NEW ORLEANS (BP) – North American Mission Board (NAMB) president Kevin Ezell and national director of pastoral leadership, Ken Whitten, opened this year’s sold-out Send Luncheon with a by thanking pastors.
“Thank you for how you give to the Cooperative Program. Thank you for how you give to Annie Armstrong and thank you for how you give to the Lottie Moon (Christmas Offering),” Ezell said as pastors ate boxed meals on their lunch break during the 2023 Pastors Conference preceding the Southern Baptist Convention’s Annual Meeting. “Because of your sacrificial giving and your leadership in your churches, we’re able to do what Southern Baptists do best, and that’s missions. So, thank you.”
Ezell then introduced Dustin Tavella, a past winner of America’s Got Talent, who entertained the audience with illusions. Tavella spent six years performing in prisons and addiction centers throughout the infamous Skid Row in Los Angeles, using his act to bridge divides and connect people who otherwise may never have had reason to interact.
Tavella briefly shared about his time engaging students in missions and described the importance of listening to the needs of the next generation and meeting them there.
Ezell commented on Tavella’s testimony and then welcomed a collegiate panel to the stage.
“We’re going to the college campuses. Since 2010, there’ve been churches planted on over 130 college campuses. That’s the good thing,” Ezell said. “The challenging part. There are 21 million college students through the course of 4,000 campuses. That’s why we must go. We’ve got a start, but we must go.”
During a brief panel, Ezell and Send Network president Vance Pitman interviewed Dean Inserra, pastor of City Church in Tallahassee, Fla., and Rob Warren, pastor of Doxa Church in Madison, Wisc., to talk about the importance of reaching the next generation while they are in college.
“Reaching college students and doing college ministry is not going to be super helpful to building your budget, but it’s going to be helpful for building the kingdom,” said Warren. “Students are natural goers so the most strategic thing we can do is to have these interactions with them on college campuses because they’re all going somewhere.”
“Know that you don’t have to reinvent yourself as a person. They see right through that,” Inserra said of trying to engage and reach college students. “Don’t think you have to pretend you’re younger, become cooler, whatever that means, but they are hungry, and they don’t realize what they’re longing for is the Word of God and life with the Lord.”
After the discussion on collegiate ministry, Steve Horn, executive director of Louisiana Baptists, joined Ezell on stage to introduce attendees to Bruce Watson, pastor of First Baptist Church Jeanerette, and his wife Danielle.
“I just sort of get exhausted thinking about what Bruce and Danielle do on any given day because of the load that is on them,” Horn said.
Bruce Watson is a bivocational pastor who has several jobs, including beekeeping and teaching at a school for students with severe dyslexia. He’s also currently enrolled in the Master of Divinity program at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.
In 2016, Watson’s sister-in-law, Amy, had an unexpected heart attack, and Watson and a team of medics performed CPR for 20 minutes to help save her life. Tragically, the heart attack resulted in a serious brain injury, so Watson and Danielle have been caring for three of her children, as well as their own four children.
Then last year, one of Amy’s children, Chris, passed away due to complications from his disability. One of the remaining children is wheelchair bound, though the family did not have a handicap accessible van to transport her — until today.
Ezell surprised the Watsons by letting them know that NAMB was presenting them with a van specially designed for their needs. Payment for the van came from non-offering dollars.
“You’re around people who love and appreciate what you do,” Ezell said to Watson.
Ezell also recognized the Sodexo service members serving the lunch and encouraged Southern Baptists to be kind and generous to the service staff in New Orleans.
At the end of the program, Ezell stepped out into the audience to speak with Trina Brown, a Sodexo staffer who was there representing her team. Ezell noted that Brown had survived a double mastectomy from breast cancer and many family challenges. Yet every day, she would come to work with a smile on her face and a positive outlook on life. To recognize her service, Ezell gifted her with a year’s worth of rent to help her get through a challenging season.
In concluding the event, Ezell addressed pastors directly.
“Pastors, thank you for what you do and what you do when no one else sees you,” Ezell said. “Thank you for how you love your people. Thank you for how you preach the Word of God and how you’re faithful. My prayer is the next few days will just be a celebration of our unity in what we do together. So, thank you and may you have a blessed rest of the SBC.”