“The ripest field for Southern Baptist work in the U.S.A.”
That’s how Ray Roberts, who would become the first executive secretary of the State Convention of Baptists in Ohio (SCBO), described the Buckeye state in 1952. Over the next six decades, Roberts and other Ohio Southern Baptists proved the ripeness of their field by planting hundreds of churches, establishing three other Baptist state conventions in pioneer areas, building a network of Baptist ministries and leading untold thousands to faith in Christ.
As Southern Baptists converge on Ohio June 16-17 for the Southern Baptist Convention’s (SBC) annual meeting in Columbus, current SCBO executive director Jack Kwok said they will find a mission field that’s riper than ever.
“We’re not the only people here preaching the gospel, but Southern Baptists take the Great Commission seriously, that we’re to go to every people group,” Kwok told Baptist Press, noting that “well over 50 percent” of Ohio’s 11.5 million residents do not regard themselves as affiliated with any faith group.
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“People are lost here, and Southern Baptists are taking the gospel to everybody,” Kwok said.
The history of Southern Baptists in Ohio dates to the 1930s, when Baptists from the South began to migrate north across the Ohio River. Many felt “ill at ease in the Ohio churches they attended” because “worship was not as ‘warm,’ the invitations as frequent and fervent, the sermons as simple in the presentation of the gospel as they were accustomed to back home,” historian L.H. Moore wrote in “The History of Southern Baptists in Ohio.”
So transplanted Southern Baptists began to establish churches.
In many cases, those churches cooperated with Baptist associations in Kentucky. Then in 1940, churches in Indiana and Ohio founded the White Water Baptist Association. The association engaged in aggressive church planting in Ohio, erecting buildings in towns where no Baptist church existed and then finding workers to establish missions. The association urged congregations to give 25 percent of their undesignated receipts to the Kentucky Baptist Convention for investment through the Cooperative Program, Southern Baptists’ unified method of funding missions and ministries in North America and across the globe.
The number of Southern Baptists in Ohio increased through the early 1950s, but some worried that ministries funded by the SBC would violate so-called comity agreements of the late 1800s stipulating that only Northern Baptists could sponsor home missions in the Buckeye state.
In 1951, however, the SBC adopted a recommendation from its Committee on Relations with Other Religious Bodies that “the Home Mission Board and all other Southern Baptist boards and agencies be free to serve as a source of blessing to any community or any people anywhere in the United States.” Northern Baptists likewise had expanded their ministries nationwide and changed their name to the American Baptist Convention.
The SBC’s shift in home missions strategy set the stage for 39 churches to establish the SCBO in 1954 with financial support from the Home Mission Board, a precursor organization to the North American Mission Board (NAMB), and the Baptist Sunday School Board, which later changed its name to LifeWay Christian Resources. The Ohio convention’s first president, John Kurtz, said Ohio Southern Baptists committed to “stand on the gospel and preach the Word.”
Early Ohio Southern Baptists “just wanted to preach the gospel as it is and preach Christ as the Savior to all who would trust Him,” Kurtz, 94, said from a retirement home in Nashville.
The SCBO’s emphasis on church planting yielded 100 cooperating churches by 1957, 200 by 1960, 300 by 1964 and 400 by 1968. Some of those churches were in other states, and the SCBO helped found three sister state conventions – the West Virginia Convention of Southern Baptists, the Baptist Convention of Pennsylvania-South Jersey and the Baptist Convention of New York.
When Kwok began his tenure as the convention’s fourth executive director in 1996, the SCBO had approximately 500 churches, a number that has swelled to more than 700 today. The convention’s “Mission Ohio” strategy calls for 2,020 congregations by 2020. NAMB has named Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati “Send Cities” as part of its Send North America church planting emphasis.
Ohio’s increasingly diverse population has affected both the SCBO’s evangelistic strategy and the ethnic composition of its leadership. In the mid-1990s, 85 percent of the state’s population was Anglo, 11 percent black and 4 percent other races, Kwok said. But demographics have shifted – particularly in urban areas. For example, Columbus residents were only 62 percent Anglo in 2013, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“Our outreach has been to all people,” Kwok said. “Our logo reflects that. We have the SBC logo and red, brown, yellow, black and white figures around that to communicate that we’re here to reach all people.”
Two African Americans have served as SCBO president while Hispanics and Asians have also made significant contributions to the convention, Kwok said.
David Gray, an African American who served as SCBO president from 2006-08, called the state’s diverse population a “microcosm of at least the Midwest if not the nation.”
“The State Convention of Baptists in Ohio has a wide range of ethnicities that have done really wonderful things for God,” said Gray, pastor of First Baptist Church in Garrettsville. “They have been a part of the process of the state convention growing and have worked together with a broad spectrum of Southern Baptists to truly see growth in the Kingdom.”
Ohio Southern Baptists have been pioneers in planting churches on college and university campuses and have a rich history of community ministries, Kwok said. The convention’s support of SBC missions and ministries has increased from 20 percent of CP receipts in 1954 to 40.25 percent in 2014-15.
“Reaching the lost people of Ohio is a tremendous opportunity, and we’re just thrilled to be a part of it,” Kwok said.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service.)