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  • Baptist Beacon

Fresh Calling: A Midwest tradition spurs unity and evangelism

by Eric Reed

(Photo by Meredith Flynn, IBSA)

SPRINGFIELD, IL – “The Midwest is all about hard work, blue collar, get it done,” Noah Oldham told the people at his breakout session. “It is to these people you need to be able to cast a vision,” said the planting pastor of August Gate Church in St. Louis and Send City senior planting director for the metro area.

Leaders attending the Midwest Leadership Summit in Springfield came with questions about ministry in the region, and many found answers. Some 850 leaders from 12 states in the region attended the three-day event in Springfield January 18-20. In three worship settings and 70 breakouts, they considered their calling again and took home fresh training for ministry.

“This year was especially inspiring and enlightening to me,” said Michael Nave, pastor of Cornerstone Church in Marion, IL. “I connected and reconnected with a handful of fellow pastors and leaders in a really meaningful way. I don’t think I have ever walked away from MLS so encouraged!”

Some of the focus of the gathering was about fellowship and relationships. Some pastors and church leaders from 9 Baptist state conventions filled the halls and ballrooms at the Crowne Plaza in Springfield IL, juggling conversations and notebooks and busy schedules. The main purpose of the event, as it has been since the 1950s, was equipping leaders for ministry that matches our north central territory.

“Southern Baptist churches in the north have unique challenges and opportunities,” said Nate Adams, Executive Director of the Illinois Baptist State Association and one of the organizers of the event. “And the Midwest Leadership Summit is a unique opportunity to network with other pastors and leaders, and to hear about ministry approaches that are effective in this Midwest context.”

The Summit is a partnership between the nine state conventions, the North American Mission Board, Woman’s Missionary Union, and Guidestone Financial Resources. Leaders attend three plenary sessions, and they may choose six breakout sessions from a list of 70 options featuring experts and practitioners in church leadership, evangelism, missions, and church planting.

For Pastor Nave, one session was especially insightful about the nature of the Midwest. “During Ben Mandrell’s session about preaching to skeptics, he showed a map of the U.S. noting the prevailing religious group (in each region). We SBCers have the SEC region! In other places it is Roman Catholic, L.D.S., and Methodist.

“I found myself really encouraged by our location in the U.S.,” Nave said. “We are not in a region that is completely post-Christian, and we’re sure not in the Bible Belt. Thus, we are able to learn from our brothers and sisters in those regions and create our own hybrid approach!”

Mandrell is the President of Lifeway Christian Resources. He was a featured speaker in one of the three plenary sessions. When he interviewed with the Lifeway trustees two years ago, Mandrell admitted that his Colorado church did not use discipleship materials from the SBC publishing house because the content presumed a level of biblical literacy and church culture that were alien in the West.

The same might be said of the Midwest.

“It’s good to be here, where people drink ‘pop’ and shop at Menards,” the Illinois native told the crowd, who laughed at the regional references. Then he launched into a strong and revealing message.

Mandrell told of his own experiences since taking that Lifeway helm that coincided with the Covid pandemic, continued financial downturns, and the need to reinvent the publisher’s ministry.

“There have been times in the last two years where I have struggled to believe, where I have cried, where I wondered what did I get myself into… where waves of fear overwhelmed me,” Mandrell said. “Anybody who leads in ministry right now has days like that.”

Citing recent Lifeway research, Mandrell said, 66% of pastors say they are struggling to trust God. But he called the leaders to “fierce optimism,” another term for faith. The people of the church are counting on their pastor to exercise bold faith. “The leader, if he is to be stable, must believe that God has the power to reverse a trend, to overcome statistics.”

Mandrell called this faith “the secret sauce” of Old Testament leaders. “Without a fierce optimism, the floor will collapse beneath you,” he said to amens. “Faith is what separates the men from the boys, the big from the little in Christian history.”

Big territory, big challenges

Begun as the North Central States Rally on a triennial basis, the Summit now meets every two years. The state convention partners are Dakota Baptist Convention, Illinois Baptist State Association, State Convention of Baptists in Indiana, Baptist Convention of Iowa, Kansas-Nebraska Convention of Southern Baptists, Baptist State Convention of Michigan, Minnesota-Wisconsin Baptist Convention, Missouri Baptist Convention, and the State Convention of Baptists in Ohio.

As a regional equipping event focusing on a multi-state region, the Midwest event is unique in Southern Baptist life. It is funded by the state associations and national partners Guidestone Financial Services, North American Mission Board, and Woman’s Missionary Union. Church leaders are invited by their local associations.

