The Heart of God’s Shepherd – Jeremiah 16:1-14

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(Note: this is the synopsis of a message I did that I thought might be appropriate for such a time as this)

In our bedroom I have a painting of the missionary David Livingstone. After my first visit to Africa, I began to read his journals and some biographies as well. Livingstone buried children, his wife, and suffered incredibly as he took the gospel to Africa. One of the things I found remarkable is that the name Livingstone is still revered by Africans. There are several towns named after him. The largest city in Malawi is Blantyre. Blantyre is not an African word. It’s Scottish. It’s the little town in which Livingston was born.

After his little girl died of Malaria, he wrote a letter to his sister in which he said, “Fever may cut us all off. I feel much when I think of the children dying. But who will go if we don’t? Not one. I would venture everything for Christ. Pity I have so little to give. But He will accept us, for He is a good master. Never one like Him. He can sympathize. May He forgive, and purify and bless us” (Mackenzie 113). In another letter he wrote, “A parent’s heart alone can feel as I do when I look at my little ones and ask, shall I return with this or that one alive?” (Mac, 114).

Livingstone knew he would see little fruit from his labor. But he also knew there was a day coming in which others would harvest from fields in which he sowed. He wrote:

“It seems very unfair to judge the success of these [missions] by the number of conversions which have followed…. Future missionaries will see conversions follow every sermon. We prepare the way for them. May they not forget the pioneers who worked in the thick gloom, with few cheering rays to cheer except such as flow from faith in God’s promises. We work for a glorious future which we are not destined to see, the golden age which has not been but will yet be. We are only morning stars shining in the dark, but the glorious morn will break – the good time coming yet…. For this time we work. May God accept our humble imperfect service.” (Mackenzie, 150f).

Today Africa has more professing Christians than Europe and North America combined, and some of this can be traced to a man who embodied God’s heart and was willing to suffer for Christ. We see people like this in the Bible, the prophets and the apostles, for whom obedience to God meant everything.

Jeremiah. David Livingstone, I think, felt a kinship with Jeremiah. Jeremiah wept the tears of God. He entered so much into the mind and heart of God that he embodied the feelings of God. Jeremiah not only spoke the Words of God, but Jeremiah felt the emotions of God. When you read his book, as I have dozens of times, you discover that Jeremiah doesn’t present the people’s pain to God. Jeremiah presents God’s pain to the people. Jeremiah knew the pain of God. But God demanded more of Jeremiah than emotional empathy. God demanded his whole life, physical, social, everything about Jeremiah became a living enactment of his message. And it made him hurt.

Jeremiah’s personal story is particularly striking in chapter 16. There, God told Jeremiah “You must not marry or have sons or daughters” (16:1). This was a devastating demand, but Jeremiah was called to embody in his life the catastrophe that would engulf all of Israel’s families. No family. And no funerals, either (16:5). Using a shocking triple negative, God told Jeremiah don’t go to funerals because the coming catastrophe would be so great that normal mourning would be abandoned.

No family. No funerals. No feasting. Jeremiah lived in loneliness and exclusion. He embodied what it meant for God to be driven out by the people He loved. Of interest is that Jeremiah was from Anatoth. Anatoth was where the priests lived who were banished by Solomon. Jeremiah was not a priest in Jerusalem. He was a descendent of the priest Abiathar, who supported Solomon’s older brother Adonijah to become king. Solomon said he deserved to die for that, but he let him live because he carried the Ark in the presence of King David (1 Kings 2:13-27). So Abiathar was banished to Anatoth and Jeremiah was his descendent. So, when God wanted a man to represent him, to embody the pain of God, he didn’t choose a priest from Jerusalem. He chose an outsider from Anatoth.

Maybe you’re an outsider. You don’t come from a “made family.” Nobody set you up to be the next best thing. That was Jeremiah. Maybe you can relate to him. But Jeremiah came to know God, and his heart was shaped by God, and he did what God told him to do, even if it brought him great suffering.

The prosperity gospel of health and wealth and happiness is made to look as stupid as it is by the life of the Prophets and the Apostles. It was precisely his obedience that thrust Jeremiah into 40 years of suffering and sorrow. God did speak to Jeremiah about the future restoration, but He also made clear that he wouldn’t live long enough to see it. When you preach from the hope passages of Jeremiah, like 29:11, “I know the plans I have for you … plans for your welfare …” you need remember, the restoration of Israel came after that generation was dead.

