Lou Holtz Can Teach Us Something about Church

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Lou Holtz knows how to build a successful football program. He knows a few things about successful organizations, period. After more than 50 years in the sports world, one striking observation he made is that only two organizations looked better on the inside than they appeared from the outside – the University of Notre Dame and Augusta Country Club. Every other entity he has been part of looked worse from the inside than it did from outside.

Churches and ministries could ponder Holtz’s observation and learn from it. Many churches struggle with building a successful evangelism and outreach ministry. Part of the problem is that inside reality doesn’t match outside appearance. Because churches depend on the insiders (attenders) to invite outsiders to come inside (unchurched people), it’s vital that the insiders believe they have something wonderful to offer.

A couple of stories will illustrate what I mean. While in seminary I served as an evangelism intern in a church. I spent five to ten hours each week teaching people how to share the gospel of Jesus Christ and leading them to do it door-to-door. It was a formative experience for me. However, one sad fact in that experience is that I believed there was another church in town that was better than ours. Their pastor was a better preacher (our pastor said he didn’t spend much time in sermon preparation). They planned a more dynamic worship service and stronger mission engagement. I had no problem telling people about Jesus Christ and what He did for them, but it was more difficult to invite them to our church because I feared they would be disappointed when they came.

The second story concerns a church I served as pastor. A fellow minister from another denomination visited with me about joining our church. It was a big step for him and his young family. I will never forget what he said: “I want to attend a church where I can bring lost friends, confident that they will hear a well-prepared message from the Bible, be welcomed and treated well, and where we don’t have to fear something will happen that will make us want to crawl under the pew.”

I’ve thought of that statement made in 1993 many times since. If the church doesn’t look good from the inside, if members and attenders lack the confidence that guests can experience God’s presence, hear a well-prepared message from God’s Word, experience the heart-felt worship of God’s people, be led to God’s throne in meaningful prayer, and experience God’s love through His people, they will hesitate to bring their friends to church.
Our SBC family nationally has experienced a significant decline in evangelistic effectiveness. Fewer people are following Christ in believer’s baptism through our churches. Church membership and attendance has declined. Many are exploring the reasons for decline, most often lamenting that we are not sharing the gospel in our communities like we must. Others complain that we are not receiving the resources and leadership at the national level that our churches need because other strategies have been prioritized.

I believe both of these are true. That’s why in the Northwest Baptist Convention we provide MY316 evangelism resources free-of-charge to our churches (our churches paid for them through their Cooperative Program mission gifts). It’s why we conduct regional evangelism training events like Story Witnessing. Dozens of churches each year host “mystery guests” to help them evaluate Sunday morning worship gatherings. Pastor-clusters always have some emphasis on evangelism and discipleship. At this year’s annual NWBC meeting (November 7-8 in Eugene, OR) every attender will be given a book, Sharing Jesus without Freaking Out, and will have the opportunity to attend a training event led by author, Alvin Reid, to learn how to teach it in their churches. Missions and evangelism is why we exist as a convention of churches. Together we can equip our leaders and extend our missions impact far better than we could if we were alone.

These things being true, at the local church level, it would be good if we asked the question, “Does our church look better from the inside than it does from the outside? Can I confidently invite people to my church, believing they will experience God through our church?” If not, what changes can be made to have that confidence?

Churches with effective outreach and evangelism ministries have attenders who enthusiastically and confidently recommend their church to others. These churches provide opportunities for attenders to learn how to share the gospel, and they provide special events that give attenders easy ways to invite friends and neighbors to church.

If you need help diagnosing the condition of your church and finding a prescription that helps your church get healthy, we have staff trained and assigned to do that. Please call upon us. That’s our job, and more importantly, it’s our joy to assist our pastors and churches as together we strive to reach the Northwest with the good news of Jesus Christ.

Jesus Wept. Will We?

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Jesus issued commands and commissions. He also cried. The commands of Jesus instructed the church from its first days, but so too did His compassion. Jesus wept when He saw Lazarus dead (John 11:35). He was “moved with compassion” and healed those stricken by terrible diseases and malformations (Mark 1:41). He welcomed the weary and burdened (Matt. 11:28).

With all Jesus did as our sinless Savior, crucified and risen, and with all that He said that no other man could ever say, it’s the compassion of Jesus for the bruised and broken, the dirty and disfigured and damaged, that most revealed His heart. Powerful? Yes. Jesus is powerful in creation and salvation and in every other way. Wise? Jesus’ wisdom is perfect. But He also wept. He felt. He hurt. He suffered.

A few months ago, on a day when I learned some disturbing news, I woke up in the middle of the night with the words “Jesus wept” in my mind. Those words haven’t long left my thoughts since.

“Jesus wept” has challenged me personally. I fear I weep too little, and then too often for the wrong reasons.

