WOODSTOCK, Ga. – More than 2,000 church planters, pastors and other Southern Baptist leaders – triple the number originally predicted — attended the North American Mission Board’s (NAMB) Send North America Conference at First Baptist Church in Woodstock, Ga., July 30-31.
“It’s a brand new day for the North American Mission Board,” said NAMB president Kevin Ezell, as he welcomed the attendees. “Our national strategy is Send North America, which is not only about church planting but also evangelism and church revitalization.”
A key intent of the conference was to help mobilize churches to the North American Mission field so they can have a more personal connection to and involvement with church planters. Those attending included more than 300 pastors and more than 600 church planters. NAMB originally planned for 800 at the event but registration eventually topped 2,200. The meeting drew attendees from all 50 states, Canada, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.
NAMB’s Aaron Coe, vice president-mobilization and equipping, told the crowd that the conference was about only one thing: Jesus.
“This is a historic night as we kick off this conference,” said Coe. “It’s been in the making for nine months. There are people in this room from many tribes across the Southern Baptist Convention, denominational representatives, state convention partners, church planters and churches. But this conference isn’t really about church planting. It’s about Jesus.”
Coe shared NAMB’s goal – the net gain of 5,000 new SBC congregations across North America by 2022. They also hope to see the church “death” rate – on average about 890 churches a year – reduced through aggressive church revitalization.
“Send North America is not just a big church strategy, it’s an every church strategy,” said Coe.
Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research, kicked off Monday night’s program as the conference’s first guest speaker.
“In the last 10 years, the number of self-proclaiming Christians has declined by 10 percent,” Stetzer said. “I don’t have to tell you that the world is growing more hostile to the message we bring.”
Stetzer quoted noted Christian author Phil Yancey, who claims in principle, it’s already “Saturday” on planet earth. But Stetzer told the church planters, pastors and others that “we are not sharing Christ and planting churches like we need to do if it is indeed Saturday.”
Louie Giglio, founding pastor of Passion City Church in Atlanta, provocatively asked attendees, “Has the resurrection worn off in me and you? Are you still flipping out that Christ is alive? Because if you’re not, don’t plant a church.”
Workshops throughout Tuesday covered topics such as “Reaching the Nations in North America,” “Knowing Your Mission Context,” “How to be an Effective Sending Church” and “Rural Church Planting.”
Other topics covered evangelism, bivocational pastoring and planting. A separate track featured content for minister’s wives.
In his message during a general session, FBC-Woodstock senior pastor Johnny Hunt reminded those in attendance that “often times, we don’t need more instruction. We just need more encouragement in what we’ve already learned.”
Hunt, First Woodstock’s pastor for the last 26 years and a former SBC president, said church revitalization is his personal passion, along with church planting.
“As D. L. Moody said, unless we stab American cities in the heart with the gospel, we will lose this country.
“In addition to planting new churches, sometimes we need to revitalize existing churches.”
Representing NAMB, Hunt said he will soon be conducting revitalization conferences in eight states.
One of Hunt’s many protégés, Vance Pitman, challenged those at the conference to see God’s bigger story at play in the world. Pitman launched Hope Church in Las Vegas just two weeks after 9/11. The church was a plant of FBC-Woodstock.
“Why aren’t Baptists planting churches like they should?” Pitman asked rhetorically. “We need to get so broken over this world and get on our faces on the floor before God. We don’t need to come up with a plan and take it to Him.
His plan is better than ours.”
Pitman told his audience that God always has something bigger in mind when He plants a new church.
“The church being born is not the finish line, it’s the starting line,” he said. “Too many times today we think the goal is the church. The goal is not the church plant – it’s just the beginning,” said Pitman.
David Platt, author and pastor of The Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham, Ala., said successful church planting is about making disciples.
“We come up with all kinds of methods for multiplying churches,” Platt said. “We give money, we start campuses, we use technologies like DVDs and satellites.
What if we had only what a lot of our brothers and sisters around the world have – only the spirit of God, the word of God and the people of God?
“That would still be sufficient to see the gospel spread like wildfire across North America,” said Platt. “Do we really believe that, or have we become so dependent on our money, technology, creativity and ingenuity that we have missed how the church is multiplied through making disciples?”
J.D. Greear, pastor of The Summit Church in Durham, N.C., told conference participants that a “proper vision of the majesty of Jesus will help sustain church planters as they face difficulties. Effective sending is the result of seeing Jesus properly,” Greear said. “When we see the gospel properly, church planting will take care of itself.”
While the conference speakers and crowd largely reflected a younger generation of Southern Baptists, it was the oldest – John Bisagno, legendary pastor for 60 years – who earned the longest, loudest standing ovation. Bisagno retired five years ago from Houston’s First Baptist Church.
He spent an hour counseling young church planters on the importance of hard work and prayer; balance across ministry and family; keeping dreams in line with reality; how leadership is earned; and how methods of ministry can change but not the gospel.
The second night of the conference was highlighted with the commissioning of 23 new NAMB missionaries.
NAMB vice president Aaron Coe closed the event by announcing that next year’s Send North America Conference is planned for Prestonwood Baptist Church in Dallas with dates to be announced.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: Mickey Noah writes for the North American Mission Board.)