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New vision for evangelists’ conference aims at integrity, viable crusade efforts

JACKSON, Tenn. (BP)–Jerry Drace has a little game he plays with strangers on airplanes. “I ask people what they do for a living, and invariably they ask me what I do. When I say I’m an evangelist, some of them go to the lavatory and never come back!” For Drace, the game stems from a serious concern that the image of the evangelist in America isn’t what it should be.
“We’re seen as screamers, shouters and Bible thumpers who give 30-minute invitations. TV evangelists fall under financial and immorality problems, and people develop false impressions of evangelists. The unsavory image often extends to men and women involved in music and drama evangelism, too,” said the founder of the Jerry Drace Evangelistic Association in Jackson, Tenn.
As the new president of the Conference of Southern Baptist Evangelists (COSBE), Drace has set out to change such images because, sadly, the mistrust runs deep in COSBE members’ own denomination. Of the 40,000-plus churches in the Southern Baptist Convention, only 7,000 utilized evangelists in 1997, Drace said.
His own experience during 23 years of ministry confirms the statistics. “When I go to a church, sometimes they haven’t had an evangelist in 15 years or they only use fellow pastors who they can trust,” Drace said. “Usually, they’ve had a bad experience with an evangelist fleecing the people, telling sob stories, taking church rolls and putting everyone on mailing lists.”
But trouble can run both ways, Drace said. Many evangelists have been burned by churches, too. One church in which Drace ministered collected a love offering for him and the team but kept most of it for themselves. “I didn’t find out until I got home and I couldn’t believe it,” he said.
Through a new vision for COSBE aimed at building a positive image of its members, Drace hopes a new bond of trust will form between SBC churches and evangelists.
COSBE’s purpose is to provide support, fellowship and education for Southern Baptist evangelists, but now Drace and other officers also are transforming the organization into a vehicle for change.
And they’re starting with its membership roll.
“To be a member of COSBE now, all you have to do is have your pastor send a letter to the North American Mission Board’s evangelism department stating you are in full-time evangelistic ministry and in good standing at the church. We think there should be more,” Drace said.
A covenant of principles called “Affirmations of Accountability” is being strongly considered for those wishing to be recognized as COSBE members. The statements, all aimed at maintaining accountability, include personal promises to uphold theological doctrines, good finances, healthy family relationships and individual morality. A council of accountability, made up of NAMB executives and, will handle all violations of the standards and serve as an advisory team.
“The image of the evangelist must become synonymous with integrity,” Drace said. “We must develop more positive public exposure for evangelism. It’s going to take work, but it’ll be worth it in the end.”
COSBE vice president Mike Osborne agreed. “It’s a new day for evangelists. For most of our current COSBE members, the covenant is not a departure from anything they’re doing. They have made themselves accountable, but this reaffirms to pastors and laypeople that we want to be a part of what God is doing.
“We want to be people who God can use,” said Osborne, founder of MJO Ministries in Petersburg, Va.
“Most people think evangelists are undisciplined, that they preach the same five sermons all their lives,” Drace said. But, in reality, many full-time evangelists now hold postgraduate and seminary degrees in family ministry, crusade ministry and other specialties. Drace, for example, holds a doctoral degree from California’s Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary. “It’s just one more way to show that the call to be an evangelist is as important and as high and holy as the call to be a pastor or a missionary.”
The seriousness of the calling is something Drace is working to impress on young men and women interested in evangelism ministry. “I always say, ‘Don’t do this unless God calls you, and then, if you do, limit yourself. Don’t try to be all things to all people. Cultivate your family time. Choose when you travel.’ Even Billy Graham has said he wished he had done that when he first started out.”
To bring that message to young ministers and to continue promoting COSBE’s new vision, Drace is working to increase the group’s visibility at the SBC annual meeting and other events, such as pastors’ conferences.
Last June, COSBE co-hosted the first-ever pre-convention Sunday worship service with Southeast Baptist Church in Salt Lake City. More than 3,000 people attended, and plans for the 1999 service in Atlanta are already under way.
Drace hopes a new vision for COSBE will strengthen long-standing Baptist traditions. One of the organization’s goals is to encourage pastors and directors of missions to actively promote revivals and crusades in their associations.
Drace recently mailed letters to all DOMs in the SBC challenging them to organize an area crusade in 1999, 2000 or 2001. “The old-time crusade is still effective, if done properly,” Drace said. “We must commit the time and money necessary to pray for the crusade, rent good facilities and do the proper planning.”
While supporting SBC events and activities, Drace also wants to involve COSBE members in evangelistic ministries outside traditional Southern Baptist life. “I call it coloring outside the lines,” he said.
And he’s already picked up his crayons. Several weeks ago, the first-ever summit meeting with Southern Baptist evangelists, NAMB staff members and Focus on the Family staff took place at Focus’ headquarters in Colorado Springs, Colo. The purpose of the summit was to strengthen the awareness of evangelists and NAMB leaders of vital issues facing the American family.
“We Baptists used to think that if we didn’t do things, they wouldn’t get done, but in reality, God is doing wonderful things all over our world,” Drace said. “We have a new day now when Baptist leaders are no longer afraid to partner with these tremendous ministries.”
Practical administrative goals such as updating the COSBE directory also are on Drace’s agenda. More than 600 evangelists are listed in the directory, but only a third are actually in full-time evangelistic ministry, he said. “Some of the people in that book are dead!” he said.
Establishing an emergency fund, controlled by NAMB, for SBC evangelists who face unexpected financial problems is another priority. Last year, an evangelist and his family lost all their possessions in a house fire, but unlike a pastor who has church members to support him, the evangelist had no one to turn to, Drace recounted.
“SBC evangelists also lack consistent prayer support,” said Ken Hall, who serves as a pastoral adviser for COSBE and is senior pastor at Northside Baptist Church, Valdosta, Ga. In June, he mailed a letter to COSBE members, making himself available to pray with them, counsel with them and help in any way he can. “I have a file two inches thick already,” Hall said.
“The evangelists have written with prayer requests and to say thank you. They say that pastoral advisers really haven’t done this before, and I know my role is limited, but I just want to be there to encourage them,” Hall said.
Every Wednesday, his congregation prays for 12 COSBE members, sends them notes of encouragement and continues to pray for their ministries throughout the week.
Drace also is planning additional support through fellowship and training opportunities for the evangelists. The 1999 National Congress for Southern Baptist Evangelists will be Feb. 1-3 at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and will feature H.B. London, vice president of Focus on the Family; expository preacher Stephen Olford; and Bible teacher John Phillips. Evangelists and their spouses also will be able to attend educational workshops and share in times of prayer and praise during the congress.
Hall said he believes Southern Baptist evangelists and churches are ready for COSBE’s new thrust. “We Baptists tend to hang on to something that worked 20 or 30 years ago and run with it until it totally dies,” Hall said. “The direction and activities of COSBE were effective a number of years back, but now we need a fresh vision. I’m hoping that by trying new things and taking COSBE in a new direction, we will all be revitalized.”

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  • Kelli Williams