Reorganization of NAMB evangelization group shifts focus to mentoring, apologetics

ALPHARETTA, Ga.–After a year of leading evangelization efforts for Southern Baptists in North America, John Avant is more convinced than ever that evangelism cannot be accomplished from his office in Alpharetta, Ga.

North American Mission Board (NAMB) staffers, he said, will never be experts at doing evangelism in a particular state. Those best positioned for such regional and cultural expertise would be local churches, associations, state conventions, he explained.

Unlike a time when distance prevented access to resources, most any Southern Baptist can find materials helpful in planning an evangelistic strategy.

“That rural pastor doesn’t have to call anybody for help. He could get on the Internet,” stated Avant, who serves as NAMB vice president for evangelization.

NAMB’s evangelism team doesn’t assume it is the first place church leaders go for help, but Avant thinks a new emphasis on building relationships will make his group the most natural choice.

“He’s probably going to call the person who has loved him when he really has a need, especially when he believes there is value to be added to his life from that person or organization,” Avant said of the typical pastor needing help.

It’s not hard for the 46-year old NAMB administrator to think like that rural pastor because he’s walked in those shoes, starting out as what he calls a “trivocational pastor” at Hay Valley Baptist Church in Gatesville, Texas.

“I had different needs when I pastored a tiny rural church than when I was pastor of a larger suburban church, Northrich Baptist in Richardson,” Avant told the TEXAN. Recalling how often he longed for someone who could help him learn the ropes, he said, “I often thought how I wish somebody would coach me because I didn’t know how to do certain things.”

Through a reorganization of NAMB’s evangelization division, Avant expects each of three teams to develop relationships across the denominational landscape, developing trust between NAMB staff and local churches, associations, state conventions and SBC entities.

“If we’re going to come alongside them and make any difference, we have to know them. There has to be trust. Then we know what they actually need that we can provide.”

The Church Evangelism Team, led by Terry Fields, seeks to equip the local church for chaplaincy, evangelism of children and students, evangelism accomplished through ministry and servant type approaches, as well as personal and mass evangelism.

The Cultural Evangelism Team, led by Gary Hollingsworth, seeks to engage the culture through apologetics and interfaith evangelism, collegiate evangelism, evangelism of internationals and multiethnic groups, while providing an evangelism response center to field inquiries from individuals seeking salvation.

Through the Strategic Evangelism Coordination Team, Toby Frost leads staff in utilizing prayer, spiritual awakening and mentoring strategies to share the gospel with the continent.

Evangelization is one of the eight groups operating at NAMB. Other divisions are administrative, church consulting, church planting, finance and organizational services, missions mobilization and strategic initiatives.

The reorganization of the Evangelization Group required personnel changes such as those affecting the Interfaith Witness Department.

IWF is now a part of the Apologetics and Interfaith Evangelism Unit led by Mike Licona, whom Avant described as a leading expert on apologetics. He described Licona’s recently released book, “Paul Meets Muhammad: a Christian-Muslim Debate on the Resurrection,” as “a clear, devastating argument for the resurrection of Jesus” while “allowing even Muslims to feel like they’ve been fairly presented.”

Avant said the Interfaith Witness Department initially was renamed Apologetics, but later changed to incorporate both headings.

“Some of the old baggage of the term ‘interfaith’ can imply that our job is to carry on dialogue with other world religions when our job is to deliver the good news,” he said. “The word is not a bad word and it’s familiar to Southern Baptists, so we decided to call it apologetics and interfaith.”

The program of interfaith witness was established in 1965 and assigned to the Home Mission Board. Staff researched the beliefs and practices of other religious groups, highlighting similarities and differences for Southern Baptists when confronted with other faith groups.

By 1985 IFW was holding 200 conferences drawing 23,677 people. Last year the department sponsored 381 conferences with 20,484 participants.

The baggage to which Avant referred developed in the 1970s and 1980s as dialogue became preferable to witnessing for some IFW staff. A director with 13 years of service voiced his view that Jews were not in need of salvation. In response, the newly named Home Mission Board president insisted there is no other way to salvation except through personal faith in Jesus Christ and proposed relocating the errant director in 1988. Instead, he resigned and accepted severance pay and the position was abolished.

On into the 1990s, Avant said, Interfaith Witness was transformed into a department that researched the views of other religions and cults in order to develop rapport for sharing the gospel.