“Jesus wept” has also spoken to me about the proper response when our ministry is weak and ineffective. The annual compilation of statistics for SBC churches was released this week. What they reveal is deeply sad. It prompted me to think, “Jesus wept. Will we?”

Before I get into the national SBC numbers, let me say I am most grateful that our Northwest churches have grown in ministry impact by almost every measure. For three consecutive years our churches have baptized more new disciples of Jesus Christ than the prior year, with 2,046 baptisms in 2016, up from 2,007 in 2015. Total worship attendance increased to 30,616 from 30,147. Total missions giving increased to $6,914,914 from $6,129,398, and Cooperative Program giving also showed a significant increase in 2016, though that is not a number included in the annual church profile report.
Probably the most important thing about the annual report is the trend line.

In the Northwest the trends are heading in the right direction, and for this I am grateful. Not that we’re beating our chests in triumphal victory. Far from it. Lostness is so great in our area that at times we wonder if we’ll ever make real progress. Half of our churches average 50 and below. It’s a struggle for many of our pastors and churches just to survive. Still, when we step back and look at the bigger picture, we are thankful to see our ministries inching forward. From the NWBC level, we feel that our focus on evangelism, missions (including church planting), and training leaders is serving our churches well. We exist to extend the missions impact of our churches and to help equip leaders in our churches. We are doing that. We believe in cooperative/collaborative work in the Northwest. This includes cooperating with our SBC partners. Our partnership with NAMB mostly involves church planting, but also some on evangelism. Our East Asia IMB partnership has proven to be a huge blessing to our missionaries and our NWBC churches. Our partnership with Gateway Seminary has had enormous impact on the Northwest as hundreds of our leaders have attended Gateway (formerly Golden Gate Seminary) and graduated from its programs with increased effectiveness.

Although my primary focus is the NWBC, as it should be, I am concerned for the SBC nationally. We are part of this important family. Consider these statistics from the 2016 annual church profile:

Baptisms – 280,773 people in 2016, down from 295,212 in 2015 for 4.89 percent decline. A decade ago we were baptizing over 350,000 people annually. We haven’t reached fewer than 300,000 since the 1940s, until the last two years. Again, the trend nationally has been downward for several years.

Worship attendance – 5.2 million weekly, which is a drop from about 5.55 million, for a 6.75 percent decline.

Church starts – 732 new church plants, down from 926 in 2015. I don’t remember when we’ve seen so few church plants. Until this decade we regularly reported over 1,200 new church plants each year.

Cooperative Program percentage – 5.16 percent of the church budget on average, down from 5.18 percent the year prior. In the Northwest the average is about 7 percent per church, for which we are most grateful. The trend toward lower CP missions giving has been going on for decades and is now less than half of what it once was.

Added to these statistics is the fact that our IMB mission force is 25 percent smaller than it was two years ago with 1,200 fewer field missionaries. Our international missions force has not only been greatly reduced in numbers, but many of those who left the field were seasoned leaders with language and cultural skills developed over ten or twenty years and more. This alone ought to make us weep.

Next week is the annual meeting of the SBC in Phoenix, AZ. While gathered we need to face the hard facts and not smooth things over with anecdotes and a few good stories. Is God at work in many of our churches and ministries? Certainly He is. But the job of leaders requires that we take the satellite view of things. We need to look at the major trend lines. We need to ask the questions, “Why? Why the decline? How did we get here? What do we need to change? How do we move forward?” I believe that we can identify reasons for our decline nationally and each denominational agency and trustee board, each convention of churches, every association and local church leader has a part to play in this. And after saying all that, my great hope is that we will drop to our knees and weep. That would be in keeping with the meeting’s theme – “Pray for such a time as this.”

The great genius of Southern Baptists is that our cooperation is voluntary. Voluntary cooperation through the Cooperative Program has enabled us to develop a system of associations, state conventions, educational institutions, and mission boards unparalleled in history. But for a voluntary system of support to thrive there must a high level of trust and respect for all partners. That’s too often missing in our work these days.

In a voluntary system, when significant problems arise, leaders are often hesitant to talk about them publically for fear that it will demotivate cooperative giving. Let me be clear, there is no other denomination or convention of churches that is doing more to reach the lost in the United States and around the world than Southern Baptists. If you know of one please tell me. We have every reason to support the SBC and to increase our support. No one sends more missionaries. No one starts more churches. No one disciples more people. No seminary system educates more preachers. But we should do better. We used to do better and we can again. If we fail our impact for Christ will grow less and less and less.

I’m going to stop there. I’m going to pray, maybe even shed a tear.

Northwest Baptist Update as We Begin 2017

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Happy New Year! I trust that each of you had a meaningful Christmas celebration, a great New Year, and some wonderful times with family.