“We continually hear both participants and national ministry partners describe the Midwest Leadership Summit as the most helpful and practical church leadership training event they attend,” Adams said. “And this has consistently been the case for the past 16 years that I’ve been participating in the event.”

The executive directors of the nine sponsoring state conventions addressed the challenges of ministry in the region at a lunchtime panel discussion. The presentation was wide-ranging, but “outside the pandemic” as instructed by Tim Patterson of Michigan, who moderated the panel.

“The objective of a network of churches is to focus on the common ground that churches have,” said Nate Adams of Illinois. “We look for things that unify us and bring us together,” Adams said. “Let’s not go out into the margins where there isn’t so much agreement.”

The new convention leader of the Dakotas, Fred McDonald, talked about the distance between SBC churches in his part of the country and a resulting sense of isolation. “Loneliness is an issue in the Dakotas,” McDonald said.

“Our churches are very spread out from each other. It creates loneliness among pastors, discouragement, and loneliness among pastors’ wives separated from family who live far away.” McDonald’s observations drew nods of recognition.

God’s success stories

“Yes, ministry in the Midwest can be hard,” said Kirk Kirkland, planter and pastor of Revive City Church in Cincinnati. “Ministry in the city, ministry in the pandemic. We have moved our location 11 times” in the past two years.

Kirkland described ministry among homeless and addicted people—and seeing God at work in a neighborhood once named the most dangerous in America. The obstacle in that situation is escape. “It’s really hard when you start getting job offers,” Kirkland said, but urged pastors to stay put. “The gospel is able to break up the hardest of soils,” he said. “God can give you the grace of grit.

“I’m indebted to Midwest pastors,” Kirkland said, acknowledging the value of comradery. “There was a pastor in Indianapolis who encouraged me, gave me guidance, and sent me back home” to continue the work.

With unity and cooperation, evangelism was the third strand in the leadership cord. David Martinez, a Mexican pastor of 23 years who is now planting Spanish-language churches in Nebraska, charged the leaders to look to the needs of their Samaria, referencing Acts 1:8. “Jesus was committed to reach poor and rich, old and young people, Jews and Gentile,” Martinez went on to name black and white, Hispanic and Somali and Karin and Burmese. “We need to reach others,” he said. In the Midwest, “we have our Samaria also.”

Yankton, South Dakota church planter Jeffrey Mueller ignited the crowd with his testimony. “We have to be part of the community and not a pocket community,” Mueller said. “Church planters all say ‘We’re gonna be a different church, be part of the community.’ We said it, but we didn’t do it. Our outreach was only to get people to come hear me preach, and I wasn’t any good at preaching,” he said, receiving laughs.

“God said the command was to go to them, not for them to come to you.”

Mueller and his wife returned to their small hometown to plant Restore Church. Today the church has two campuses and four ministry points, including a crisis pregnancy center and an indoor playground serving their financially challenged community. “Our whole life, the community has cried out that there’s not enough free or affordable family fun. Most of the activities are drunken parties with the approval of the community.” Restore Church responded with community services that double as open doors for evangelism.

Mueller said his ministry changed when he took seriously this statement: The pastor should be well acquainted with the smell of the carpet in his office, not from being on his knees, but from having his face on the floor before God.

A few moments later, Mueller was on his face on the platform at the Crowne Plaza. “You might be one special shift away from discouragement to encouragement,” he said. Pastors and church leaders across the ballroom joined him in prayer with their faces on the carpet.

“Where will IMB get missionaries like Jeffrey?” Sandy Wisdom Martin asked after the season of prayer. “They will come from your church… At WMU we want to help your people develop a mission lifestyle.”

The Executive Director-Treasurer of National WMU frequently tells the story of her calling to mission service that was encouraged in her home church in Carbondale, IL. She invited pastors and church leaders to call on WMU for mission support and education.

In the final message, Willie McLaurin, Vice President for Great Commission Relations and Mobilization for the SBC Executive Committee focused on unity in the Southern Baptist Convention.

“We need to get on the same side of the rope and pull together,” McLaurin said after describing his childhood tug-of-war games. He recited a list of differences among Southern Baptists, including theology, ethnicity, and politics. “We don’t need to focus on a donkey or an elephant, we need to focus on the Lamb,” he said as the crowd applauded. “We have one enemy and he is already defeated!”

“We need to get busy getting people off the road to hell and on the way to heaven,” he said. “There is not one problem the church has that soul winning cannot solve.”

McLaurin concluded, “Any way you slice it, we are Great Commission Baptists, because we are better together.”

Used with permission from the Illinois Baptist



Written by Eric Reed with additional reporting by Lisa Misner. Eric Reed is editor of Illinois Baptist Media.


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