National media attention often resulted from the contention that non-Christian religions and cults had no promise of salvation. When IWF staffers held their own in such interviews, the gospel was shared with a broader audience nationwide.

Although Licona moved to the newly structured department from a year of service as director of the Interfaith Witness Team, all other former IWF staffers were offered reassignments.

IFW associate Bill Gordon, an expert in Catholicism, now works in the Evangelism Response Center. IFW manager Tal Davis moved to the Strategic Evangelism Coordination Team as manager of evangelism strategic mentoring.

Three national missionaries who worked in the renamed Interfaith Evangelism Department focused on ministries aimed at sharing the gospel with particular non-Christian groups.

While each of them will continue to be available when NAMB gets requests for evangelistic training suited to their areas of expertise, their assignments have changed.

Mormonism expert Cky Carrigan recently moved to a strategic mentoring role operating from Southwestern Seminary in Fort Worth. While he will be responsible for mentoring pastors through the field-based initiative west of the Mississippi River, Davis will oversee similar work for the eastern half.

Interfaith evangelism associate Josue’ del Risco now serves in the international and multiethnic unit where he continues to do training on cults and world religions. And national missionary Jim Sibley’s position as director of Jewish ministry was eliminated and no agreement was reached regarding reassignment.

Staffing the newly created Apologetics and Interfaith Evangelism Unit are Licona, who equips pastors with Christian evidences and the defense of the Christian faith while overseeing development and maintenance of the Interfaith website and apologetic resources; associate Robert Ndonga whose expertise is in Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism, and Animism, and one other associate position currently vacant.

Avant explained the rationale behind a greater emphasis on apologetics at NAMB compared to a decade ago when greater understanding of major religions and cults laid the groundwork for evangelism among such adherents.

“In a postmodern society which is not completely transitioned, we still have plenty of modernistic thinking,” he said. “Apologetics is more important than it’s ever been,” he added, as people continue to want a point-by-point discussion explaining a belief in the resurrection or the Bible.

“It’s a great tool for answering those questions, but also in this postmodern culture we feel like postmodern seekers are only going to seek for so long with a belief that there’s not any truth. That’s going to get really old, really fast,” he insisted.

“We think there’s a turning now and a massive turning in the future toward a pursuit of truth and we believe a new kind of apologetic that says why should we believe in truth at all—and if we do, why would we believe Jesus is truth—has tremendous potential. We hope the joining of apologetics with interfaith will provide an opportunity to say, ‘Okay, how would we in a very engaging way defend our faith with Buddhist, Muslims, Jews, or any other world religion or cult.’”

Ultimately, apologetics and interfaith witness will become a part of the entire culture of what NAMB does, Avant said. He believes the staff assigned to these areas will work more effectively alongside collegiate, international, multi-ethnic and Evangelism Response Center personnel.

Instead of having “a few pastors who are experts” in a particular religion or cult after having been certified through interfaith witness training, Avant said the question become, “How do we think systematically about taking the good news of Jesus to a lost and often postmodern culture?”

Much of that approach occurs on college campuses, he added, calling that a perfect place for apologetics and interfaith witness,. International and multiethnic efforts intersect along the way and ultimately the Evangelism Response Center is tied in as people respond to the gospel.

With a continuing contractual relationship with people like Jim Sibley, Avant anticipates an even more productive approach to specific areas of interfaith witness like Jewish ministry. The reorganization cut Sibley loose for consideration as permanent director of the Pasche Institute for Jewish Studies, prompting Criswell college trustees to approve him as full-time director earlier this month.

“We can lead a seminar there at Criswell College at least annually and will contract with him for other training that we all agree is needed,” Avant said in describing the new approach to Jewish evangelism. “At the same time we’re moving Jewish evangelism from one field office to hopefully the whole culture of what we do with clear accountability not in one area, but in two.

The departments of Apologetics and Interfaith Evangelism as well as the International and Multiethnic Unit will have specific assignments at NAMB for Jewish evangelism, approaching it both religiously and ethnically, Avant said.

NAMB will give attention to particular strategies like the development of a Yiddish version of the acclaimed “Jesus” film.

“That could be critical in reaching orthodox Jews that are going to need to hear the gospel more in private and more carefully. We can produce things in house with a very strong emphasis, but also have a great partnership with Jim Sibley” as he directs the Pasche Institute at Criswell College.