I wanted to give you some encouraging information regarding 2016, even as we begin 2017. We don’t yet have all of the ACP (Annual Church Profile) reports from our churches, so we do not have total baptism and attendance information. We do, however, have information regarding cooperative mission giving and some of what we accomplished cooperatively. Regarding the Cooperative Program, income exceeded budget for the first time since the 1990s. We received $2,811,960 on a budget of $2,777,000, for a total of $34,960 over the budget. As exciting as this is, it is even more significant that we received $101,455 above giving in 2015, which is a 3.74 percent increase.

Other mission giving increased as well. The Lottie Moon International Missions Offering was $559,526, increasing from $495,843 over 2015. The Northwest Impact Offering was $103,611, increasing from $102,231. World Hunger Offering was $21,597, up from $20,338. The only offering that decreased was the Annie Armstrong Offering which was $244,297, down from $246,269 in 2015. In addition to these offerings, Northwest Baptists contributed an additional $14,548 through Disaster Relief. When you put all of this together, Northwest Baptists contributed $3,755,539 to missions through the cooperative means of the NWBC and the SBC. We have generous, mission-hearted churches and people in the Northwest!

The significance of our missions giving is quickly understood when you know that we currently have 66 new churches receiving monthly supplements. Also, more than 1,000 received in 2016, and will receive in 2017, pastoral leadership training, as well as evangelism, small group, VBS and other forms of training. It is particularly exciting to see growth in our collegiate campus ministry. At the end of 2016 we had Baptist Collegiate ministries on 13 campuses. This week, however, ministries were started on two new campuses with the plan to begin two more shortly! Though the NWBC participates in collegiate ministry through the CP, most of the work is done by volunteer/self-funded campus ministers who have a call from God to reach the next generation. We praise God for these men and women!

Additionally, our CLD training (Contextualized Leadership Development), in partnership with Gateway Seminary, is showing significant growth. We had one location last year (Portland), but we will have three locations this spring, adding Springfield and Longview, with East Wenatchee likely starting a center in the fall. Five students completed work during the fall 2016 term, receiving the Pastoral Ministries Certificate.

We are also planning on two East Asia vision trips in 2017, taking pastors to Japan and the Big Country so that their churches can connect with our IMB workers there. In 2016, about 250 Northwest Baptists, from dozens of churches, did mission work in East Asia, including 163 who ministered to 1,100 East Asia IMB personnel and their children last August. All of this is communicated to our churches via the outstanding publication of our bi-monthly Witness publication.

Additionally, enrollment at Gateway Seminary’s Pacific Northwest Campus showed a significant increase last fall, growing to 57 students from 46 the previous fall. And the work of the Northwest Baptist Foundation, the trust agency of the NWBC, has grown and prospered to the extent that they gifted the NWBC with a $25,000 check during our annual meeting in November 2016. Thank you!

I often say that it is a good day to serve the Lord, and it’s a good day to serve the Lord in the Northwest. I believe this to be true. It’s true because every day is a good day to serve our Lord. And it’s true because we have great people with whom to serve in the Northwest and God’s hand is evident in our work. Thank you for how you serve our Lord through your church, your community, and through the NWBC.

We are Family

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If you’re over 50 the phrase “we are family” might bring the Sister Sledge 1979 pop song to mind. But recent events have reminded me that Baptists really are family. For example, when Jimmy Stewart of the Alaska Baptist Convention received devastating third degree burns in July, he was flown to a Seattle hospital. Upon arrival NWBC persons and pastors were onsite assisting the family with transportation and housing needs. A similar request came when a mission team member from Alabama was flown to a Seattle hospital in September. Staff at the Puget Sound Association responded to a request from his Alabama pastor who knew that his Baptist family in Washington would minister to his church member.

Requests like these are not unusual. Recently a Baptist family member in the south requested that we find an Oregon church to help a friend in crisis, and we did. Another shared that when their child moved from Oregon to Massachusetts they contacted our Baptist family in Boston who helped this young couple move into their apartment.

In August our Northwest Baptist family sent 163 from 32 of our churches to minister to 1,100 family members (missionaries) serving in Asia. Our missionaries depend on us to support them through the Cooperative Program, but they also need their Baptist family to pray for them and join them on their mission field. They invited us to help them in their training retreat because we are their family. Twenty-two of these same missionaries will spend nine days with us in early October, helping us know better how to reach Asian peoples living in the Northwest, among other things (details on our website at http://www.nwbaptist.org).

This summer we received an application from a church that wants to affiliate with the NWBC. This church has a large ministry, with thirteen members attending seminary and several serving in international missions. Their small group ministry includes learning Old Testament Hebrew and others studying biblical theology at a very high level.

So why do they want to affiliate with the NWBC? They are looking for family. They are a church without the extended family that Baptists have. They don’t have associations, conventions, seminaries, mission boards, and a support system beyond their own town. As Baptists, we even have an insurance and retirement system for our pastors (GuideStone).