So what can we learn about shepherding God’s people from Jeremiah 16?

1. To shepherd the people of God you must enter into the heart and mind of God.

We cannot serve God’s people if we cannot hear God when He speaks, and if we don’t enter into His heart and mind, the mind of Christ, the Father’s heart. I’m actually quite concerned that some think that to shepherd God’s people you have to know the mind of Rick Warren, or Ed Stetzer, or, Matt Chandler, or pick your favorite (not that these aren’t good men from whom we can learn). Or, to lead the people of God you have to know the systems, strategies, and best practices. No. To lead the people of God, you must hear from God. You must know His heart. And even embody His heart and mind. That is first, second and third.

2. To shepherd God’s people you must present to them the heart and mind of God.

This is what you see in the prophets and the Apostles. You especially see it in Jeremiah. Jeremiah uses that phrase, “The word of the Lord” or “the Lord says” more than any other. In 16:1 “the word of the Lord came to me.” 16:3 “This is what the Lord says.” 16:5 “this is what the Lord says.” 16:5 “this is the Lord’s declaration.” 16:9 “this is what the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel, says.” People don’t need to know what their shepherds think about spiritual things. People expect their shepherds will talk to God in prayer, then reveal God’s heart and mind as expressed in His Word.

3. Those who shepherd God’s people must embody His message.

The classic definition defines preaching as “truth through personality.” The word “personality” speaks of the entire person – character, integrity, physicality, everything. When you listen to Jeremiah, and when you examine his life, you know, “This man was not a hypocrite. This man didn’t say one thing and do another.” He embodied the message.

4. Shepherds pay a price, often a big price.

This is where it gets tough for spiritual shepherds. You will pray a price. Probably not as big a price as Jeremiah – no marriage, no kids, no social life, starved at times, thrown in a hole. The annihilation and destruction of his city and his country. Continual rejection throughout the 40 years of his ministry. It won’t get that bad for most, but you will suffer.

David Livingstone’s favorite verse was, “Lo I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). The promise of Jesus’ presence, through it all, sustained him. Jesus is present with you too, if you trust in Him, and He will see you through to the very end.

Shine the Light – Building Trust in a Scandal-Plagued World

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“Let us behave decently, as in the daytime” (Romans 13:13a).

We all know that sin thrives in darkness. “Nothing good happens after midnight,” parents warn their kids. But it’s not only physical darkness that provides a covering for sin. Governments, corporations, and even Christian ministries are prone to corruption and various forms of wrongdoing when they operate “in the dark.” What does it mean to operate in darkness if you’re a ministry organization? It means to function without transparency and accountability.

The Northwest Baptist Convention (NWBC), which I serve, has a Board of Directors, established by messengers from NWBC-affiliated churches at our annual meeting. I am accountable to these churches through the Board they have established. The NWBC is a ministry of the churches, established by the churches, so that together they can advance the Great Commission. As such, it is vital that the Executive Director and the NWBC staff maintain the trust and goodwill of our churches. How do we do that?

First, NWBC Executive Board members are trained to understand that their primary job is to hold the executive director and staff accountable to do what we have determined to do as a convention of churches. While I’m called to provide leadership to our convention ministries, I am accountable for how I lead. Sometimes board members in the Baptist world think their primary job is to represent the convention or entity to the churches, but that is not the way the trustee system is designed to work. At every level of Southern Baptist life, board members must represent the interest of the churches to the conventions and agencies. This requires proper training, and it requires that board members be reminded of their responsibility.

Second, the NWBC maintains transparency on the budget, income and expenses. We do this in six primary ways. First, the NWBC Board of Directors is involved in composing the budget and meets corporately to discuss and vote to recommend the budget to NWBC messengers at the annual meeting. Second, the annual budget is discussed and adopted by messengers at the annual meeting. Third, the full executive board receives monthly income and expense reports from the NWBC business manager. Fourth, the Cooperative Program contributions of every participating church is reported in each issue of the NWBC Witness. Fifth, salary structures for each NWBC staff position are adopted by the NWBC Board. Sixth, and importantly, specific budget information, including income and expenses, is available to any participating NWBC church and church member. For example, if a pastor or church member wants to know how much is spent in a ministry area, that information is provided.

