Shortly after noon, Sunday, August 29, Southern Baptist Convention President Bobby Welch boarded a rented bus on an adventure he compared to a "Lewis & Clark expedition" to try to win souls.
Welch conceived of a national bus tour rally as a means of generating a sense of urgency about evangelism among Southern Baptists. The bus tour is a kickoff for "The Everyone Can Kingdom Challenge for Evangelism" campaign which has the goal of "Witness, Win, and Baptize … ONE MILLION!" in one year.
Welch is scheduled to travel to all fifty states and Canada to visit with pastors and denominational workers and join them in neighborhood evangelistic visits. On that Sunday night in Richmond Hill, Georgia, the co-creator of the FAITH Sunday School Evangelism Strategy widely used in SBC churches, led by example as he shared the gospel at two homes.
With a passion to see God seek and save the lost, the SBC president hopes "The Everyone Can Kingdom Challenge for Evangelism" will motivate the 16-million-member denomination to expand its outreach. Although membership in the Southern Baptist Convention continues to grow, there has been a decline in baptisms for four consecutive years, and Welch is praying for God to reverse that trend.
"'Amazing' is a good word to describe it," John Sullivan, Florida Baptist Convention executive director, said of the national tour moments before the bus pulled away from a throng of church members at First Daytona. "Bobby Welch has never done anything ordinary."
Maudellen Welch was proud of her husband's initiative. She watched him lay his FAITH commitment card down on the altar Sunday morning, meaning that for the forty-fifth consecutive sixteen-week semester at First Daytona Beach he will be leading by example as teams of Sunday School members engage in evangelism and discipleship. That represents twenty-three years of FAITHfulness.
Maudellen was at peace as she let him go scout the land like a modern-day Caleb.
"I feel honored and blessed to be his wife, and I just pray for him and this trip," she said. "I know that he can't begin to touch the surface of what needs to be done, but hopefully he can touch some other people's lives who can in turn touch some other people's lives."
As Welch began his effort to identify what he described as "that first-wave force to come with us" to the SBC annual meeting in Nashville in June 2005 to kick off a campaign to baptize one million in twelve months, friends like Sullivan were covering him in prayer. Sullivan quoted Psalm 46 by memory in the second service Sunday at First Daytona Beach.
"That's the promise we claim for Bobby Welch and the bus trip," Sullivan said.
Al Waters, 80, a fifty-six-year member of the church, gave up the first Bible he ever owned, from the 1950s, and placed it on the bus with its pages open to Psalm 91. Waters prayed those promises of holy protection over his pastor as he began his twenty-five-day, seventy-stop, 20,000-mile expedition. The Bible is displayed for all to see on top of the fax machine in the main seating area on the bus.
"We pray for Brother Bobby's mission, as he travels the highways and the byways, Lord, onto the little country roads to a little country church that is in much need of some encouragement," Waters prayed in the first service Sunday morning. "Lord, be with him as he travels. Watch over his team. Keep them safe, and bring them back with a great victory."
Escorted up Interstate 95 by twenty-two motorcyclists from the FAITH riders ministry group led by the Florida convention's evangelism director, David Burton, the bus drew national media attention almost immediately as a three-person crew from CNN, filming a documentary on evangelicals, came on board just south of Jacksonville.
"We got some great pictures," the CNN cameraman said. "The bus looks terrific."
Interviewer Carol Marin heard the gospel as Welch quoted John 14:6, which identifies Jesus as the way, the truth and the life. She asked him if he took that literally.
"Yes," he said.
Other Christians don't see it that way, Marin countered.
"For me, it's easy," Welch said. "I open the Bible and I read it. I'm a satisfied customer with what has happened in my life."
Michael Redding, a deacon at First Daytona Beach, summarized why so many people in the 4,200-member congregation are proud of Welch.
"He's the right guy to be on the road," Redding said. "He's so determined and he's so motivated every day. To be on a bus for that many days going that far …. I've traveled a lot, and it's tough. He's going to make a big footprint out there."