KNOXVILLE, Tenn., (BP)–SBC President Bobby Welch was a self-described “Johnny One-note” while on his nationwide “Everyone Can” bus tour last year, preaching but one sermon wherever he went to move Southern Baptists to witness to, win to Christ and baptize 1 million people in the year between the SBC’s 2005 and 2006 annual June meetings.
Welch has relocated temporarily to Nashville – site of this summer’s Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting — expressly to promote the initiative –- the “Everyone Can Kingdom Challenge! Witness, Win, and Baptize … One Million!”
Almost every day, sometimes twice, speaking in churches and other venues throughout middle Tennessee and in neighboring states, Welch may not be using the same sermon he preached on his bus tour, but his central message, sense of urgency and grueling itinerary remain the same.
During the weekend of March 11-13, Welch preached five times in three Knoxville-area churches. By the end of April 2005, he will have preached more than 200 times on behalf of the SBC, not including sermons delivered at First Baptist Church in Daytona Beach, Fla., where he has been the pastor for 30 years.
“A well-meaning layman came up to me recently and suggested I slow down and not push myself so hard. He said I was ‘burning the candle at both ends.’”
After thanking him for his concern, Welch told the man, “I burn the candle at both ends for two reasons: I’ll burn much brighter for Jesus and evangelism, and I’m not into saving candles.”
In addition to preaching about evangelism, Welch is recruiting Southern Baptists to join the SBC’s June 18 Crossover evangelistic thrust.
“You’ll be happy to know that, so far, about 4,000 people have signed up to do event evangelism in Nashville. And another 6,000 have signed up to do door-to-door witnessing. That’s about 10,000 people committed to the June 18 Crossover Nashville effort,” Welch said in every sermon during the weekend in Knoxville.
Ten thousand people hitting the streets for evangelism may be the largest, single evangelistic effort in all of church history, Welch said, though acknowledging he wasn’t absolutely sure of such an assessment.
To date, about 1,800 is the largest number of participants in the annual Crossover effort that precedes each SBC annual meeting.
“Turn to that place in your Bible where the pages are stuck together -– the Book of Jeremiah,” Welch joked with his audience as he moved into his sermon. “The harvest is past, the summer has ended, and we are not saved,” he said, reading from Jerermiah 8.20.
Welch constructed a word picture, saying he sees the tired, sweaty harvesters silhouetted by a setting sun as they walk along a ridgeline. With their beasts of burden loaded and with sheaves on their backs, the harvesters drop out of sight beyond the ridge.
“Wait! Stop! Stop! Stop! Wait! No, no! Don’t go! Come back!” Welch yelled, cupping his hands around his mouth….
“Look, over here! Wait, wait! Don’t go! Don’t go! Look! Over here! Look! Look at all of us! See us over here? You have missed us! Stop! Don’t go! You’ve missed all of us! We are not saved!” Welch cried out.
Breaking a moment of silence, Welch said, “You see, God allows the harvest to have a voice, a cry from all those lost who are left behind -– the lost and the left behind who are longing not to be left behind -– God gives them an emphatic voice.”
Welch then explained he is a thoroughgoing Southern Baptist who likes to see the church full and bustling with activity, but noting, “That’s not what keeps me going. It’s not the crowd inside the church; it’s the crowd outside the church –- those in danger of being left behind — that keeps me going.”
A former Army Ranger, Welch compared the ideal church to the forward operations base of a military endeavor, the place nearest the front lines from which soldiers embark on their missions and then return for re-supply and re-deployment.
“The forward operations base is not designed for people to stay there,” Welch said, adding that for too long Southern Baptists have suffered under the delusion that filling the church with people and activities is the end-game. “But it’s not. We need to be out there, where the lost and longing harvest is.”
Welch said he’s “absolutely overwhelmed by how many church leaders and pastors don’t know the difference between church growth and growing a church. There’s an eternity’s difference between the two.”
Church growth is filling the building, but growing the church is different, Welch continued. “Growing the church is when you fill the people who fill the church, and then send them out there to witness, so they can rob hell and help fill up heaven. That’s growing the church.”
Noting other misconceptions about evangelism, Welch recalled that everywhere he went on his bus tour last year some Southern Baptist would come up to him and whisper, “The people are different here.” But Welch says, “Not so. There are hungry and hurting people everywhere, and I’ve found them to be the same no matter where I’ve been.
“Then there’s the person who’ll tell me that door-to-door evangelism won’t work because they ‘read it in a book by Professor Floppylocks. What do you think about that, Brother Bobby?’ they’ll ask me.
“I’ll tell you what I think about that,” Welch quipped indignantly. “I think you oughta stop reading those dirty books.”
Concerning what he called “facility-based evangelism –- where the prospect has to come to church first,” Welch said, “Pastor, don’t be telling your people that evangelism is bringing lost people to come hear you preach. If you never contact a person evangelistically unless they come to church first, you’ll miss most of the world because most of the world isn’t gonna come.”
Welch begins and ends every sermon almost the same way by repeating an activity he used on the bus tour. He appeals to his listeners to complete and turn in a commitment card focused on the “Everyone Can” goal of baptizing 1 million people.
Describing the end of one Everyone Can rally, Welch recounted, “There he came, an old man, humped over his aluminum walker.” Welch said he thought the man, whose disability forced him to walk ever so slowly, was trying to get a head start on the crowd by making his way to the door early.
“And then I saw it, his commitment card. It was under his hand, wrapped around the top bar of the walker,” Welch continued.
Welch instinctively went toward the man as he was but inching his way up the aisle.
“I half-squatted down so I could look up into his face, and said, ‘Sir, what do you think you can do to reach people out there, especially given the shape you’re in.’ I couldn’t believe I said that, and since my microphone was still on, everyone else heard it.”
The bent old man turned his head sideways, trying to look at Welch, and said, “I don’t know what I can do. But I’ll tell you what I can’t do. I can no longer sit back there while people are going to hell and I know the way to heaven.”
Bobby Welch’s schedule in Knoxville began March 11 at Wallace Memorial Baptist Church and continued March 12 at Grace Baptist Church in nearby Powell for the East Tennessee Bivocational Evangelism Conference; March 13, both morning worship services at Knoxville’s First Baptist Church Concord; and on Sunday night, he returned to Grace Baptist Church as keynote speaker for the opening session of the Tennessee Baptist Evangelism Conference.