The June 8-9 sessions in the Baltimore Convention Center preceded the June 10-11 annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention.
"The greatest potential for the Kingdom of God is not in the pulpit, but in the congregation," said J.D. Greear, lead pastor of The Summit Church in Durham, N.C.
Greear focused on John 16:7, which reads, "But very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you." Greear also read John 14:12, in which Jesus told His disciples, "whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father."
Sharing the Gospel with people and seeing lives changed from death to life is ultimately greater than Jesus' earthly miracles, Greear said.
"When we preach the Gospel and sinners believe, we are doing the greater work," he said. "We are doing the thing all of Jesus's miracles were trying to illustrate."
Much of church growth, Greear said, is based on "shuffling existing Christians around" while reaching lost people accounts for just a small percentage of growing churches.
Greear called churches to be more concerned with spreading the glory of God on earth instead of their own glory.
"Sending capacity and not just seating capacity ought to be the measure of any Kingdom-minded church's success," he said.
Churches were called to sacrificially give away their best resources, leaders and opportunities in order to grow for God's glory.
"Jesus' promises about the greatness of His church are tied to sending," Greear said.
The surprise speaker of the Pastors' Conference was Alex Himaya, pastor of theChurch.at in Tulsa, Okla. Bad weather prevented Tony Evans, the originally scheduled speaker, from flying out of the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
In lieu of recapping statistics describing the poor state of the church in America, Himaya simply called pastors and everyday believers alike to share their redemption story with those around them as a way to call people to faith in Christ.
Himaya's message focused on Revelation 12:11, which reads, "And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony; and they loved not their lives unto the death."
Himaya said he fears Christians today have overcomplicated the Gospel. The essentials, he said, are the blood of Jesus shed for sinners and Christians' testimony of transformation, as described in Revelation 12:11.
With that in mind, Himaya shared his personal testimony of growing up as the son of an Egyptian father and a mother from North Carolina. Both he and his brother came to faith at youth camps and later led their parents to Christ. He closed his message by calling attendees to pause for prayer, asking God to show them their testimony, help them organize it and write it down, lead them to practice it and give them opportunities to share it.
"He wants to use us to take the blood of the Lamb and the word of our testimony and share it with those who desperately need it ... it's good news," Himaya said. "e are taking the greatest news on the planet to the world that Jesus wants to save and died and gave His blood for. That's as simple as it is."
Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., spoke Monday evening about suffering. His message came a little more than a year after his son Matthew committed suicide.
Warren kept his remarks brief, saying that, though he had prepared a full message on suffering, a whisper from the Holy Spirit guided him in another direction during his flight to Baltimore.
"The Holy Spirit whispered to me, 'The people and the pastors need your prayers more than they need your sermon,'" Warren said.
After speaking for about 15 minutes about suffering, Warren called for those who were in the midst of suffering to walk to the front, where he knelt and prayed for them. Warren asked the Lord to use the suffering in their lives to make them more like Christ and to better enable them to minister and witness. Many in the crowd came forward.
Before the prayer, Warren told the attendees that suffering, though entwined with sorrow and grief, can be and is used by God to accomplish His purposes. He said he has learned from his own experience that, after asking "why questions" -- questions that even Jesus asked -- Christians must realize that God allows suffering to direct, inspect, correct, protect and perfect them.
"If you study church history, you will discover that behind every publicly successful ministry, there is private pain," Warren said, adding later that in his worst year, Saddleback had its best year.
"Pain is God's megaphone," he said. "There is no testimony without a test. There is no message without a mess. There is no impact without criticism. It is not by accident that the most blessed ministries are also the most attacked ministries."
Warren also offered five specific ways people can use suffering when it comes, telling them to use it to draw closer to God, to draw closer to people, to become more like Jesus, to help others and to witness to the world.
"God's number one purpose in your life is to make you more like Christ," Warren said. "If God's going to make you like Jesus, He's going to take you through the things that Jesus went through."
James MacDonald, pastor of Harvest Bible Church in Chicago, called pastors and leaders to seek after God's presence in their churches.
"The holy hour of worship is a time and a place for God to rend the heavens and come down," MacDonald said. "Nothing else will substitute. We have settled for less, and we have forgotten how to blush about it."
That's why, MacDonald said, "the church in America is in trouble. Actually, it's in big trouble."
Several thousand churches in America every year are closing their doors, MacDonald said, and not many pastors who start out are still in ministry when they finish their active working years.
MacDonald pointed to God's voice and presence described in Isaiah 64:1 and Exodus 32–33, noting that it's God's voice and presence that's missing in American churches.
"What's lost in the church in America is the presence of God," he said. "Churches don't die. God's voice in them dies."
The Exodus 32–33 passage is the source of the Pastors' Conference theme: Show Us Your Glory.
"Know God better. Go deeper with Him. Find favor. There's a whole sermon in that," MacDonald said. "Show me your glory: That's what we need. That's the only thing that will change the course we're on."
In an emotional conclusion to the Pastors' Conference, Francis Chan, author, speaker and former pastor of Cornerstone Community Church in Simi Valley, Calif., passionately called attendees to "not be content to hear Moses" instead of going up the mountaintop themselves.
His plea referenced Exodus 32–33, which describe Moses going up to meet with God on the mountain.
Chan urged attendees to develop a hunger to really know and love God, rather than "taking selfies with Moses and writing about it."
"Movements start when founders really know God, but movements die when the followers only know the founder," Chan said.
Referencing Mark 14 -- which tells of Jesus, in the depths of His sorrow, falling to the ground and asking for the cup to be passed from Him -- Chan pressed the pastors to keep their eyes on the cross where Christ gave His all.
"Are you resting in the cross right now? Is your joy and salvation coming from Jesus?" he asked.
Chan concluded by saying he felt many of the conference participants are bound by rituals and patterns instead of "dying in their hearts to really know God." In the midst of their devotion to those rituals, "people groups and people are going to hell" without Christ, he said.
2015 Pastors' Conference officers
Attendees elected the following officers to lead the 2015 Pastors' Conference in Columbus, Ohio: Willie Rice, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Clearwater, Fla., president; Jeremy Westbrook, pastor of Living Hope Church in Marysville, Ohio, vice president; and Drew Landry, pastor of Spotswood Baptist Church in Fredericksburg, Va., treasurer.
Compiled by Frank Michael McCormack of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, with reporting by Ali Dixon of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary; Sharayah Colter of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention; Karen Willoughby, freelance writer from Mapleton, Utah; Barbara Denman of the Florida Baptist Convention; and Baptist Press editor Art Toalston.
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