Indiana was a delight. My first and third full-time ministries were among the Hoosier Baptists.
My first year working for that state’s convention, I drove 30,000 miles visiting churches in the state. I came to know it well and love it. Indiana is mostly rural in land use but metropolitan in population. I gravitated toward the miles of cornfields so high you couldn’t see over them on county roads. But people were moving to larger towns and cities. Metro Indianapolis was about a million people, but the city itself had only four Southern Baptist churches inside the loop. In that day, none of those four would have been a top-20 church in the Dallas Baptist Association. Most of the SBC churches, urban or rural, were pastored by bi-vocational men with little formal education. The story of Indiana is repeated, even magnified, in other Midwest states, New England states and the West.
Were Southern Baptists the only game in town? Nope. There were other evangelistic groups—Independent Baptists, Christian churches, Pentecostals, and some good American Baptist churches. American Baptists usually had the local First Baptist in a town, leaving the first SBC church to be called “First Southern Baptist.” But American Baptists had failed to reach the North to the degree Southern Baptists had reached the South. By the early 1990s, metropolitan and New England ABC churches—the larger ones—were wracked with the same theological chaos we’ve seen split other denominations. Absent a reformation, that denomination is not going to plant churches to sufficiently reach the areas where Southern Baptists are relatively few. They lack the will and the theological underpinnings. So Southern Baptists are there.
Southern Baptists have been in the North and West only since the late 1950s; that’s less than half the lifespan of some southern conventions. And that difference in heritage means that the churches in the North, even those pushing 80 years old, are smaller and less wealthy than their southern counterparts that fuel Baptist work from Texas to North Carolina. That’s where a great trait of Southern Baptists kicks in. Using the North American Mission Board, state-to-state partnerships and even church-to-church partnerships, we are pouring great wealth and energy into non-South areas.
My experience in and affection for newer work areas makes me thrilled to see the SBTC making a commitment to Southern Baptists in other regions. Executive Director-elect Nathan Lorick has initiated a plan to raise an endowment to provide ongoing help for church planting and church revitalization in non-South states. Perhaps you saw the article in our May TEXAN. I wanted to highlight it again and give you a personal perspective.
After spending 12 years in the Midwest, preaching in Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, Illinois, Indiana and Missouri during the time I was working in two denominational roles, I was struck by the lack of resources I took for granted while in Texas. There is also a real shortage of trained pastors and leaders. Smaller midwestern churches just don’t draw long-term pastors as easily—especially to a region so foreign to southern men looking for a ministry. Having experienced mentors in the state office or teachers able to travel means a lot in places like Red Oak, Iowa, or Roachdale, Indiana. Southern Baptists live in those places, as do lost people. I believe that the local state convention knows or should know best the places in greatest need of a new start or shoring up. The SBTC’s state-to-state initiative will facilitate the strategic use of funding that our larger and wealthier state convention can provide.
This spirit of missionary generosity is not a new thing to our convention. The SBTC Executive Board has granted more than $4 million to North American out-of-state work, beyond mission offerings and Cooperative Program giving, since its founding in 1998. The SBTC is the newest of all the state conventions, but we have been blessed with diverse, generous and well-established churches. This newest initiative will ensure ongoing strategic partnerships wherein those blessed with great strength have the joy of encouraging folks working far over the horizon.
Thirty years ago, I heard a couple of denominational leaders fussing about the poor return they were getting from the money they provided to new work areas. They weren’t questioning if it was doing any good; they were saying their own ministries weren’t getting enough back financially. I had just returned from preaching to a joyful new congregation meeting in a building with no running water. That’s right, an outhouse out back. They were evangelistic, lean and generous. So those comments from other leaders hit me wrong. I answered their question in a column in which I said, “It’s missions, not the stock market.” They barked back at me, but I was right. The SBTC was formed a few years later by men and women committed to impacting the world, including the U.S. Gladly, that inward focus by Southern Baptist leaders is far rarer today.
Missionary zeal continues in your state convention today. If you find a way to encourage, praise or support this effort to reach far-flung areas of North America, you’ll be making a worthwhile kingdom investment.