Third, the NWBC has policies regarding sexual harassment and abuse, and we do not use nondisclosure agreements, or non-disparagement agreements (NDAs), to hide or cover-up abuse or immoral behavior. In fact, we do not use NDAs, period. No employee or former employee has been asked to sign any agreement that prevents them from speaking privately or publicly. Personally, I have never, in 36 years of ministry, asked a staff member to sign an NDA, nor have I ever signed one. Often money is used to entice a person to sign an NDA. In my opinion, this damages trust and goodwill because it lacks transparency and sends the message that something needs the “cover of darkness.”

Fourth, performance reports and long-term trends are provided and are available. Ministry organizations like to promote and provide good news. Of course we do! We all like good news. But the performance of organizations funded by the freewill gifts of God’s people should be made public and explained, whether the information is encouraging or not. Ministry methods and strategies must always be open for discussion. We don’t debate the veracity of Scripture, but interpretation and application are a different matter. Baptists believe we must advance the Great Commission, but how we best do that, and how well we are doing that, is something that requires continual discussion.

Transparency requires that every decision made, and every dollar spent, must be open to scrutiny. Secrecy erodes trust and trust is essential for an organization to thrive. This has always been true, but in a scandal-plagued world, where ministry leaders fail and fall frequently and publicly, it is essential that we go the extra mile, and then some, to protect our ministries, reputations, and, most importantly, the name of Christ.

I am grateful that the NWBC has enjoyed six continual years of growth in mission’s giving through the Cooperative Program, and that baptisms, church starts, and the number of affiliated churches have all grown as well. We now have more than 500 affiliated churches. Our East Asia partnership has proven highly successful as hundreds of Northwest Baptists have served in East Asia, and some have moved to East Asia to serve long-term. We do not take these Great Commission advances for granted. As servants and stewards of our Lord and His churches, trustworthiness is essential if we are to continue enjoying the confidence of God’s churches.

Jesus and your Neighbor, that’s the Test

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Jesus said, “I tell you … there is joy in the presence of God’s angels over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15:10).

One of the most striking characteristics in the ministry and message of Jesus is his attention to the value and importance of a single individual. Much of what we know about Jesus comes from his interaction with one person and his parables that focused on the worth or behavior of a single person – Nicodemus, the Samaritan Woman at the Well, the man born blind, Lazarus, Mary, Martha, Peter, Pilate, the Rich Young Ruler, the Prodigal Son, and so many others.

The value that Jesus places on a single person is one of the most important and attractive qualities of Jesus. The “end-justifies-the-means” ethic of tyrants and bullies who are willing to sacrifice the individual for some “higher purpose,” or for the “greater number,” is devastatingly refuted by Jesus’ treatment of the most ordinary humans.

Recently I’ve been thinking about this as it relates to two things. First, some in positions of power and influence are willing to damage an individual, or fail to seek justice for an individual, in order to protect an institution. The institution could be a church, denomination of churches, or a particular “ministry.” In order to “protect the ministry,” an individual person is hurt or allowed to suffer. Second, organizations, including ministries, are tempted to suppress the truth (poor performance numbers, mistreatment of individuals, etc.) when they think the truth will bring a “backlash” from the constituents (the people paying the bills).

When did Jesus ever mistreat an individual in order to protect the religious establishment? When did Jesus ever suppress the truth, fearing people couldn’t handle the truth? The answer to both questions is – NEVER. Jesus never hurt an individual, no matter how unimportant some thought they were, in order to please the religious established or protect the religious institution from others learning the truth.

There are two questions that will help you know how to handle any difficulty or ethical situation you will face in life: What does God say about this? And, how does it affect my neighbor? Other forms of the two questions might be: What does the Bible say? And, how does it affect an individual person?”

I’ve been thinking about this quite a lot, mostly because my sleep has been disturbed by leaders suppressing the truth, or hurting an individual, in order to “protect” the ministry. We never protect our ministry by suppressing the truth, even if the truth is ugly … especially when the truth is ugly. God’s people can handle the truth. What they can’t handle is hiding the truth or avoiding the truth.

