NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Evangelicals worldwide may be aware of the Southern Baptist Convention and its ministries to reach the lost for Christ, but Bobby Welch, visit by visit, is helping put a face on those efforts.
“Dr. Welch has said you can’t complete the Great Commission without first building great connections — and he has been doing both,” Morris H. Chapman, president of the SBC Executive Committee, said.
As strategist for Global Evangelical Relations, Welch works at a breakneck pace to meet in person with pastors and other leaders serving in obscure places, encouraging them and helping them connect with others in similar situations.
“This is some of the hardest, most demanding work I’ve ever done in the ministry and some of the most rewarding,” Welch told Baptist Press. “One might get the idea that this is a cushy, global tour of five-star accommodations, but nothing could be further from the fact.
“It is a grinding and demanding pace that exacts a high price in time and energy. Often I am sleeping and eating and working and getting sick in conditions that few would want to be involved in,” Welch added. “But this is when the work takes on the missionary likeness to me, and I’m happy to be in that position. I never complain about it.”
More than a few times Welch has slept in all of the clothes he took with him — coats and socks — and still almost froze, he said. He typically has cold or flu symptoms from November to February because of traveling on airplanes with sick people.
“But the upside is that this sort of driving and demanding schedule is often what is necessary to get the job done and it wins the relationships with many people overseas,” Welch said. “When they see you’re willing and they know the price you have to pay to get to be where they are and meet with them, that really does verify and galvanize the truth of your heart and your spirit and the Southern Baptist Convention.
“They see people who are willing to extend themselves and inconvenience themselves just because we love them and we’re for them and we’re all in this together,” Welch said. “That is a very positive thing. This is all a privilege for me, for the sake of lost souls.”
As Welch travels overseas, his visits take the form of speaking engagements to large crowds and smaller meetings with individuals, such as recently when he discussed religious freedom with a delegation from the Vietnamese government in Hanoi.
“Vietnam has been cited as one of the most egregious offenders of religious liberty and even made the list of ‘countries of particular concern’ compiled by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom for ‘particularly severe’ violations of religious liberty,” Chapman told Baptist Press.
“Yet, Dr. Welch has been permitted to travel in Vietnam twice in the last three months. After being there the first time, he was invited back by the government. Now he has been extended a second invitation from the government and will return as soon as it can be scheduled, hopefully during this year,” Chapman said.
Welch, Chapman said, has played a key role at a strategic time.
“The convention’s withdrawal from the Baptist World Alliance is rapidly evolving into building better relationships with conservative evangelicals throughout the world,” Chapman said. “While Dr. Welch is first and foremost an ambassador for Christ and the Southern Baptist Convention around the globe, God is using him to stir local churches by encouraging local, like-minded churches and their pastors to plan and conduct encouragement conferences for their people.”
Though he is sent by Southern Baptists, Welch doesn’t minister just to those who share his denominational affiliation.
“I would say in almost every setting at least 30 to 40 percent of the people are not Baptist — at least a third, usually,” Welch said. “In fact, we had one meeting where there were 900 to 1,000 pastors present at the conference and none of them were Baptist.”
He is particularly encouraged when a pastor approaches him at the end of a meeting, having realized the need for partnerships in the Great Commission task.
“They’ll say, ‘We’d gotten out there by ourselves and thought nobody cared, even in our own country, but now we’ve been reminded exactly why the Bible tells us that we’re to be together in one spirit, one heart and one mind striving toward faith in the Gospel,'” Welch recounted.
As the GER effort creates what Welch calls “a global roundtable for international leaders,” he helps “connect others with others, not always just with us.”
“We’re not in this just for what Southern Baptists can get out of it, but we believe if we do well by everybody else in the Spirit of Christ for the sake of the Great Commission we will in turn be blessed,” Welch said. “We’re happy to say that’s being proven true.”
When Welch agreed to take on the role nearly three years ago, he didn’t realize the need was so great.
“I never dreamed we would go this far this fast with this much accomplished,” Welch said. “Those two things — the real need that existed and then the real acceleration that the Lord has favored us with in these areas — have been surprising to me.”
A pastor who leads a Christian fellowship in India wrote an e-mail to Welch after meeting with him on an occasion the pastor described in broken English as “my greatest joys, privilege and honor for me and one of remarkable day in my life time.”
“Thank you so much for your love, care and concerns to us and your precious message on days and opportunity that the door you opened for us to communicate and friendship with you,” the Indian pastor wrote. “No one know us and no body care for us but you came down and great door open up and reaching your arms to us especially in the ministry of the Lord. We need your prayer and your support in days to come for extension and glory for the Lord.”
Sometimes Welch visits areas International Mission Board personnel are striving to reach, and other times he builds on long-established bonds in places where IMB workers have labored faithfully.
“GER is strengthening positive relationships with overseas Baptist partners and encouraging them in areas of evangelism, stewardship and sound doctrine,” said IMB spokesperson Wendy Norvelle.
Norvelle noted the International Mission Board continues to work with national Baptist conventions around the world, but IMB personnel focus on the unreached in frontier areas where even churches do not exist. Welch, through GER, fills “a valuable gap” in nurturing fellowship with such Baptist bodies, Norvelle said.
Tess Rivers, an IMB writer, accompanied Welch on visits to South Korea and Vietnam, and she observed that church leaders received him well in both countries.
“Philosophically, I think it is always a good idea for leaders at any level to spend time talking with one another,” Rivers said. “It is much easier to iron out differences, seek common ground and develop partnerships in the context of relationships.”
The outlook for the Global Evangelical Relations effort is remarkably positive, Welch said.
“We already have meetings scheduled three, four and five years from now, including large conferences that are in crucial places that we’ve been asked to do with the nationals there,” Welch said. “We think this has just been the launching pad. I believe this thing has overwhelming potential for continuing to blossom, and as it does, we’re going to see more goodwill, more trustworthiness and more credibility for Southern Baptist Convention causes overseas. We will see that turn in to more Great Commission victories, and we will do it easier, faster and more effectively. Often times, that’s more cost effective too.”
Chapman said he is convinced that before Welch retires, Southern Baptists’ communication with evangelicals in scores of countries will be stronger than ever.
“Dr. Welch is beginning to build a database of all pastors who are willing to provide information, not only in order to remain in constant contact with our friends, but also to prepare for the day when Christians may face extreme persecutions the world over,” Chapman said. “Then the coming generations of Christians in far-flung countries will be able to find compassion, understanding and help regardless of where a Christian may be anywhere in the world.
“Already I am praying that the Executive Committee and the Southern Baptist Convention of coming generations will see the long-term merit of this ambassadorial ministry,” Chapman said. “And that God will, in his timing, raise up other God-called individuals to lead this ever-expanding ministry.”
Erin Roach is a staff writer for Baptist Press.