The tears fell as the impact grew of what messengers and guests were seeing and hearing: nine ethnic groups in national attire, one after another following their nation's flag from the back to the front of the worship center at Monroe Missionary Baptist Church, singing "People Need the Lord" in their native language, including American Sign Language.
"This is beautiful," whispered Pat Holewinski of Roscommon (Mich.) Baptist Church as she gazed at people in Hmong, Chinese, Korean, African and American attire flowing toward the altar. "I didn't expect something as special as this."
From all accounts, the Baptist State Convention of Michigan's annual meeting was "something special," with challenging messages, unanimous votes for all officers, financial news stirring spontaneous applause from impressed messengers, and a near-contentious vote over a revised constitution. Undergirding each message and presentation was the statement, "Michigan is a mission field and Michigan Baptists are a missions force."
Michigan is the fifth-largest state in the United States, with a population of 9 million people, 6 percent of whom are Muslim, 1 percent of whom are Southern Baptist. More mosques than Southern Baptist churches are scattered across the state where people speak 125 languages. Michigan Baptists worship in 18, including English.
Executive Director Bobby Gilstrap, known in Michigan as "lead state missionary," was the first speaker to challenge the audience.
"The church today needs to recover a militant spirit," Gilstrap preached. "The church is to be a bride in combat boots. Michigan is a missions field; Michigan Baptists are a missions force."
With Michigan's annual meeting coming a few days after a hard-fought political battle for the U.S. presidency, and a few days before Veteran's Day, Gilstrap's "The Battle is the Lord's" message challenged the messengers.
"We must have an aggressive mind, global strategy, disciplined membership and adequate resources," Gilstrap noted regarding each of the four points in turn. "When we become a Christian, we don't just join a church, we join a cause. ... It's time for us to wage open war. ... Our strength is found in the invincible power of the Gospel."
Roscoe Belton, president of the Michigan convention and pastor of Middlebelt Baptist Church in Inkster, picked up on the theme presented in the opening session by nine of the 17 non-English language groups with a Michigan Baptist presence. People need the Lord, and God has opened doors to reach them, Belton preached from 1 Corinthians 16:9, emphasizing open doors of opportunity, obligation and opposition.
"Our God is opening doors to us Michigan Southern Baptists," Belton said. "Let's seize the opportunity while we can, rather than let it pass us by. ... God brought us together for just such a time as this. ... Let's be faithful and obedient ... despite the opposition that is sure to come our way. ... The bride has to have combat boots on. We must be a missions force."
Larry Allen, pastor of Warren Woods Baptist Church in Warren, presented the annual sermon on the dry bones of Ezekiel 37. Hopelessness gripped the hearts of the people of Judah, who were in Babylon, modern-day Iraq, Allen said.
And just like the prophet Ezekiel, "I think God wants to bring life to this community" of Michigan Baptists, Allen said. "Our bones have come together, but without God's breath? ... Oh dear God, we must have your breath."
Earlier in the 55th annual meeting, Allen was unanimously elected as the 2013 president of the Michigan convention.
The other officers, all of whom were elected by acclamation, are vice president Rob Freshour, pastor of First Baptist Church of South Lyon; second vice president Kevin Hester, pastor of Sanctuary Church in Watervliet; recording secretary Jimmy Jones, pastor of First Baptist Church of Trenton; and assistant recording secretary Art Werry, pastor of New Life Baptist Church in Frazier.
Michigan as a state has suffered economically over the last 10 years, and so has the Baptist State Convention of Michigan, said Ken Render, pastor of Lakeside Community Church in St. Clair Shores, as he presented financial news and the 2013 budget.
As "we are trying to get our financial house in order," Render said, the state staff has endured reduced benefits and additional duties as a result of attrition and downsizing.
Every year over the last 10 years, it has been necessary to dip and sometimes ladle into restricted funds to make up for income shortfalls, Render said. But this year, "We have made up $158,000 of the $320,000 in restricted funds," Render said to sustained applause at his unexpected words.
The $2,869,088 budget for 2013 is up $46,490 from 2012. The new budget includes a 90/10 supplement from the North American Mission Board for jointly-funded personnel and ministry, up from an 85/15 split last year. Succinctly, for every $10 contributed by the Baptist State Convention of Michigan, NAMB contributes $90.
In other business, a motion barely passed to allow former directors of missions to continue working part-time in their associations while fulfilling new assignments as regional church starter strategists.
Gilstrap said he would be attending this year's annual meeting of the Alabama Baptist Convention to present a plaque in appreciation of their partnership with Michigan over the last five years, two years past their original commitment.
Messengers passed a resolution "that we Michigan Baptists diligently work as agents of reconciliation in our divided nation."
Messengers presented the "Lighthouse Mission Volunteer of the Year" award to Jim Ellsworth, an active member of Tecumseh Missionary Baptist Church, for the way he engages in missions "the Acts 1:8 way in his Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the uttermost parts of the world" and encourages others to do the same.
Another highlight was recognizing the "sea of yellow disaster relief shirts" present as the state convention celebrated 20 years of ministry through disaster relief. The convention's DR outreach was initiated by 12 men, several of whom were present and still are actively involved.
The 189 registered messengers came from 79 of the state convention's 248 churches, 48 chapels and 17 Bible study fellowships. All of the state convention's associations were represented.
Messengers scheduled the 2013 annual meeting for Oct. 28-29 at Cedar Street Church in Holt, with Scott Blanchard, church starter and pastor of Lakepointe Church in Macomb, bringing the annual sermon. The alternate speaker is Eli Garza, pastor of Primera Iglesia Bautista Hispana in Detroit.
Karen L. Willoughby is managing editor of the Louisiana Baptist Message and the Michigan Baptist Beacon, newsjournals for their respective state conventions. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress ) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).
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