Equally disturbing is a willingness to let a person suffer, or to actually harm a person, in order to protect or promote the “ministry.” God will not, He will not ever, bless a ministry in which a person is deliberately harmed, or in which harm is not redressed.
The test is really quite simple, Jesus and my neighbor. If I’m good with them, nothing much will go wrong. If I am good with them, I don’t need to worry about my “religious institution” or establishment. And with that said, I can now sleep undisturbed.

Preventing Sexual Abuse in Churches

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On February 3, 2019 the Houston Chronicle newspaper began a 3-part series on sexual abuse issues in Southern Baptist churches. Over a period of 20 years they have identified approximately 220 convicted perpetrators in 47,000 churches — including four from the Northwest — and 700 victims. That number will grow, and has grown, as others have come forward with their stories of abuse.

The damage done to victims of sexual abuse lasts a lifetime, often affecting multiple generations within a family or community, including church communities. Because of this, I want to provide a brief synopsis of the procedures we have in place to assure care for victims and families when it is appropriate, protect our convention, as well as the ways we try to help our churches protect their children and their ministries. This explanation is not exhaustive, but hopefully you will find it helpful.

First, the Northwest Baptist Convention (NWBC) does national criminal background checks on all of our staff. Furthermore, national criminal background checks are performed on all volunteers who work with minors. Every church must do the same. If your church has not done national criminal background checks on every person working with those under age 18, children are placed at risk. Furthermore, the church is at great risk should abuse ever occur. Background checks must be performed on all paid staff and every volunteer who has access to children. You can download from our convention website a document containing links to multiple resources that will help your church become more fully aware and prevent opportunities for abuse to occur. Find it here under the “Safety & Security” heading:

https://www.nwbaptist.org/nwbc-ministries/church-health/children/

Second, the NWBC offers training to our churches multiple times a year on how to protect children and prevent abuse from occurring. Included in this training is a list of resources for conducting criminal background checks, etc. Policy and procedure guidelines are available to all of our churches regarding these matters, upon request. Ashley Seuell, an attorney with the Northwest Baptist Foundation, is available to review a church’s policies and recommend policies and methods that churches can use to protect their children and their church at large.

Third, when moral failure occurs, even if it does not involve criminal behavior, we state publically the reason for termination or resignation (not necessarily the details of the offense, just that it was an issue of moral failure), and we urge that churches do the same. This makes it much more difficult for a sexual offender to move to a new town, or a new state, and resume ministry.

Fourth, we offer to provide Christian counseling to those hurt and injured by sexual immorality and/or abuse.

Fifth, we never suppress or “cover up” information regarding sexual abuse. We have not and will not enter into nondisclosure agreements with any person who separates from the NWBC because of a moral failure (we haven’t entered into nondisclosure agreements for any other reason, either).

I hope you find this information helpful. We live and serve in a broken world populated with broken people. We too have been damaged by sin, most often damaged by our own sin. But those who serve Jesus Christ with integrity of heart make a difference now … and forever. You matter and what you do matters. The church matters. May God help us and protect us as we strive to love Him and love our neighbors.

Ministry Guaranteed to Bless Your City

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A sanitation worker in our town was crushed when he was hit by a car and pinned up against the garbage truck. He was horribly injured and our church prayed for him and his family. Following the prayer, a church deacon asked a simple question that ultimately transformed our ministry. Here’s the question: “I wonder if that man has a church that is ministering to him and his family?” We learned that he did have a church and they were doing well by him. But this led to a second question: What about others in our community, who in time of crisis, have no church family? What of those who have no pastor, no Bible class, no ministry and no living testimony of God’s love and care in their life? What about them?

This tragic situation and the subsequent questions resulted in a profound commitment by our church. We determined that we would pray for, and serve as best we could, every family in town touched by tragedy. House fires, car wrecks, crime victims, accidents of various kinds, horrible medical diagnoses; these happened with some frequency in our ministry area of 25,000 people. And when they did, we sent two or three to the home with the simple message, “We’re from First Baptist. We heard what happened. We’re so sorry. We want to pray for you and see if there is any way we can help.”
Sometimes our involvement ended after the prayer and words of love and concern. Other times clothing or food was provided, biblical counseling was provided, a wheel chair ramp was built, among other things. The results included some coming to faith in Christ, goodwill built with the family and friends, and some actually joined our church so that they could be involved in this ministry of care. Our church was known for several things, one of which became, “They’re the church that serves everybody and anybody in time of crisis.”