Like all families, we have our disagreements, crazy uncles, loudmouthed cousins, and dysfunctional branches on the family tree. Sometimes these things frustrate us. But where would we be without our extended family?

In November the NWBC family will gather in Spokane for our annual meeting. We will celebrate what God is doing in our Northwest family with abundant testimonies and worship. Our family will even gather around tables Tuesday, Nov. 15, for a prime rib dinner (details on our website at http://www.nwbaptist.org). It will be a sweet time of fellowship. It is a good day to serve the Lord in the Northwest!

Churches Old and New

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Let’s start with the numbers. In the 2015 church year, churches that were established or affiliated with the Northwest Baptist Convention (NWBC) from 2011-2015 baptized 224 persons and gave $169,340 to missions through the Cooperative Program (CP). Churches established and affiliated between 2006-2010 baptized 335 persons and gave $130,143 to missions through CP. Churches older than 2006 baptized 1,447 and gave $2,423,637 to missions through CP.

This means that churches older than five years of age baptized 89 percent of those baptized in our NWBC churches, and these same churches gave 93.8 percent of the mission dollars through CP. Churches more than ten years old performed 72 percent of all baptisms and gave 89 percent of the CP mission dollars.
For the past several years much attention and ministry focus of Southern Baptist denominational entities (associational, state and regional, and national) has been on church planting. Church planting has occupied a significant portion of my own ministry, both as a pastor and as a denomination leader in two state conventions. My involvement in church planting is convictional. It is based on my understanding of how people have been reached for Christ throughout history, both in the United States and beyond.

A pithy expression that I sometimes use is “whoever has the most churches wins.” This statement is based on the observation that the group with the most churches also has the most weekly worshippers (whether they accomplish the most for the Kingdom is another question). This has been true throughout the entire history of our nation (see Rodney Stark’s The Churching of America). Southern Baptists have more church attenders than Methodists because we have more churches and Methodists have more attenders than Episcopalians for the same reason. Likewise, the Bible belt is what it is because there are more churches there than in the Northwest where I serve. The Northwest Baptist Convention has 466 churches, but if we had the same density of churches as Mississippi or Oklahoma we would have 8,000 churches or 5,000 churches respectively. That’s why Mississippi and Oklahoma are the Bible belt and Washington and Oregon and Idaho are not.

The statement “whoever has the most churches wins” is not meant to convey that we reach people by planting new churches. New churches are, or should be, the result of evangelism. Church planters focus on reaching unchurched people, leading them to Christ, and gathering them into the new church. From what I can see, that is what our Northwest church planters are doing. But pastors of established churches lead their people to do the same thing, reach people for Christ and bring them into the church fellowship. So, when asked what our greatest need is, I always say that we need more pastors and evangelistic church planting pastors. If you have them, you’ll have more churches and you’ll have healthier churches. Evangelists and church planter/gatherers precede having more churches.

Though we must never diminish our efforts to send out missionary church planters who focus on reaching peoples from among all the peoples inhabiting our nation, the fact is the great majority of the gospel work being done in the Northwest, and throughout the United States, is being done by established churches. Moreover, most of the Cooperative Program mission dollars are given by established churches. This is not to say that established churches are necessarily more generous in their support of missions, nor are they necessarily more evangelistic in their behaviors. It is simply recognizing that most people who attend church are in established churches, and if we do not seek to help these churches remain and regain health and evangelistic effectiveness, we are missing our most significant opportunity to reach people “today” with the good news of Jesus Christ. Moreover, it’s important that we continue to acknowledge and say “thank you” to the faithful churches that built, and continue to build and support, who we are as Northwest Baptists and Southern Baptists.

Our younger churches are a significant part of our present ministry and they will be a growing part of our future ministry. Also, if in the Northwest we hope to increase the percent of our people who know Christ and attend church, we need to continually call out evangelists and church planter/gatherers. Planting new churches will always be a high priority.

That said, we must never forget, and never neglect, those churches long since established. Most of the gospel work is being done through them. And most of the support for new churches is being given by them. Some of these churches have enjoyed continuous ministry for over 100 years. Imagine that! We have churches in the Northwest who have met weekly, preaching the gospel and worshipping Jesus, without fail, for 30, 40, 50 years and more. Our oldest church is the Baptist Church on Homedale in Klamath Falls, OR (formerly the First Baptist Church before a merger with another church) founded in 1884 as Mt. Zion Baptist Church. We thank God for you!

So consider this a “shout-out” to churches old and new, without which the NWBC and the SBC would cease to exist as a people cooperating in gospel work to the glory of our God.

Northwest Baptists are Heading to Asia

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Tomorrow Paula and I will leave for Asia, joining 163 Northwest Baptists from 32 churches, to serve hundreds of missionaries living throughout Asia. Most of our mission team will serve several hundred missionary children, teaching them VBS, among other things. For example, Paula and six others will have 41 second-graders for nine hours each day.

