Swain, a deacon and recently elected moderator of the Greater Detroit Baptist Association, was among 700-plus leaders from six state Baptist conventions at the North Central States Rally, held every three years to provide training in various ministry areas and to celebrate what Swain called one of the region's defining characteristics.
"God put on my heart to embrace our diversity," Swain said. "That's one of the strengths we have as Southern Baptists in the North."
With "Advance" as the rally's theme, participants from Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin were called on to lead their churches to advance God's Kingdom. The states themselves are diverse, home to miles of farmland, bustling metropolitan areas, sprawling suburbs and relatively few evangelical churches.
British evangelist Dennis Pethers, addressing the region's ministry challenges, said the Midwest's population centers resemble European cities more those in the U.S. where Southern Baptists are numerous and strong.
"Most of the people who are outside of the church do not think of themselves as outside of the church," Pethers said. "They are just living their lives, doing the things they do, because that's what they do with their life." Like he was before someone reached out to him at the age of 19, "they don't know that they don't know," said Pethers, creator of the "More to Life" evangelism training resources available through LifeWay Christian Resources.
Dan Eddington, director of missions in Illinois' Three Rivers Baptist Association, resonated with Pethers' assessment. "We're dealing with people who have no clue what we're talking about when we're discussing faith," Eddington said. "We're not in a Christian culture anymore."
Kevin Ezell, president of the North American Mission Board, noted, "We're in a crisis -- trying to penetrate lostness," pointing out that Southern Baptists are losing ground in advancing the faith, with the population growing faster than church attendance. Compared to the year 1900, when there was one Southern Baptist church for every 3,900 people, Ezell said in 2010 there was one SBC church for every 6,100 people in the United States.
"The harvest is not the problem ...," Ezell said, drawing on Jesus' teaching on the ripe harvest. "We've got to pray for laborers."
Those laborers, however, face a tough road, said Ed Stetzer, LifeWay Christian Resources vice president of research and ministry development.
"It's not easy to live in a world of increasing rebellion, that celebrates rebellion" against God, Stetzer said. "God has always ruled over everything from His throne in heaven," he said, declaring, "We are the rebellion against the rebellion," garnering vigorous applause in the packed-out ballroom at the Jan. 24-26 sessions in a northeast Indianapolis Sheraton.
"We are called to hard places," Scott Nichols told the crowd in the Wednesday night worship session, "but God leads us to hard places for His glory and for our good."
Nichols, pastor of Crossroads Community Church in Carol Stream, Ill., urged the church leaders to remain faithful despite the difficulties of ministry. Pointing to tough choices Moses faced when crossing the Red Sea, Nichols said, "God leads us through hard places into a better place."
More than 50 speakers presented 90 breakout sessions on such topics as local church renewal, church planting, missions for the small church and being an effective church in an urban area.
"All of us need to constantly have our edges sharpened over the course of our ministry, day in and day out, week in and week out," Adam Cruse, pastor of First Baptist Church in Mt. Carmel, Ill., said of the rally. "We need to learn and we need to get equipped for the world that we live in. And opportunities like this, with some of the best speakers in America, really help that."
Learning from other Southern Baptists in a similar context was helpful for leaders seeking to shape strategy to reach a changing world with the Gospel, said Jerry Day, leadership development consultant for the Illinois Baptist State Association.
"Though every local situation is different, those of us who serve the Lord here in the Midwest share enough common ground that the North Central States event is a great way to learn from each other proven practices that advance the Kingdom in this unique area," Day said.
"In addition to focusing on major cities in the north-central states, it was encouraging to revisit the idea that there is still a great need in rural Midwest communities," Day added. "In these settings, it is vital for us to cooperate in addressing pockets of lostness by helping existing churches become stronger and starting new ones."
As Swain, of the Greater Detroit Baptist Association, said of the churches in his metro area, diversity can bring Christians together. Stetzer, observing the makeup of the crowd after his message, noted that diversity is not only by ethnicity or geography, but also age. "The attendance here is multigenerational, and that's encouraging, but it is also surprisingly younger than attendance at many denominational events," Stetzer told the Illinois Baptist newsjournal.
Stetzer said that's a good sign for Southern Baptists in the Midwest. "Where these state conventions are located makes them become more diverse and brings younger people into leadership," he said. "Given the desire among younger people for connectedness and partnership, that points to the future in positive ways."
Eric Reed is a pastor in Chicago who also writes for the Illinois Baptist, newsjournal of the Illinois Baptist State Association.
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