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Expect the unexpected

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the fifth in a series of five columns about the National Evangelism Initiative, called God’s Plan for Sharing (GPS).

ALPHARETTA, Ga. (BP)–The 2008 British Open was like heaven for golf fans as they watched the unexpected: 53-year-old Greg Norman led at Royal Birkdale going into the final round. For awhile, the “Great White Shark” was the oldest leader of a major championship in the history of professional golf. Though Norman did not win, he delighted golf fans and provided a great and unexpected story.

Sadly, it’s become unexpected for Southern Baptist churches to hold four-day revival services or “harvest events” these days. Holding a four-day event resulting in 252 decisions for Christ is practically unheard of. But that’s exactly what happened recently at Birchman Baptist Church, pastored by Bob Pearle, in Fort Worth, Texas.

The 252 decisions included one man in his 80s, as well as three entire families -– the parents and their children -– according to Pearle, pastor at Birchman for more than 10 years and current president of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention.

“We give the glory to God,” Pearle said. “It was hard work, but we have to remember we have the responsibility to share the Gospel and to be the salt and light.”

For the past 15 years, pastors have been hearing from almost every corner that “Harvest events or revivals are a thing of the past.” Pearle and his staff refused to accept this conventional wisdom.

“When people say revivals don’t work anymore, there seem to be other underlying, unspoken aspects,” Pearle said. “Revivals do work, it just takes hard work. It takes someone who has a heart to reach people in the community. It takes a lot of planning.

“We had to shift our priorities,” he said, referring to himself and his church staff of six. “I just came to the conclusion that we’re going to do this and not worry about the size of the crowd — just focus on reaching out to people. That freed me. The size of the crowd is constantly on a pastor’s mind. Say you ordinarily have 500 in church and your meeting only draws 200. Well, that’s a real downer.”

Attendance for the event at Birchman Baptist was anything but a downer. Each of the Sunday services drew an estimated 1,000, and the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday crowds attracted some 800 each night.

Under Pearle’s leadership, Birchman kicked off 2008 with special prayer for spiritual awakening. An intense, day-long Sunday seminar on spiritual awakening followed in late January, taking up a Sunday morning, afternoon and Sunday evening services.

Pearle then followed up by launching what he called “Operation Andrew” and preaching a sermon on the topic. “We named the project after Andrew because every time Andrew was mentioned in the New Testament, he was busy bringing someone to Christ.”

Under Operation Andrew, each Birchman church member was given cards with blanks for five names. They were encouraged to write down the names of five people — people they knew were unchurched or not Christian. Members were encouraged to cultivate intentional relationships with the people they listed.

“Then Sunday after Sunday through the first months of 2008, we encouraged members to start praying for them specifically during our services. We encouraged folks not just to pray for God to bring revival, but to pray for their specific people,” Pearle said.

Simultaneously, Pearle and his staff brought in their own “coach” to re-energize them and remind them on some of the finer points of personal evangelism, such as always including the plan of salvation each week in Sunday School, and the effective use of witnessing booklets and when and where to use them. At the same time, some 100 Birchman Baptist members — young, older, Anglo and Spanish-speaking — were trained as counselors.

By the time the harvest event — themed “Timeless Truths for Today” — rolled around in April, three months of intensive, heavy-duty planning had been completed. The fliers had been distributed. Publicity was generated. It was “show-time” for Birchman Baptist Church.

Each night of the harvest event targeted one or more different groups. On Sunday night, for instance, there was a seminar on parenting. A student rally also was planned for Sunday night, when an NFL star spoke. The former player also visited area high school assemblies on Monday. A well-known children’s communicator and ventriloquist shared with kids. Birchman Baptist provided meals every evening of the four-day session.

After the four-day event ended, Pearle said the church followed up on every decision and started baptizing new believers the following Sunday night. “It took over an hour to baptize the first group that Sunday night,” Pearle said. “We baptized entire families, fathers and sons together, you name it.”

Citing Ephesians 4:11, Pearle also believes in bringing in an outside, full-time vocational evangelist for harvest events. “Evangelists are one of God’s gifts to the church, just like a pastor is. There is a time and place to use evangelists. More churches need to use them.”

While Greg Norman’s performance at the British Open was totally unexpected, the Birchman Baptist Church experience was not. In fact, they experienced a move of God because they followed the Biblical pattern in Acts 1 and 2. The event concept in Acts 1 and 2 follow an “A-B-C” pattern:

–- “A” is for attraction. The disciples went out sharing their Jesus stories in languages they didn’t know. Just imagine 120 Galileans speaking the languages of the world –- the event captured the attention of the city. They wanted to know what was going on.

–- “B” is for bridges. The vertical bridge is the great prayer movement of the early church (see Acts 1:14), while the horizontal bridge is people reaching people. The 120 in the upper room went out into the city sharing Christ until they sowed down Jerusalem with the Gospel. The process is simple –- people reach people.

–- “C” is for clearly communicating the Gospel. Peter was prepared and able and he spoke with power because 3,000 said yes.

Dr. Pearle and his staff followed this biblical model. They provided attractions that met the needs of their culture -– a timely session on parenting, an NFL personality for students, a special communicator to children, good food, etc. They built bridges vertically through prayer, and horizontally through Operation Andrew and counselor training. Finally, they invited someone with the gift of the evangelist to call for a commitment to Christ.

To other SBC churches considering harvest events, Pearle would simply say: “I would go at it with all your heart. Pull out all the stops. Put separate emphasis on students, children and adults. Plan months before and undergird your plans with consistent, persistent prayer. That’s the key. Do everything you can.”

As Southern Baptists work together through the National Evangelism Initiative to get the Gospel to every person in North America by 2020, we must include effective harvest events like that of Birchman Baptist Church.

We need to follow the biblical model of plowing the soil of our communities through prayer, planting the seeds of the Gospel through personal evangelism and providing attractions where the Gospel is presented clearly. And, a compelling invitation should always be given.

Then and only then — just like Acts 2 when Peter extended the invitation and just like Birchman this spring — can we expect the harvest!
Jerry Pipes is team leader of the Prayer and Spiritual Awakening Team at the North American Mission Board. For more information on the God’s Plan for Sharing initiative, visit www.nei2020.org.

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  • Jerry Pipes