There are a large number of kids in each age group, from newborns through high school. The volunteers from our churches have been preparing for several months to serve them, teach them, and love on them. This is the first such retreat these missionaries have had since 2009.

Each day we will have a worship service in which the missionaries will gather to pray and sing and study God’s Word. For many this will be their first time to worship in English, and to worship together, for three years or more. I will preach at some of these services. I will also lead a morning Bible study the first five days and would appreciate your prayers, not only for myself but for all our team. Other team members include a medical doctor, three nurses, security persons, technology persons, and two licensed Christian counselors.

Our volunteers are taking vacation from work and they are paying their own way. We have several mothers going who are leaving their children with their dads, grandparents or friends. Just yesterday I learned of one mother who is leaving four children with her husband, the youngest just two years-old. It’s humbling to see God’s people do such things because they love the Lord and they love our missionaries.

Also of interest is that 17 of the missionaries are from the Northwest or have served in the Northwest. These are men and women that our churches sent overseas, some 30 years ago, others more recently. We look forward to seeing them and encouraging them.

This mission effort of our churches is one more step in a partnership that the Northwest Baptist Convention of churches has with missionaries in Asia. Over the past two years, many of our churches have sent short term teams to serve alongside our long-term missions personnel. Most of these teams have sought to share the love of Jesus Christ in remote cities and towns in Asia where the name of Jesus is not widely known. For several weeks this summer one of our churches had 20 university students serving in an Asian university city, sharing Christ with college students there.

Words cannot express the gratitude I have for our pastors and churches. I believe that the growth in baptisms, church attendance, and Cooperative Program mission giving that we are seeing in the Northwest is due in part to our churches becoming more outwardly focused.

Churches that do evangelism and missions locally and globally tend to be more effective in reaching their neighbors with God’s love. Christians who are confident that Jesus Christ can save any person from their sin are more likely to tell others about Jesus. Believers who say with the Apostle Paul, “I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that He is able to guard what has been entrusted to me until that day,” are a powerful force in the world (2 Tim. 1:12).

Our team will return Aug. 11-13. Thank you for your prayers. Thank you for your support.

Reviving a Dying Church

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Thirty years ago this April I began my first pastorate. It was a dying church – dead really. Today we would call it a “legacy church plant.” There were ten people who attended our first Sunday, all but one retired, with the one being a teenage boy. I’m not sure why the boy was there, except that he lived on the other side of the cemetery. The cemetery, church, and a small school building, long since closed, bordered each other. The Thurmond family gave the property for these three entities in the 1890s, each deemed important for a community in those days.

My wife and I served that church for 3 ½ formative years, formative for us and for that church and community. I soon learned that the former pastor recommended that the church disband and give the building to the local Baptist association. He had reasoned this was their best option since they hadn’t baptized anyone in four years, only had a Sunday morning worship service with few attenders, and little prospect of seeing things turn around. The few attenders, most of whom had lived there all their lives, considered his suggestion, but decided to give it “one more try,” which meant giving one more seminary student an opportunity to “learn on them.”

We moved into the parsonage, which hadn’t been lived in for a few years. They tried to get it ready for us, but they hadn’t killed the scorpions, which we killed by the dozens. Then there were the skunks under the house. I would sit up at night, with a light shining into the yard, waiting for the skunks to come out. I shot them once they got far enough from the house that they couldn’t get back before they died. The house wasn’t much, but it was rent free, and that was most of our pay, so we were grateful to have it.

We had no neighbors, except cattle and the cemetery. And we had fireflies, hundreds of them that spring! One night I caught a couple of dozen in a mason jar and released them into our bedroom. I must say, it was quite romantic having those fireflies lighting up our room. But they all died so I only did that one time.

When I think back on those days, I am grateful that we came from a church that taught us how to share the gospel, and believed you had to take the gospel to the people, not wait for them to come to you. So that’s what we did. We began to visit the homes in that rural area, and a few more people started coming. The real breakthrough came that summer when Curtis Aydelotte gave his life to Christ.

I went to Curtis’s house and visited with his wife Kandy. She said that she would be at church with her kids but her husband wouldn’t because “he doesn’t go to church.” But the next day there he was. Within a month he received Christ and became the first person baptized in that church in 4 years. Curtis was 47 years old. He later told me that when I came to his house he was sick in bed with a migraine, but he could see me out the window. When his wife told him I was a preacher, he said, “Huh, a preacher who wears blue jeans. I think I’ll try that church.” That was 30 years ago and Curtis and Kandy are still serving Christ in their senior years.

Others soon came to know Christ. Families were transformed. The church grew. We never became large, but that church is still there today. The ten there when we arrived are all dead, save the one boy, but the church remains.

