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Younger leaders discuss solutions for reaching outside the Bible Belt

NORTHBOROUGH, Mass. (BP)–If Southern Baptists want to reach residents of New England, they must focus on making disciples through personal relationships, engaging a media-driven generation with the Gospel, taking on the attitude of an emerging denomination and educating younger leaders about the structure of the national convention.

Such steps were envisioned by young church leaders who gathered at the Baptist Convention of New England in Northborough, Mass., May 6 for the ninth Younger Leaders Dialogue initiated by LifeWay Christian Resources President James T. Draper Jr.

The group was asked to brainstorm solutions for enabling Southern Baptists to best use their resources to reach New England and the world for Christ in a new generation.

Because Southern Baptist churches are not abundant in New England and fewer people have heard the Gospel there than in the South, leaders spoke about their struggles with incorporating traditional Southern Baptist methods in a region that does not necessarily welcome such methods.

Evangelism is most successful when it is relationship-driven rather than program-driven, they noted.

As proselytizing on college campuses becomes more limited, ministers to New England’s millions of college students are learning they need to stress relational evangelism — a concept in which a mature Christian models steady, daily behavior for others rather than presenting a formula for quick salvation and then moving on to the next convert.

Younger leaders at the New England dialogue said spreading the Gospel cannot be limited to the clergy, and the focus must be on making disciples rather than simply increasing the number of those who are saved.

Some denominations shrink from absolute truth claims when attempting to reach the postmodern generation in New England, whereas truth should never be tossed aside in order to avoid offending someone, they said, calling for a healthy balance of truth-telling and relationship evangelism.

One younger leader said using the media to spread a message should be farther up the list of priorities for the Southern Baptist Convention.

“I think one area that we’re deficient in as Southern Baptists is engaging a media-driven generation with media tools,” said Randy Bond, director of the New London Collegiate Ministry, a ministry to the U.S. Coast Guard cadets in Connecticut.

Bond suggested an expanded use of television commercials and other media avenues for reaching “a generation that gets a lot of their ideas about the world — and particularly how they perceive people — through what they see on television.”

Unchurched people “already come into the conversation with some preconceived notions of who Jesus is or what church is,” Bond said, “so if we counter that with some positive media portrayals, where we can hit the mass audience, I think that would greatly aid in our harvest orientation.”

Because Southern Baptists are not dominant in the Northeast, the younger leaders said, it may be important for Southern Baptists to take on an attitude of an emerging denomination rather than an established powerhouse.

The convention nationwide could take a more humble approach, Bond suggested, by realizing not all of the 16 million members on church rolls can be accounted.

“We think we have 16 million members and we’re the largest Protestant denomination, but that’s a myth. We don’t have the influence that we think we do. We have got to jettison our pride and take a more humble approach,” he said.

Jim Wideman, executive director of the Baptist Convention of New England, told the younger leaders he agreed with them that simply transplanting missionaries from the South to New England is not necessarily the best method for earning trust and reaching the lost. Each region is culturally different, similar to what International Mission Board workers face among varying people groups. He asked all native New Englanders in the room to raise their hands, and only three of the nearly 50 leaders present raised their hands.

“That’s part of the issue for us. I think we’re all thinking in that direction,” he said. “If a work is going to be sustained, if it’s ever going to have a real New England look and feel, we’re going to have to raise up New England leaders. I think that if we were to say, ‘How many of you have committed yourselves to stay in New England and God’s going to have to dynamite you to get you out of here?’ we’d have to add some more to that number. But if you weren’t born here, you can live here 50 years and still be a newcomer.”

Another prominent issue during the discussion was the fact that so few Southern Baptists, young ones in particular, are educated about the structure of the national convention. Too few know that the SBC Executive Committee exists, for example, and far less know its purpose. Even those who are working as church planters in New England lack a clear understanding of the various SBC entities, they said.

Without a grasp of the structure of the convention, many younger leaders fail to recognize the importance of being affiliated with it, they said. “We’re bloggers, so why should we give up the time and energy to help fix CBS?” one asked metaphorically. As church planters, some of them believe their energies are more effective going it alone than working with a network they don’t comprehend and aren’t sure they need.

Wideman took some time to explain the history of the convention and the responsibilities of each entity, and then Mark Ballard, founder and pastor of Christian Fellowship Baptist Church in Londonderry, N.H., explained why he firmly believes the Southern Baptist Convention is necessary for accomplishing the Great Commission.

“One of the reasons I’m a Southern Baptist today is because I don’t believe there’s any greater system than what we have to reach the world for Christ,” Ballard, who is a LifeWay trustee, told the group. “There’s no other group who can say that they have over 40,000 churches in the U.S., over 5,000 missionaries on the foreign fields plus all the 100,000 people we have on volunteer missions around the world. It’s a great system, and there’s no reason to throw the baby out with the bath water. There are things across the convention that none of us necessarily think is the greatest way to do it, but our strengths far outweigh our weaknesses, I believe.”

Ballard said what distinguishes Southern Baptists from other denominations is the autonomy of the local church. If a pastor or layperson doesn’t approve of the way something is being done at the state or national level, he or she has the power to speak up. Messengers from local churches are given a voice at the annual convention, and entity leaders will gladly listen to the concerns of the people they serve throughout the year, he said.

“In my personal experience, I’ve never found anybody who shut me down. From Dr. Draper to Dr. [O.S.] Hawkins at the Annuity Board — any of the leaders — if you want to talk to them and you put the effort out and say you want to be part of the solution instead of part of the problem, people listen,” Ballard said. “It’s exciting if we get involved in the system, but we’ve got to get involved with it to have an impact.

“I would hate to see the demise of the Southern Baptist Convention because why reinvent the wheel? If we’ve got this great system where we can reach the world, all we’ve got to do is make a few changes…. And they’ve got to listen to us because they work for us. The authority comes from the church out, not from the top down.”
The next Younger Leaders Dialogue is scheduled for June 19 from 2-4 p.m. at LifeWay Christian Resources in Nashville, Tenn. For more information, contact Mark Marshall at (615) 251-2514 or e-mail [email protected].

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  • Erin Curry