership directors meeting.

The two-day meeting brought mission partnership leaders from Baptist state conventions in Alabama, the Carolinas, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, New England and Texas.

Doug Williams of the Kentucky Baptist Convention, said he hoped attendees would leave knowing how to “better mobilize churches to partner well with missionaries on the field.”

As a missions partnership strategist, Williams helps churches assess their missions strategies and identify ways to increase effectiveness. When many church leaders think about missions, he said, their first thought is getting on a plane and going to another country. But with more and more foreign-born people living in the United States, going to the nations could be as close as going across the street.

“We want to help our churches understand that when they are working overseas, and even here in North America, that they need to work with missionaries who understand the language and the culture,” Williams said. “We want to encourage churches to work in tandem with the missionary’s strategy and not come in with their own agenda because that can be detrimental in many ways.”

Guest speaker Nik Ripken, a former International Mission Board (IMB) missionary, said the terrible truth is that Muslims overseas have been killed simply for having a Bible in their possession — a Bible given to them by well-meaning Christians. It doesn’t matter if the person cannot read or never became a Christ follower. In China, Ripken said, he knows people who were persecuted because they let a Christian in their home.

While Christian persecution is foundational and a sign that many are coming to Christ, Ripken said, the No. 1 way to hinder persecution — to protect the people Christians are trying to reach — is to learn the language and the culture.

“When you learn the language and culture, go out as a team, do everything that is wise and with cultural understanding, you know what is going to happen? People are going to come to Christ,” Ripken said.

Terry Sharp, convention and network relations leader with the IMB, talked to missions strategists about helping churches “mobilize the nations next door.”

“North America is a different North America than it is was 20 years ago,” Sharp said. “It’s not like it was when your parents were growing up.”

He said while the U.S. has generally been thought of as a “melting pot” of Europeans fleeing famine, oppression and religious persecution hundreds of years ago, today’s immigrants are coming from places some North Americans have never heard of, like Bhutan in South Asia.

In 1965, Sharp said there was a shift from primarily European immigrants entering the U.S. to immigrants from Asian countries, and with them they brought their Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist religions.

“We need to equip churches to not only get on planes and go to the nations,” said Sharp, “but go to the planes that bring the nations here.”

The IMB is seeking to aid in the effort in two ways. One is through a database through which churches can discover communities of immigrants and refugees living nearby. The other is by helping local churches invite missionaries serving overseas to come stateside and participate in immersive cultural conferences.

“The vehicle God has ordained to get the Good News to the nations are the churches. God’s strategy is the local church,” Williams said. “We’re trying to better equip churches to be a part of God’s strategy.”