A single hand rises above a sea of bowed heads covering the outdoor basketball court in San Miguel, El Salvador. An older man makes his way through the narrow row of plastic lawn chairs to place his hand on Alexander Efrain's shoulder. Together, the two walk to a set of cement bleachers where Efrain recommits his life to Christ.
Although he became a believer at age 14, Efrain says he felt the Lord calling him to recommit his life during the evening rally of the San Miguel Encouragement Conference, the first element of a new Southern Baptist initiative designed to forge relationships with other conservative evangelicals around the world.
In El Salvador, Southern Baptist pastors and leaders from the United States joined Salvadoran pastors and church leaders for the purpose of building mutually beneficial relationships across geographic bounds.
"We've come not simply to tell you what we know," Morris H. Chapman, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Executive Committee, told a group of Salvadoran pastors and their wives in San Salvador. "We've come to learn from you … and hopefully we'll have a greater determination than ever to reach the world for Christ."
When Southern Baptist pastors and representatives of the SBC Executive Committee arrived in El Salvador on February 2, their goal was not to lead the conferences but rather serve as catalytic participants who would encourage and equip Salvadoran pastors and teachers.
"We come as … joint-venture connectors," said Bobby Welch, a former SBC president and the Executive Committee's global evangelical relations strategist.
Unlike typical mission ventures, the purpose of the encouragement conferences is not solely to win souls to Christ. When Welch was given the challenge of building and strengthening evangelical relationships around the globe, he began by purchasing a world map and praying over it regularly.
"I say, 'Lord, it's not thinkable that I could ever find out who these people are that You want me to deal with,' Welch said. 'But I promise You, if You will shake them out wherever they are, I will go and attempt to connect with them.'"
When Welch felt the Lord directing him to Central America, he contacted Julio Contreras in San Salvador, whose son, also named Julio, pastors New Life Baptist Church.
When Welch began to talk with them about connecting pastors and building relationships, "it was like, we need to do something right now," the younger Contreras said.
Contreras first invited Welch to El Salvador to discuss the possibilities almost a year ago. In a subsequent meeting, he offered to host an event at New Life Baptist Church in the capital city. For Salvadorans, Contreras believes the conference began at a critical time in their nation's history. Since the end of a civil war in 1992, Salvadoran evangelicals have experienced dramatic growth.
"[The war] was the worst thing a country can go through, but then at the same time it just created an awareness of life and death," Contreras said.
While that awareness helped lead huge numbers of people to Christ, Contreras recognizes that rapid growth can produce a shallowness of faith.
"Now we're trying to ground the churches," Contreras says. "That's our main concern. That's why all this connecting makes so much more sense in our case."
Over the next year, Welch will be enlisting SBC churches to participate in twelve to fourteen global encouragement conferences. The next in the series of conferences was held in the Philippines in mid-March and will be followed by additional meetings in Nigeria, Germany, Austria, and Italy.
"We are walking around on, really, some holy ground here and we need to get some of it on our shoes and our feet," Welch said. "I'm convinced this will be the rule, and not the exception."
As the Salvadorans gathered one last time with their Southern Baptist visitors, Chapman presented the pastors with a certificate recognizing their participation in the very first Global Encouragement Conference.
"We will think of you through the years because everywhere we go, you will be going with us — because we came here first," Chapman said.