A fellow seminary student asked me, “How do you get motivated to preach to so few people?” That was an odd question to me. Motivation was not a problem. For one thing, I was visiting people throughout the week, sharing Christ with them, and inviting them to church. If they came and I wasn’t prepared for them, that would be a tragedy. Moreover, every individual who came needed, and deserved, to hear a well-prepared message from God’s Word just as much as the attender of a mega-church did. A further motivation for me, I must admit, was that I was learning how to preach and how to pastor God’s people. These both required hard work. I was young and knew that I wouldn’t be at that church forever. But if I did not serve them well, why should God give me any other ministry? Besides, this was what God called me to, and I was having a lot of fun.

We saw a “little revival” in that church and community. It came as the pastor, and then the church, began to share Christ with others. It came as our little church gained confidence that God was at work, and that they could invite people to attend with the confidence that God could use us to bring eternal life to others. Within two years, God even used our church to start another church about seven miles away. We were the first church to start a church in that association in about ten years. That served to motivate other churches, much bigger churches, to do the same.

Those years at Fairview Baptist Church were good years. We learned a lot, and we saw God do a good work.

This Sunday, April 3, I’ll be preaching at Orchards Baptist Church in Lewiston, ID, beginning a four-day revival emphasis. I pray that we see God do deep work in that church, and that lost people are drawn to Jesus. But I do know this, if your church needs revival, share the Gospel on a regular basis and lead your church to do the same. The gospel of Jesus Christ is the power of God to save a person from sin, and nothing revives a church like God’s people getting right with Him, and then sharing the gospel with others.

Several years ago I saw Curtis Aydelotte at a funeral. He told me that recently he had crashed his motorcycle and was sliding down the road, certain he would die. But he said, “It was amazing because I wasn’t afraid. I was sliding down the road and I knew I would be with God.” He said, “That’s the thought that hit my brain. I knew I’d be with God – and I wasn’t afraid.” Then he said, “I thought you’d like to know that.”

Curtis was right. I did like hearing that. It demonstrated that the Jesus he had come to know decades before, through the ministry of a little reviving church, is powerful, and His salvation is eternal.

Trust: The Irreplaceable Currency of Voluntary Missionary Movements

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High trust societies prosper; low trust societies don’t. Nearly 20 years ago my wife started an import business to help missionaries in South Asia secure business visas. She imported from a country that manufactured unique jewelry, carpets and clothing. The business was successful in that several missionaries received long-term visas. Financially, though, it was not profitable. A primary reason behind the lack of profit was that the people from whom she imported always skimmed some of the products.

Economists know that prosperous nations have high levels of trust, enabling them to develop banks, stock markets and legal systems that operate with an integrity that builds trust. Poor nations are generally low in trust, often extending little trust of anyone beyond family, ethnic group, or religion.

When I think about the work we do together as Baptists, I am amazed that a voluntary missionary movement such as ours has prospered in miraculous ways – and that is what the Southern Baptist (SB) denomination is – a voluntary missionary movement – an incredibly successful one at that. While we grieve the recent downsizing of the International Mission Board (983 missionaries have left the field, plus 149 stateside staff), it’s remarkable that 3,941 international missionaries are being sustained through the voluntary missions support of Southern Baptists (as of 2/23/16).

In addition, more than 900 churches are being planted each year in North America, 18,000 seminary students are being trained, and thousands more are sharpening their skills and strengthening their hearts through training and events, and so much more. The SB voluntary missionary movement includes dozens of colleges and universities, collegiate ministries, children’s homes, and, at one time, hospitals. The currency that has been irreplaceable in moving our missionary movement forward is trust and good will. More than the almighty dollar, Southern Baptists, and our Northwest Baptist network, have enjoyed a level of trust that has enabled our now 46,000 churches to do Kingdom work together, even during difficult days.

However, while God’s work through the SB voluntary missionary movement has been remarkable, it is not inevitable that God will continue to bless us and use us to bring the gospel to our nation and our world. Jesus said that the gates of Hades will not prevail against His Church, and we believe this absolutely, but local churches do die, and denominations and missionary movements have died as well. The Church continues, but local expressions of the Church have no such guarantee. Have you ever visited the churches that Paul founded in Ephesus, Corinth, or Philippi? Neither have I because those churches no longer exist. In 1776 the Congregationalists had the greatest number of churches in America. Today they are blip on the screen of American church life.

Glossy optimism about the voluntary missionary movement that is Southern Baptist is not warranted. The facts (baptisms, missionaries on the field, new churches planted) indicate that our missionary movement has not only ceased moving forward, but we have actually taken steps backward. Some become uncomfortable when such things are pointed out, but I believe that we must face things as they really are, including how we got to where we are, if we hope to regain momentum in our grand mission endeavor.

For effectiveness to continue and grow, we must build and grow the “trust bank.” How do we do that? Here is a thesis statement for you to consider: Trust results from the credibility of the leader, and the confidence that the leader acts in the best interest of the organization. Believing this to be true, I want to offer several essentials for building and maintaining trust. Please note, though I have referenced the larger missionary movement that we call the SBC, these principles apply to any voluntary missionary movement, including the regional convention that I lead, or that of the local church.

