Springfield | Trevin Wax set the stage for the event with a clear depiction of the mission field in the United States, especially outside the Bible Belt. He addressed the explosion of pseudo-religions and no-religions in the age of the “be true to yourself” mindset.
“The church is going to be here in 40 years—the church isn’t going away—but what is it going to look like?” Wax asked.
Blogger, culture analyst, and vice president for the SBC’s North American Mission Board, Wax explained the core secular tenet of the era, “expressive individualism.” The person finds definition and meaning from within, rather than from an outside source, such as the gospel or Jesus Christ himself. This worldview creates so many versions of personal reality that it results in isolation and loneliness.
“The beauty of the gospel is that it does not isolate us,” Wax said. But with so many people creating such small universes with themselves at the center, the call to Christian community becomes hard to sell—but more needed than ever.
Leaders grabbed the concepts. They began interpreting their equipping sessions in light of the language that was new to many.
After six years away pursuing his education, Joel Vancil, is home now, planting a church in Ashley, Illinois, population 462. “This is actually my fifth day back in Illinois, so I’m really glad to be here, wanting to network and reconnect.”
Vancil heard similar teaching from the leader of a breakout session. “The church planter from the Salt Company (David Livingstone) was excellent,” Vancil said. “Even though Ashley barely qualifies as a city, a lot of the postmodernism that he was talking about certainly exists there.”
Church leaders from the central states engaged more than 12,000 hours of training, teaching, and worship at the three-day Midwest Leadership Summit meeting in Springfield January 23-25. In multiple plenary sessions led by national SBC speakers and regional church planting practitioners, and in 60 breakout sessions, almost 1,000 leaders shared and received equipping for ministry in their unique Midwest settings.
The biennial event brings together nine Baptist conventions covering 12 upper Midwest states. It is sponsored and planned by the state conventions, with additional partnership support from Lifeway Christian Resources, Guidestone Financial Resources, the North American Mission Board, and Woman’s Missionary Union. With the event held in Springfield since 2015, the Illinois Baptist State Association has been heavily engaged in hosting MLS at the Crowne Plaza just down the street from the IBSA Building.
Wax was one of three keynote speakers in the plenary sessions, along with Lifeway President Ben Mandrell and NAMB’s Send Network President Vance Pitman.
Wax described our current self-centered era by its mantras: You be you. You are enough. Follow your heart. Chase your dreams. This is the rampant rejection of outside sources of authority in favor of moral relativism that emerged in the 1990s.
Too often, Wax said, the church has given its tacit approval to this philosophy, as if God existed just so “you can be your best self.”
“We are more affected by ‘expressive individualism’ that we know,” Wax said—partly because it fits the rugged individualism of the America, and partly because our whole culture is steeped in it now.
The confusion around gender identity is today’s chief example of rejection of conformity.
The result is growing dissatisfaction with everyone around that self who would limit their personal definitions, and especially with the church that calls people to community based not on their own identity, but on Christ’s. The church has become the enemy because it threatens non-conformity with its call to faith—a specific faith.
“We have to stop thinking about other religions or non-religions,” Wax said. “We have to answer ‘Why Christianity?’, but also why not all those other quasi, pseudo religions.”
Only Christian community can solve the isolation problem, because it’s a community based on sacrifice of the self in favor of Jesus. “The most non-confirming thing you can do is to confirm yourself to Jesus Christ,” Wax said. “That’s true non-conformity—dying to yourself.”
Church planter David Livingston said he feels there is a “deep hunger for Jesus that wasn’t present in previous generations.” Livingston was saved as a college student in Ames, Iowa through the ministry of the Salt Company, a campus ministry started by a Southern Baptist church. Today, he is lead planting pastor for Treeline Church in Ann Arbor, a multi-generational church reaching students at the University of Michigan through their college ministry. “There is more spiritual hunger and more unmet longings and expectations today,” the young pastor said, pointing especially to today’s college-age adults.
Reaching the next generation must be well funded, Livingston advised. Treeline is a multi-generational church he said, but at least half its budget goes to reach college students.
Raising up next gen leaders
Mandrell, an Illinois native, addressed “the short bench,” the difficulty faced by many churches today finding and developing leaders, particularly among young people. “Multiplication is one of the most intimidating things in ministry,” Mandrell said of raising up leaders. He cited statistics showing that in some states, as many as 27% of churches are searching for pastors—a process that is harder and takes longer now. “Who is the next generation, and how will we find them?” Mandrell asked.
Using Robert Coleman’s The Master Plan for Evangelism as a guide, Mandrell offered eight steps for a mentoring process that draws young people into ministry in the same way Coleman advocated sharing the gospel in his classic work. “You can’t mentor in a microwave,” the Tampico, Illinois native and Colorado church planter said. Mentoring takes time.
“Jesus was always building his ministry for the time he was gone,” Mandrell told the packed room. “How would your agenda shift if God said, ‘You’re going to be out of there in three years’? Jesus was always working himself out of his job.”
Any size church can be effective
In the Midwest today, self-identified evangelicals range from 18.7% in Wisconsin to 32.7% in Missouri. Illinois claims 23.7% evangelical believers. Here, as everywhere, Sunday morning isn’t what it used to be, and evangelical churches need encouragement.
The Midwest Leadership Summit started as the North Central States Rally in the mid 1950s to encourage Baptists in a largely unreached area outside the SBC stronghold. The rally was staged between two SBC Annual Meetings in Chicago in 1950 and 1957. It was part of a move to create new local associations and plant churches in midwestern cities. The event met every three years, then switched to every two years in 2018.
Strengthening existing churches in this environment is vital. Even more so for pushing back lostness is planting churches that can reach isolated and disconnected people, especially students and young adults.
Pitman encouraged pastors to take up the challenge of advancing the kingdom. “The size of the church does not determine the significance of the church. The size of the mission determines the significance of the church.”
Noting it might be controversial, Pitman said, “Church planting is not the goal. The church that you are planting one day is going to die. All the churches that were planted in the New Testament are all dead and gone…. But the kingdom of God is alive and well.”
Then where does the local church fit in? To introduce people to Jesus, disciple them, and launch them into serving him. “We’ve made the local church the goal,” said Pitman. “We’re doing it wrong. The church is a tool for establishing the kingdom of Jesus.”
Pitman said, “The church being born isn’t the finish line of God’s activity. It’s the starting line.”
Three church planters told their stories in the large worship sessions. Aaron Taylor from Columbus, Ohio, said their congregation, Living Hope Baptist Church, runs 120 on a “banner day,” but is impacting its city in a big way. The church started a free furniture store, Finding Hope Center, three years ago with virtually no inventory or funds, only God’s calling.
When space across from the church opened up, Taylor asked the landlord to give the church 30 days to raise a year’s rent. “We did not raise (the required) $25,000. God did it in 22 days, and we raised $31,000.”
A year later Taylor received a call about connecting with a friend who had a storage unit with some furniture he wanted to give away. “We pulled up and it was the Midwest Distribution center for La-Z-Boy Furniture, and we found out the director of that facility loved Jesus a whole lot,” Taylor said. They were given permission take as much scratch-and-dent furniture as they wanted. The church has given away over in $700,000 in furniture and shared the gospel with 350 families.
The pastor said, “We’re living in the middle of a miracle.”
– An Illinois Baptist Team Report