So here’s a goal that will bless your city: commit to visiting and praying for every person stricken by tragedy. The tragedy doesn’t have to be physical injury. In our local newspaper I read weekly, if not daily, of hardships in families. A local mayor’s portrait was on the front page because he was accused of soliciting sex for money. A grandmother went to prison because she embezzled from her employer. A family was ripped apart when a grandson murdered his grandmother. The list goes on. But questions that a local church needs to ask are, “Does this family have a church? Do they have a pastor? Let’s visit them and pray for them and see how we might show them God’s love.”

When I surrendered to ministry leadership a pastor told me that if I would minister to hurting people I would never lack for ministry opportunities. He was right. But I also learned that I couldn’t do it by myself. I needed to lead our church to organize and to do this in our ministry field.

Often when we discuss ministry goals we talk budgets and baptisms and attendance in public worship and Bible study. These are important matters to consider. But mostly they are the byproduct of other things. Things like leading a church to pray for Kingdom concerns and mobilizing outreach ministries of various kinds. Through ministries like http://www.Pray4EveryHome.org every member of your church can pray for their 100 closest neighbors. Through My316 and God Space you can teach your church how to share the Gospel and minister to people (these are provided to every NWBC church without cost thanks to the generous Cooperative Program missions giving of our churches).

How about this as a goal: We will pray for missionaries, the lost in our community, city and school leaders, and all of the children in town, in every public gathering of our church. That is Kingdom praying –praying for the city, unbelievers, and the missionaries we send and support. If we don’t pray for Kingdom concerns when we gather as church, Kingdom praying won’t happen in the homes of most church members.

Things like this make me excited for the spiritual possibility present in every church. Whether you gather with 20 or 200 on Sunday, these are the kinds of things you can do that will touch heaven and human hearts and will make a difference in your city. God told the people in Jeremiah’s day, living as exiles in Babylon, “Seek the welfare of the city I have deported you to. Pray to the LORD on its behalf, for when it has prosperity, you will prosper” (Jere. 29:7). That is a good word for us, living in a 21st Century Babylon.

Contemplations as Northwest Baptists Prepare to Gather in Our Annual Meeting

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Several hundred Northwest Baptists will gather in our annual meeting on Nov. 13-14, 2018, at the Great Wolf Lodge near Chehalis, WA. As we prepare to gather, worship, and celebrate what God is doing in and through us, consider the following “meditation:”

The only person present in every epoch and on each Bible page is God Himself. Every scene in Scripture is dominated by His presence. From Eden to the Flood, from Abraham to Moses to Gideon to Peter, Paul and Mary, God alone dominates history’s script.

And yet, from the beginning God created human beings as His “imagers” on the earth. Because every person is created in the image of God, and tasked with representing Him, every person has his or her “day” to serve and glorify God. Many of God’s imagers fail to image Him fully because of sinful self-destruction and gross unbelief, and we all fall short of glorifying God fully because of sin. Some of God’s imagers have their day cut short, chopped off before their lives lift off. The evils of child-killing and the bloodshed of war destroy many souls created by God to image Him in the subduing and governing of all earthly creation.

But those who know the God in whose image they are made have the miraculous possibility of making the day in which they live, a small speck of time in the large swath of human history, a day that will count for all of eternity. Indeed, those who know God in their day will know God from their day forward, for all eternity. That makes the day in which we live, and the opportunity it affords, stupendous beyond the imagination of our feeble minds.

Consider this – the child in your church who comes to faith will mature into an imager of God whose prayers are heard by heaven! That child who is led by you to love Jesus is a child who will never be alone. Never will that child be orphaned or abandoned in the world. That child will one day be launched as a missionary missile to teach school, or image God in business or politics or constructing houses or raising children of their own who will live to His glory. And no matter what next week brings, or the years beyond that, a child who knows Jesus will enjoy all of eternity with God and the hosts of heaven in a “forever family.”