The key to a missionary movement is leadership. Voluntary missionary movements require leaders who:

1. Believe in the missionary movement that they lead. This may seem obvious, but some leaders only believe in the movement “when they are the leader.” The most effective, trust-building leaders are chosen to lead because they demonstrated belief in the movement even before they came to lead it. We see this in the Bible over and again (Acts 6:3; 1 Thess. 2; 1 Tim. 3; many Old Testament examples, with David being one of the best because he fought a giant for his God and country before he became king). Southern Baptists hearts are united by a cause, the Great Commission, but we are also united by the means we have chosen to engage our cause, namely working together cooperatively, which includes the Cooperative Program. To be a Southern Baptist means we believe that the Great Commission is our commission, and that a primary method to fulfilling it is through CP missions.

2. Develop strong and healthy relationships with others who lead the missionary movement. Voluntary missionary movements require trust, and trust is built through relationship. We see an example of this in the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, and we see it throughout Paul’s letters.

3. Are transparent and open to inquiry and accountability. In a voluntary missionary movement, no one is more accountable than the leader. Strong, secure leaders invite inquiry and discussion. Restricting speech will destroy a voluntary missionary movement. “Trust the Lord and tell the people” is an old Baptist saying.

4. Always keep their word and act with integrity. Always.

5. Explain their actions, giving the “why?” as well as the “what?” Knowing “why” a particular course of action was taken, especially if the decision is controversial, will preserve and build trust because it demonstrates respect toward others in the missionary movement. Again, we see this in Acts 15. We see it throughout Paul’s communication with various churches as he explained himself and his teaching.

6. Admit and explain failure. Repent and ask forgiveness when they sin.

7. Think and plan for the long-term. Christopher Columbus, yes, the one who “sailed the ocean blue” in 1492, believed that he was extending Christianity, and that through his efforts and those of others, Jesus could return in about 150 years. Jonathan Edwards, the great revivalist and preacher, wrote in the 1740s that the last people he expected to be reached for Christ were the Muslims, and that by the year 2,000 Jesus could return. He was looking forward 250 years. Leaders of voluntary missionary movements serve as though Jesus could return tomorrow, but they don’t “sell the farm,” trading tomorrow for today.

Those of us who lead aspects of the Southern Baptist missionary movement, whether we are local church pastors, associational or denominational leaders, inherited the trust and good will built by our forefathers. Just as inherited wealth tends to dissipate over time, trust and good will can easily be eroded over time if it is not stewarded well. When a voluntary missionary movement loses these, it loses everything.

Many years ago I read Jay Winik’s book titled April 1865: The Month that Saved America, which focused on the final month of the American Civil War. It was a fascinating book, the thesis of which was that it was not inevitable that the war ended the way that it did, allowing for the United States to reunite and eventually become one again. To paraphrase, he said that great men did great things, at the right time. Had Lincoln, Lee and Grant chosen differently, we would live in a different world today.

God is sovereign. He will accomplish His agenda. But it would be presumption, not faith, to say that God has to bless us and use us to get His work done. As leaders of a Bible class, a church, or an agency that serves churches, we must do all we can to build trust, so that God alone gets the glory as He uses us in ways greater than ever.

New Year Opportunities and Challenges

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Thank you Northwest Baptists for your faithfulness to make disciples and do missions. Not only did our churches reach more people for Christ last year, and baptize more, your generosity to support missions through the Cooperative Program, the Sylvia Wilson Northwest Mission Offering, Annie Armstrong North American Offering, World Hunger and Disaster Relief offerings all showed significant increase in 2015. The Lottie Moon International Missions Offering was slightly down in 2015, but the Lottie Moon Offering we received on January 2, 2016 put us ahead of the previous year as well, which was a 25 percent increase from the year before that. In addition, 35 new churches were launched last year. We have grown from 34 funded church plants two years ago, to 68 by the end of 2015. The total number of NWBC churches now stands at 484, up from 466 the previous year.

The new year presents us with some great opportunities, as well as a challenge. First, in March we will have one-day Story Witnessing workshops throughout our convention. These will be followed up by a three-day workshop in September (dates and locations in the Witness and on our website at http://www.nwbaptist.org). In MY316 evangelism training, we teach you how to tell your salvation story, and how to use John 3:16 to share the Gospel. In Story Witnessing you learn how to listen, ask good questions, and then tell a Bible story that relates to what the person said. It is a powerful way to share the gospel.

