SALT LAKE CITY – One of the biggest challenges facing Southern Baptists outside the South has been reaching both major urban centers and those in rural towns that are separated, oftentimes, by hundreds of miles.
“Utah and Idaho are the top two fastest growing states by percentage the last decade in the United States,” said Rob Lee, executive director of the Utah-Idaho Southern Baptist Convention. “Our region stretches from the Canadian border on the north to Arizona on the south. Our churches and communities are spread out from the Mountains to the desert. One of our churches is three hours from the nearest Walmart.”
The Kansas-Nebraska Convention of Southern Baptists (KNCSB) faces similar challenges in the Midwest.
“We have entire counties in Kansas-Nebraska, up to 30 in each state, that have no evangelical work at all,” said David Manner, executive director of the KNCSB. “So, the challenge is how do we plant churches in those areas?”
Over the course of the spring of 2021, the North American Mission Board (NAMB) has been hosting strategic meetings, called Send Network Summits, with Southern Baptist state conventions outside the South along with other associational leaders and pastors from their regions to better plan and organize church planting in those regions.
“We set out to gather with our partners to communicate and collaborate in order to create a more unified vision and a cooperative strategy for reaching those non-South states and regions with the gospel,” said NAMB President Kevin Ezell. “Another key aspect of those meetings was celebrating all that God has done in recent years.”
For Lee, part of that celebration was that nearly 40 percent of churches in Utah and Idaho have been planted since 2012.
“We currently have 185 churches, missions and church plants with 70 of those being new church plants that have started in just the last eight years,” Lee said.
Manner stated that the KNCSB’s relationship with NAMB has been strong in recent years, but that the Send Network Summit greatly enhanced communication as he has sought to be more intentional with the KNCSB’s partnerships with churches, associations and Southern Baptist entities like NAMB.
“I think when you don’t talk, then it could feel competitive, but when you do talk, you’re no longer guarded or territorial,” Manner said. “You realize that we are all in this together and realize that you all have something to bring to the conversation.”
Lee also noted how important collaboration and partnership – from the church, to the state convention and the national level – are to Southern Baptist ministry and outreach.
“This network, made up of NAMB missionaries and state convention leaders, leads to a field-based strategy that knows current needs and opportunities, so they are able to communicate real-time when opportunities present themselves,” Lee said. “This results in NAMB and the state convention not duplicating efforts but strategically knowing funding needs that we can partner together to meet.”
Manner, who became executive director in March after serving 20 years at the KNCSB in various roles, pointed to one key strategic insight that came out of the meeting: their success in college campus ministry should create opportunities for church planting.
“We may have 500 students who come to a worship gathering each week at Kansas State University,” Manner said. “So, we asked, ‘Why wouldn’t we tap into those relationships for future church planting?’ That’s one thing that we tapped into that was encouraging.”
Steve Pierson, a pastor and church planter who has lived in Utah for 15 years, participated in the Utah-Idaho Send Network Summit and provided insight as a church planter who recently launched a church.
Pierson planted Redemption Hill Church in 2017 in Saratoga Springs, Utah, a suburb of Salt Lake City. Already, they have planted two churches, one in Salt Lake City and another in Colorado, with plans to launch a third church in 2021.
“Keep doing them,” Pierson said of the Send Network Summit. “I would say that those meetings are vital to, not to church growth, but to the unity that is absolutely necessary if we want to expand the kingdom. They’re just absolutely necessary.”
With 5 million people calling the Utah-Idaho region home, Lee said the UISBC’s priorities are sharing Christ as well as starting and strengthening churches. The growth in the two states requires them to start more churches to the meet the spiritual needs of a region that is between 98 and 90 percent unreached.
“We believe [the UISBC-NAMB partnership] will continue to contribute to more healthier churches being planted each year that are supported locally, regionally and nationally,” Lee said. “This process has increased the survivability of our plants and integrates them into the life and ministry of our state convention.”
The Send Network Summits in Topeka, Kan., and Salt Lake City took place in March and were the first in a series of 24 meetings between NAMB and either Southern Baptist state conventions or other Southern Baptist regional leadership outside the South that were scheduled to take place before this year’s SBC Annual Meeting.