While the actual number of man-hours given to Interfaith Witness is likely to see a dramatic decrease, Southern Baptist seminaries have already been picking up the slack in many cases.

Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s summer 2005 issue of the Southern Baptist Journal of Theology tackled Mormonism with a lead piece titled “Evangelicalism, Mormonism, and the Gospel” and “The Challenge of Islam” in spring 2004. A Firm Foundations Apologetics Conference set for September at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary will address false gospels and a comparison of Christianity with Islam.

Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary continues to host workshops outlining evangelization of particular people such as the focus on Catholicism addressed last November and Judaism this month.

And the newly announced L. Russ Bush Center for Theology and Culture will provide intensive mentoring in worldview, ethics, and apologetics at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, S.C. The missions conference of Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary focused on Islam last month.

“If we’re really interested and intent on winning America to Christ we have to be very serious about cross-religious evangelization,” stated Midwestern Seminary President R. Philip Roberts. “The statistics show that unfortunately most of our baptisms not only are our people getting rebaptized, but we are increasingly ineffective in touching the lives of people who are outside the realm of a Christian worldview.”

“With tremendous growth of diverse religious movements here, then we’ve got to be absolutely committed to the principle of sharing the gospel and knowing how to do it effectively with people from non-Christian perspectives,” Roberts said, noting that at least 1,650 major religious movements are at work in the United States.

Developing partnerships with seminaries, such as connections NAMB has with Southeastern evangelism professor Alvin Reid, and now Carrigan at Southwestern, is part of Avant’s field-based relational strategy.

“It’s really not been that hard,” Avant said of the transition. “The key thing is developing high trust level relationships.  As Southern Baptists we have yet to tap into the full power of who we can be in Spirit-filled relationships,” he insisted.

One place where Avant wants to see those relationships strengthened is in state conventions, where he finds some of the most gifted leaders.

“As soon as we really believe we can do this together rather than separately, trust each other and talk to each other rather than about each other, amazing things can happen.”

Avant is encouraged by the partnerships NAMB is enjoying with all of the Southern Baptist Convention entities, particularly LifeWay Christian Resources.

“Jimmy Draper did a wonderful job of preparing the way for all of us to work together, reaching young leaders and traditional people alike. Thom Rainer is wide open to our doing things in partnership,” he added, referring to the new LifeWay president.

“We’re working hard to not have evangelism at NAMB isolated to a building in Alpharetta, but linked in partnership and deep relationship with state conventions, associations and [SBC entities such as] our seminaries.

As an example of forging relationships that will result in more effective evangelism and increased baptisms, Avant described a new coaching methodology NAMB is piloting with pastors. Each two-day workshop led by Reid will equip 20 to 30 pastors who have agreed to enter into a relationship with NAMB personnel for one and a half to two years.

“We’ll have accountability, coaching and resourcing to help pastors effectively evangelize and increase their baptisms.”

The pilot project will be introduced through state conventions in Utah-Idaho and Florida this spring, adding Arizona and Kentucky next fall. To both Avant and Reid this represents NAMB’s shift away from products to people.

“We believe in this with all our hearts,” Avant told the TEXAN. “People are going to be our products in this day in evangelism.  We’re not producing a lot of traditional products, though we will as needed.  We’re much more concerned about building relationships, coaching, mentoring and resourcing people.”

Avant said it’s not unusual to get an email like the one he received last week—a rural pastor wanting a successful rural pastor to coach him. The move away from spending time producing products frees up more time to answer such requests, he explained.

“We believe in that methodology. [Even] if one of us has to do that personally, he’s going to get help,” Avant pledged.

Effective evangelism and ultimately an increase in the number of baptisms among Southern Baptist churches has become the bottom line for the evangelization division, Avant said. As more practitioners receive training in these areas, Avant expects “a snowball effect as thousands of pastors begin saying, ‘We can go to NAMB and actually have value added to our lives.’”

Avant asked, “How do we help the vast majority of Southern Baptists who never share the gospel and apparently will not come to many of our training methodologies? How can we very simply challenge, motivate and help them to see evangelism as joy, good news and the greatest motivation for them to get up in the morning?”

For every member of the Evangelization Group, Avant expects them to not only think about how to lead somebody to Christ, but also help that person follow through with baptism and become a disciple.

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