Another opportunity is that of serving our IMB missionaries in a huge retreat in August. We need 200 volunteers to serve in Thailand, and we need many more praying for them and supporting them. We will have 1,300 missionaries, including children. They currently have 524 children, with 8 more in adoption process, and 14 missionary wives are with child. How fun! We get to serve these missionaries and their children. Please note, a $350 deposit is due by February 15, with the total cost being $700, plus airfare and some meals. Your church has much more info about this trip. You can also email Sheila Allen at Sheila@nwbaptist.org.

The challenge we face concerns church planting funding. Because of the rapid growth we have had in new churches, the North American Mission Board (NAMB) provided us with additional funding in 2015, corresponding with extra funding that we provided. Though NAMB encouraged us to keep growing the number of our new churches, with the expectation that we would receive additional funding in 2016, things changed when the International Mission Board announced that they would were downsizing by 800 missionaries for financial reasons. For many years the IMB has been spending from reserve funds, and selling property, to keep more missionaries on the field. They can no longer do this. Baptists across the country, and indeed the world, are grieved as hundreds of missionaries return from the field. NAMB has determined to help the IMB by giving them $4 million dollars in 2016. Largely because of this, we were told in late November that additional dollars beyond our basic funding agreement would not be available in 2016. If other state conventions underspend their budgets, we could receive additional funding, but we won’t know this until April.

It is important for you to know this because it affects the funding that our church planters receive. Please pray for our church planters. Please support them as you can. We are grateful for the support that we receive from NAMB and other partners, but this is a reminder that Southern Baptists are an interconnected system of 46,000 churches, associations, conventions, seminaries, and mission agencies. When one part of the system suffers, we all do. In the Northwest we receive a great deal of support from our SBC family, including NAMB and the IMB. Sometimes the decisions they make affect us adversely, but we are far, far better for being a part of the SBC family. It is a good day to serve the Lord in the Northwest.

Update on IMB Missionaries Returning to the Northwest

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In September of this year, all IMB missionaries and staff age 50 and above, with a minimum of five years tenure, were offered a Voluntary Retirement Incentive (VRI) from the IMB. IMB leaders determined that our international mission force must be reduced by 600 to 800 in order to bring the IMB budget into balance.

Apparently, IMB leaders a number of years ago intentionally grew our mission force beyond what the income could support. The additional missionaries were sent and sustained by selling property overseas and drawing down the IMB reserve funds. But with reserve funds significantly lower, the time has come that the IMB must operate within its budget. Current IMB leadership determined that the first step in reducing our mission force would be to ask our most senior missionaries and staff to consider the VRI. The deadline to make their decision was in early November, but they were allowed to change their mind as late as early December.

While we don’t have the complete picture as to how this affects IMB missionaries from the Northwest (the IMB has not reported on this, as of Dec. 8, 2015), I want to tell you what we know. I do this so that you can pray for the men and women affected by the VRI, and also so that you might know who could be available to serve in our Northwest Baptist churches.

Those Northwest IMB missionaries who are accepting the VRI, and leaving their overseas assignment are: Andy and Kaye Martin, Susan Vessey, Al and Ann Rodriquez, and Ian and Sherri Buntain. There may be others, and probably are, but we don’t yet have information on any others. In addition to these, David and Nora Gass have accepted the VRI, after serving 13 years with the IMB, and David will join our NWBC staff on February 1, 2016 as a church health strategist, serving in Regions 1 and 2. David will also help lead our East Asia partnership. He served as the partnership strategist in East Asia for the IMB and has a relationship with hundreds of East Asia missionaries.

In addition to these, the couple that many of you know as “Leon and Kay” (pseudonyms), have accepted the VRI, but are choosing to remain in the country and city where they have served for many years. This summer they received a mission team from the Northwest, and though no longer officially IMB missionaries, they will continue to relate to IMB personnel, and they will continue to work with Northwest Baptist mission teams.

As we receive further information on IMB personnel from the Northwest, we will update you. Also, feel free to contact me if you receive information regarding one of our missionaries. If you would like to contact one of these that I have mentioned here, please contact Marsha Gray (marshag@nwbaptist.org) or myself and we will put you in touch with them.

There are dozens of IMB missionaries from the Northwest who will remain on their field of service. Those remaining need our earnest prayers. Many are losing their field leaders and mentors due to the VRI. In addition to praying for them, the NWBC is taking 200 volunteers to Pattaya, Thailand in August, 2016 to serve about 1,300 IMB missionaries and their children during a time of retreat. We will minister to their spiritual, physical and emotional needs in an unprecedented opportunity for our convention of churches (contact Sheila Allen for more information at Sheila@nwbaptist.org).

Also, thank you for your support of mission work by giving through the Cooperative Program. This is also the season in which many of our churches support the work of the IMB by giving through the Lottie Moon Offering. Last year our NWBC churches increased their missions giving through the Lottie Moon Offering by 25 percent, with total NWBC giving of slightly more than $500,000 in 2014. We anticipate another great year of giving to support the work of more than 4,000 IMB missionaries.