"I've been here 10 years and love it," Gilstrap said of his time in the state.
Gilstrap earned a doctor of ministry degree from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, a master of divinity from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, a bachelor's degree from Oklahoma Baptist University and an associate's degree from Brewton-Parker College in Georgia.
Throughout 29 years of ministry, Gilstrap has been pastor of four churches and an associate pastor at several others, and he started a couple of photography businesses. Gilstrap and his wife Brenda have two sons, Robert and Andrew.
Upon his election at the annual meeting of the Baptist State Convention of Michigan Oct. 27, Gilstrap delivered a message based on Matthew 9:36-38, leading with a comparison to the 33 Chilean miners who were trapped below ground for 69 days.
"Michigan is a state where more than 80 percent of our population is trapped in a spiritual mine with no hope," Gilstrap said. "The problem is they don't know that they are in the spiritual mine. It is our job to help Michiganders realize that they are trapped in the spiritual mine with no hope and help them meet the person who is eternal hope, Jesus Christ."
Gilstrap, who will officially assume leadership Jan. 1, said Michigan has a rich history of churches being started and lives being transformed.
"While northern industrialization expanded, we saw the dynamic growth of churches across our state as we saw a harvest of souls," he said. "However, today we must face the harsh and brutal realities that we are no longer living in the 1950s and '60s. We must face the reality that things are different now. We have too many churches that are saying, 'God, I remember when,' rather than, 'God, how can we reach them?'"
In Gilstrap's estimation, Michigan Baptists have allowed themselves to be diverted to secondary priorities. Not only that, they have come to consider them primary, he said in his sermon.
"Any outside observer could come away with an impression that the church's primary aim has become maintaining the compound and the institution and not reaching out to change a lost world," Gilstrap told messengers.
Michigan has more lost people than 42 other states have in total population, he said, and every Michigan Baptist would have to lead 653 people to Christ for the convention to reach the state. They can do that, Gilstrap said, if they realize the resources are in the harvest.
"How do we make a difference? One person at a time," he said. "We must have top leaders to lead the change."
Gilstrap said future church planters, dynamic youth leaders, musicians, deacons and lay leaders are among those yet to be reached in Michigan.
"Remember, the people resources are in the harvest," he said.
In an interview with Baptist Press, Gilstrap said he sensed a call to the work of an associational missionary while he was a pastor in southwestern Oklahoma.
"I'm a resourcing type person. That's just the way I'm wired," he said. "My secretary at the church used to always laugh and say, 'How in the world will you ever survive without at least four big file cabinets by your desk?'"
When he began serving as a DOM in Michigan, one of Gilstrap's priorities was to support local churches in the missions task by providing ministry resources.
As he looks toward leading the state convention, Gilstrap said one aspect of his past that has served him well is that he was bivocational at all but one church, and that meant he constantly had his foot in the midst of lost people through his second job.
"I know what it's like to be a guy that goes to work and has to deal with lost people all day," he said. "That's been to my strength most of the time."
Michigan's culture differs significantly from the South, he said, mainly because it's a labor union state.
"The crash of the economy, we're in about our seventh year of the recession where most of the country is only three or four years in," Gilstrap said. "We have hundreds of thousands of people who have come on and gone off the unemployment roll because they've been on it so long. We have counties in our area that are 37 or 38 percent unemployment. That's a huge factor as far as the culture."
Gilstrap said more than 8 million unbelievers reside in Michigan, and one of the keys to understanding the mission field there is that it's a high church culture.
"Six of the 10 largest denominations in Michigan are high church -- Episcopal, Lutheran -- and a lot of unaffiliated people," he told BP.
A study by the Intercultural Institute for Contextual Ministry identified 335 locations in Michigan as primary locations for church plants, places where there is a low evangelical presence and a high unreached people group population.
"It represents the incredible lostness that is here and the tremendous need we have for the investment of people and resources and partners, which we already are working on but we've got to step that up quite a bit to make an impact," Gilstrap said.
Erin Roach is a staff writer for Baptist Press.
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