About a year ago Chris Roberts started Bridge Community Church in Blackshear, Ga., with just 36 people. The congregation has since swelled to an average of 280 in Sunday morning worship. The rapid growth has sent Roberts scrambling to lay groundwork for what he hopes will become one of Bridge Community's hallmarks -- missions.
"We already have a heart to connect with an unreached people group," Roberts said, explaining that his church has the passion but not the know-how. That's what brought him to the International Mission Board's first Embrace equipping conference Sept. 7 in Marietta, Ga.
Roberts was one of nearly 500 pastors and church leaders who packed the Atlanta-area Johnson Ferry Baptist Church for the all-day event, a starting point for churches willing to explore the challenge of taking the Gospel to the world's 3,800 unengaged, unreached people groups (UUPGs).
Launched at June's year's Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting in Phoenix, the Embrace initiative represents a radical addition to Southern Baptists' traditional missionary-sending model and an ambitious goal for the denomination's 46,000 churches: a lifetime commitment to "do whatever it takes" to make Jesus' name known among a UUPG.
The idea was born of a prayer-laden collaboration between IMB President Tom Elliff and Bryant Wright, SBC president and pastor of Johnson Ferry Baptist Church, who have challenged Southern Baptist churches to claim responsibility by next year's SBC annual meeting for reaching all 3,800 unengaged, unreached people groups.
These UUPGs "are in some of the absolute hardest places in the world," Elliff told Embrace attendees. "As far as we know there is no ongoing, deliberate strategy involving boots on the ground that is doing these three things -- evangelizing, discipling and planting a reproducing church."
The IMB can't reach all 3,800 UUPGs, not even with 10,000 missionaries, Elliff explained.
"It's not so much us asking you to be our partner in this ... but actually it's about us saying that we want to be your partner," Elliff said. "It's going to take us all to reach the ends of the earth."
For Roberts, the Embrace call is an answer to prayer. Just a few weeks earlier, he had assembled a group of church members to seek God's direction for the shape of Bridge Community's future missions involvement. Though the group might be more commonly known as a missions committee at other churches, Roberts calls them a "Go team." One of the members stumbled upon the Embrace conference while surfing IMB's website.
"We're ready to obey, even though we don't know the task yet," Roberts said. "If I allow God's passion to overflow in my heart, then that's going to spill out on our congregation."
That's why Roberts didn't come to Atlanta alone. Like many of the 200-plus churches and entities represented at the Embrace event, Roberts brought along two members of the Go team. Between the three of them, their short-term missions experience is deep and diverse, with trips to India, Turkey, Moldova, Romania, Russia, Greece, Ecuador, Brazil and Jamaica. So it's no surprise that sharing the Gospel with an unengaged, unreached people group doesn't worry this team. Instead it's the daunting task of picking a UUPG with whom to share that does.
"It's intimidating trying to find where God wants you," said Shannon Gillen, one of Bridge Community's Go team members who accompanied Roberts. "But once God does that, it's exciting to be able to partner in one specific place and pour everything into it."
Helping churches navigate the UUPG selection process is one of the goals of the Embrace conferences, which feature a series of people-group-focused breakout sessions designed to paint a picture of the unique challenges of reaching UUPGs in a specific area of the world. The conference also attempts to tackle some of the "alphabet soup" of acronyms and terms for which IMB is infamous, breaking down information into clear concepts that church leaders can share with their congregations.
For instance, there are more than 11,000 people groups on earth; approximately 3,800 are UUPGs. The first "U," unengaged, means there is no known active, evangelical church-planting strategy among the people group. The second "U," unreached, describes a people group that is less than 2 percent evangelical Christian. A "people group" is the largest group through which the Gospel can flow without encountering significant barriers of understanding and acceptance.
Conference attendees also heard success stories from churches already "embracing" unreached people groups -- churches like Beulah Baptist, a small, rural congregation in Hopkins, S.C.
Led by pastor Brad Bessent, Beulah began praying in 2007 about partnering with IMB to spread the Gospel among an unreached West African people group. Beulah eventually set its sights on a village of about 3,000 people. There were no evangelical churches in the village and no known Christians.
Short-term missions teams from Beulah began visiting the village every six weeks, openly sharing the Gospel with anyone willing to listen. At an average cost of $4,000 per volunteer, the trips weren't cheap, and the church didn't have money to fund them.
"God can supply $4,000 as easily as He can give you four pennies," Bessent said. "We don't pay anybody's way. They have to raise their own support. We're a blue-collar church. There are no rich people in my church. ... God has always provided."
During the past four years, Beulah Baptist has witnessed more than 100 new believers among their people group, and that number continues to grow.
"Now some of you are going to go away after what you hear today and say, 'I can't do that.' And I think you need to be honest with yourself and say, 'I won't do that.' Because you can do that with God," Bessent said.
Elliff strongly cautioned that success like Beulah's isn't possible apart from prayer -- the single most important component of the Embrace process.
"If this does not begin with prayer in your heart and prayer in your church, then it will never go any further than today," Elliff said.
"You're not going to be able to get on an airplane and go to virtually any of these groups tomorrow. You couldn't if you wanted to. ... But you can be there in a second in prayer. And if God can somehow expand our concept of what praying does, we won't think that it's just a little thing to pray about people. We'll see that God being there is sometimes more important than our being there."
That's a truth Chris Roberts isn't afraid to acknowledge.
"I'm scared we don't listen enough," he said. "I feel like we've got a lot of work to do but excited that we know the next step."
There are three more opportunities to attend an Embrace equipping event: Oct. 27 at Hillcrest Baptist Church in Cedar Hill, Texas; Nov. 4 at Applewood Baptist Church in Denver, and March 24 at Immanuel Baptist Church in Highland, Calif. Those who want to participate can register at call2embrace.org, which also includes a video from the Atlanta Embrace equipping conference sessions.
Those unable to attend any of the Embrace events can register for a free, one-hour Embrace equipping webinar. Visit call2embrace.org to sign up.
Don Graham is a senior writer for the International Mission Board.
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