The student in college who is seeking life’s purpose and meaning is led down the path to knowing God by a Jesus-follower, and is surprised by the joy of meeting the God in whose image they are made. Through your ministry and witness their life becomes anchored on the Truth they never knew existed.

Families in your town are desperately trying, or barely trying, to provide spiritual and moral guidance to their children. Most are doing the best they can with what little they know. Then the church steps into their lives, and the truth of Christ enters their thinking, and faithful witness is lived in their presence, and love for neighbor (and love for enemy) is experienced deeply, and in a moment, or in the course of time, they are reborn. Their family is created anew. Peace and joy and the blessing of God enter their home. Marriages are saved. Children are rescued from a misspent life. All because a church, or a believer … you … lived for Christ in your day.

In the Northwest there are many people seizing the opportunity presented by God in this day. Northwest Baptists are gathering for worship and Bible study on Sunday, and serving in schools and on jobsites throughout the week. One church is teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) in a Buddhist temple, and they share the Gospel of Jesus Christ as they teach ESL! Others are fully participating in community celebrations so that they can “rub elbows” with their neighbors, build friendships, and share the living hope of Jesus. Prisoners are visited. The hungry are fed. The lost are led home. Almost 2,000 people followed Jesus in believer’s baptism through the ministry of our churches last year. Churches are striving, struggling to live and love and share the good news of Christ in their day.

So as messengers gather from our Northwest Baptist churches, we do so with gratitude to God for what He is doing. We gather in the knowledge that together we strive to make the most of our day. And we gather in the firm belief our day is a good day to serve the Lord in the Northwest.

This is Our Day

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In another day, on April 13, 1948, messengers from 15 Northwest Baptist churches met in Portland, OR to organize the Northwest Baptist Convention (NWBC). They believed that together they could more effectively reach the Northwest for Christ. By 1952 there were 53 churches in the NWBC. There were 291 churches by 1972 (some of these were in Canada). Strong growth has continued over the past 40 years through sharing the gospel, training leaders, and gathering new believers into churches. Today we have 485 churches in the NWBC. The Canadian Convention separated from the NWBC in 1985 and became its own SBC affiliated convention numbering several hundred churches.

In our day the work of the NWBC is much the same as it has always been. Our churches cooperate together in ways that maximize our effectiveness in key areas of Kingdom work. So how does your NWBC serve our churches in this, our day?

First, we put a priority on training leaders. Monthly pastor clusters is one of the large pieces of this training. The clusters focus on the spiritual life of the leader and the spiritual health of the church. They study and discuss disciple-making, evangelism, worship planning, and much more. We also support the Pacific Northwest Campus of Gateway Seminary as a primary method of training leaders. Currently I am teaching preaching to 17 students at our PNW campus. Added to this is training for Bible teachers, worship leaders, Disaster Relief volunteers, college ministers and others. We train transitional “interim pastors” and help churches in their search for pastors. Training leaders is something that we best do cooperatively, understanding that no single church can do broad-based training on their own.

Second, we prioritize evangelism. The NWBC provides evangelistic training and resources to every NWBC church. The Cooperative Program (CP) mission giving of our churches makes this possible. We continue to provide My316 evangelism materials to our churches. At our annual meeting this November 13-14, 2018 we will launch a new resource available to every church, without cost, because we believe that making disciples should be at the center of ministry for every church.

Third, we help start new churches. Currently we have churches worshipping in about 27 different languages in communities of all sizes. Churches are started in urban and rural areas, from cities to small towns. I am personally involved in a new church in a town of 8,000 people. The church launches on September 30, but already we have had a young man come to Christ and receive water baptism. With only one church for every 23,000 in population in the Northwest we need many more churches in many more places.

Fourth, we do missions beyond the Northwest. Through the CP and other mission offerings we support missionaries in over 100 nations. Also, the NWBC has a special partnership in East Asia in which many of our churches have participated. During July 10-23, 2019, we will bring about 130 people from our NWBC churches to serve hundreds missionaries and their children in a retreat in Asia. We are the only state convention of churches to ever do this, and this will be the third major retreat in which we serve our missionaries in this way.

You are making an enormous difference through your involvement and support of the NWBC, and we have much left to do. This is our day! And it is a good day to serve the Lord in the Northwest!