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Tour of northern Illinois reveals plentiful harvest, few laborers

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (BP)–“There is a great harvest to be taken in the state called the Prairie State,” according to Illinois Baptist leader Bob Wiley.
Wiley, executive director of the state convention, came to this conclusion after a recent tour of northern Illinois and Chicago. Noting in Matthew 9:35 Jesus traveled throughout the cities and villages of his home region, Wiley said he made his tour with the conviction that he needed to better understand the people among whom he ministered.
“I needed to understand Illinois Baptists. I needed to be able to get a grasp, a personal understanding of that state,” he explained. “I needed to see and to touch. I wanted to do as Jesus had — make a circuit of the towns and the villages, and see and hear and touch along the way.”
Wiley described his experience April 14 at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Mo. Before coming to Illinois in the fall of 1996, Wiley served 16 years with the former Home Mission Board, now North American Mission Board, including 10 years as director of the associational missions division.
Beginning last October, Wiley traveled through 52 counties in northern Illinois, taking various staff members with him. In each county seat town, he went to the courthouse and with a knee on the ground prayed for both existing Christian workers and for new works to be begun by Southern Baptists.
“We would make this statement,” said Wiley of those stops. “‘In the name of Jesus, we claim this county for the kingdom of God.’ Now that’s an audacious statement, just to make it. And after you’ve done that three or four times, something begins to set in on top of you, and you realize that you’re not just praying a prayer, you’ve made a commitment. You’ve made a body and soul commitment.”
In the areas Wiley visited, he found rapid population growth but little or no evangelical presence. The youngest congregations present, he noted, were in many cases those of Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses.
“Illinois is a state with 8 million unchurched people — all kinds, all places — and the challenge is before us,” Wiley declared. “We know that there is the need in Illinois to preach the gospel, where there is that personal relationship with Christ, built upon the authority of God’s Word as essential to living our lives. We know that what is so overpowering is, in the midst of a growing population, not many churches of any kind are responding to the new growth around them.”
Wiley’s trip also took him through the back streets of Chicago, where he saw the need for an evangelical voice both in the impoverished inner city and in the affluent suburbs. He was disturbed as he saw Ba’hai and Muslim temples, but something else gripped him even more.
“I believe that one of the most challenging sights for me was to drive by thriving churches, knowing that just a few years ago those were Southern Baptist churches who failed in their lifetime to reach the local community with the gospel,” Wiley related. “They closed their doors and sold their property, because they had been ineffective in reaching their community.”
Equally sobering for Wiley was a review of the statistics for Baptist work in northern Illinois, which has just over 300 Southern Baptist churches at present.
“I walked away understanding that most of the churches in northern Illinois had been started 25 years earlier,” Wiley said of the figures. “That means, if you calculate with me, that there is a generation that went through our hands, through our fingers, in Illinois, because we failed to reach them with the gospel. We failed to continue to plant churches. If it were not for the African American churches in Illinois, we would not be baptizing enough people to keep our doors open 15 years from now.”
On the basis of this experience, Wiley has been moved to sound the call made by Jesus to pray for laborers for the harvest field.
“There is a field white unto the harvest,” Wiley said. “Jesus told us and pointed us to the very clear issue which we are facing. He said pray for harvest hands. It is a leadership issue. It is a worker issue.
“If we wanted to start a hundred churches today in Illinois, we do not have the leadership base to do it,” Wiley continued. “We have got to pray that God will not only raise up churches that will be church-starting, self-reproducing churches, but we must pray that the Lord will raise up workers that will go and be equipped, that we can indeed start the churches that can carry the message to the lost people across Illinois.”

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  • Clinton Wolf