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October 1 marks start of ‘Everyone Can’ challenge for 1 million baptisms in a year

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–The time has come. For more than a year, Southern Baptist Convention President Bobby Welch has been traveling the country, spreading the word about a convention-wide emphasis on witnessing to, winning and baptizing 1 million people in one year.

The “‘Everyone Can’ Kingdom Challenge!” for evangelism was officially launched at the SBC annual meeting in Nashville, Tenn., in June, and in July, Welch issued a call for all 1,183 Baptist associations across the nation to hold two “associational baptism rallies” between Oct. 1 of this year and Sept. 30, 2006.

Baptism rallies, Welch said, should be a joint effort among all the churches of an association. They should choose a neutral outdoor site at which to hold the rally, he said, and ideally, each participating pastor should bring at least one person to be baptized into his church fellowship at the rally. Times of testimonies, singing and preaching could accompany the baptisms, according to the desires of each association.

Welch, pastor of First Baptist Church in Daytona Beach, Fla., has been a member of the Halifax Baptist Association there for 31 years and will lead a baptism rally on the beach this weekend to kick off the year of 1 million baptisms.

“Not only is it believed that associational baptism rallies will encourage baptism but it will also be an effort that will draw pastors and people together for a unity of purpose that carries out the Great Commission,” Welch said.

Last fall, Southern Baptists were introduced to Welch’s passion for reviving a baptism emphasis when he embarked on a bus tour across the nation as well as visiting Canada, Hawaii and Alaska, all in 25 travel days, stopping at Baptist churches along the way to encourage them to be part of winning a lost world to Christ. Everywhere he set foot, Welch made a point to share the Gospel with at least one person in order to lead by example.”

And at the convention in Nashville, Welch drew attention to the ordinance of baptism by calling on local pastors to baptize people into their congregations throughout the two-day meeting. Two new believers, a Christian recording artist and a soldier who served in Iraq were among eight people baptized at the convention.

Denise Lingefelt, a former drug addict and prostitute, was one of the eight. Lingefelt, who grew up in 17 foster homes, five group homes and eight orphanages, had once worked temporarily in the Gaylord Entertainment Center, site of this year’s annual meeting.

“I used to clean this place. Now, I am getting cleaned up in this place,” she marveled.

Pointing to the white baptismal robe she was wearing, she tearfully added, “I’m finally going to get rid of all the dark that has been in me, and I’ll be white like this.”

As their name alludes, Southern Baptists believe baptism is an important component of the Christian life. Their faith statement, the Baptist Faith and Message, has this to say on the subject:

“Christian baptism is the immersion of a believer in water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It is an act of obedience symbolizing the believer’s faith in a crucified, buried, and risen Saviour, the believer’s death to sin, the burial of the old life, and the resurrection to walk in newness of life in Christ Jesus. It is a testimony to his faith in the final resurrection of the dead. Being a church ordinance, it is prerequisite to the privileges of church membership and to the Lord’s Supper.”

“For Baptists, baptism is an important symbol of salvation,” noted Tal Davis, the North American Mission Board’s interfaith evangelism manager. “So this year, the Southern Baptist Convention included several baptism ceremonies [at the convention] under the auspices of the local churches to demonstrate the importance we place on this ordinance.”

Each of the pastors performing the baptisms readily acknowledged that baptism is not the salvation act, but rather an external indication of what has already been accomplished internally in each believer.

Across the convention, pastors are hard at work leading new believers through the waters of baptism. For instance, in Asheville, N.C., pastor James Walker of Biltmore Baptist Church has held an outdoor baptism celebration for the past three years. In 2003, 96 people were baptized. Last year, the number grew to 164, and this year another 142 were baptized in what has become a much-anticipated annual event for the growing congregation.

“Baptism is not just a Baptist thing,” Walker said. “It is a command the Lord gives. These waters do not wash away our sins. If it did, we’d kill the fish. It is an outward sign of inward change.”

Walker said he believes Welch’s challenge for churches to hold similar events to reach the goal of 1 million baptisms will capture the hearts of many.

“It excites people. It renews their commitment to evangelism” to see such a bold public expression of faith,” Walker said. “It’s a testimony to the community, drawing attention to the Gospel. It rouses curiosity.”

And in Gallatin, Tenn., College Heights Baptist Church is experiencing revival as many are coming to faith in Christ and the baptism waters are stirred on a regular basis. Although more than 10,000 Southern Baptist churches didn’t baptize a single person last year, College Heights baptized 29 people on a Sunday evening this past August.

New believers, pastor Jeff LaBorg said, are the fruit of soul-winning by church members who “love the Word of God and have been taught by exposition and example from their leaders that soul-winning is a requirement and not an elective.”

Christians should not be under the impression that sharing the Gospel with someone is a burden, he said, because nothing compares to the experience of leading someone to Christ.

“When I look into their eyes and see a peace that words cannot explain -– where only a short time before there was fear and confusion –- I am filled with the awe of God’s miracle of regeneration,” LaBorg said.

First Baptist Church in Horn Lake, Miss., baptized 36 new believers on Sept. 25. Those baptized were just a few from the 423 professions of faith the church saw as a result of three nights of the drama presentation, “Heaven’s Gates and Hell’s Flames.”

“This is just a movement of God,” pastor Joe Turner said. “Jesus said in John 12:32, ‘If I be lifted up, I’ll draw all men unto me,’ and what we’ve been doing is lifting up Jesus. That’s what’s doing it.”

The drama, presented by Reality Outreach Ministries, ran Sunday through Wednesday, Sept. 18-21, and was packed every night. It was so successful that the church extended it for another three nights the following week.

In addition to the 423 professions of faith, 171 people rededicated their lives to Christ during the services.

“We prayed before the drama came for a transformation, where pastor, staff, church would never be the same again,” Turner said. “And that’s what we got. People are just excited about what God’s doing and that he’s chosen to work here.”

Along with the associational baptism rallies, Welch has suggested three dates on which churches nationwide might want to emphasize baptism as a show of unity in the cause. The first date is Nov. 27, the second is Easter Sunday next year, and the third is the following Sept. 30, which will mark the end of the year of 1 million baptisms.

Welch is urging churches to report their baptism numbers on a weekly, biweely or monthly basis by calling 1-877-289-3590. Each caller will be required to present the church’s SBC identification number.
For more information, visit www.everyonecan.net.

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