As nearly 1,000 church leaders from the Midwest convened in Illinois, Southern Baptist Convention President Ed Litton praised organizers and those in attendance for the unique regional event, before speaking briefly about pressures facing the convention.
“You’re a testimony to the nation,” Litton said during the Midwest Leadership Summit, Jan. 18–20, at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Springfield. “If all our regions would be so united together to perfect our skills and each other, that would be amazing.”
He also praised disaster relief volunteers, citing the example of Michigan teams working in Colorado after wildfires. “At our best we are brothers and sisters in Christ, working together to spread the gospel,” said Litton, pastor of Redemption Church in Saraland, Alabama.
Unity and hope for Southern Baptists
Unity was an underlying theme in Litton’s brief comments.
“My hope is for Southern Baptists to discover the power of crying out to God,” he said. “Even with our stains, past stains and abuse—God is moving through Southern Baptists to address these stains. Let’s make sure first to deal with the source of the stain.”
Litton was one a variety of representatives of SBC entities scheduled to appear at the summit. Hance Dilbeck, incoming CEO of Guidestone Financial Services, one of the sponsors of the event, praised his predecessor, O. S. Hawkins, and his efforts to expand Mission:Dignity, which supports financially strapped retired pastors and their widows. “I want you all to know we have a heart for shepherds.”
Dilbeck urged pastors to support Mission:Dignity, even as they give attention to their own well-being.
The event, which meets every two years, brings together church leaders from 12 states and nine Baptist conventions. About 1,000 leaders were registered, but the numbers dropped slightly as COVID-19 cases rose. Still, those attending will choose six breakouts from among 70 scheduled, in addition to three plenary worship sessions, prayer times, and missions focus moments.
‘God is at work in the Midwest’
The Midwest Leadership Summit began as the North Central States Rally as part of a church planting movement in the 1950s to address the unique ministry challenges faced by churches outside the South. “God is at work in the Midwest,” said Jeremy Westbrook, recently elected executive director of the State Convention of Baptists in Ohio, who emceed the large group sessions. “That’s one of the blessings of the summit, we get to talk about what God is doing in our churches.”
State convention partners include 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.
Plenary speakers include Ben Mandrell, president of Lifeway Christian Resources; Willie McLaurin, SBC Executive Committee vice president for Great Commission relations and mobilization; Shane Pruitt, national Next Gen director for the NAMB; and Sandy Wisdom-Martin, executive director-treasurer of national WMU. Jeremy Westbrook, executive director of the State Convention of Baptists in Ohio, will serve as emcee of the large group sessions.
Breaking up hard soil
Each plenary session also featured a practitioner or planter from the region. Kirk Kirkland, planter and pastor of Revive City Church in Cincinnati, told of ministry among homeless and addicted people—and seeing God at work.
“Yes, ministry in the Midwest can be hard. Ministry in the city, ministry in the pandemic. We have moved our location 11 times…. But it’s really hard when you start getting job offers,” Kirkland told the crowd that included many pastors.
“The gospel is able to break up the hardest of soils,” he said. “God can give you the grace of grit.”
NAMB’s Pruitt told the crowd he is excited about next generation ministry, targeting 72 young people in the age group in the U.S. Although the generation qualifies as the least religious generation in American history, according to Barna Research polling, Pruitt said he has witnessed more salvations among Gen Z (teens and young adults) in the past two years than in the previous ten years, specifically 11,000 commitments at his NAMB-connected events.
“The gospel still works,” Priutt said. “The pandemic does not push pause on the gospel. People are hungry for what we have.
“The ever-changing world is desperate for never changing truths.”