Baptists Got What They Prayed For comment (0)
March 6, 2014
By Bob Terry
Going to an Alabama Baptist State Evangelism Conference is a little like going to an Atlanta Braves baseball game. You know the caliber of the event will be outstanding. Sammy Gilbreath, director of the office of evangelism for the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions, is as adept as Braves manager Fredi Gonzales in making sure everyone experiences top-notch “players” in action and, of course, the “players” always give their best effort.
Sometimes special promotions draw fans to Turner Field to watch the Braves and sometimes special promotions attract pastors and others to the annual two-day event designed to encourage Christians to share the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Just as every baseball player hopes to be a part of history — like seeing a perfect game by a pitcher or four home runs by a batter — every Baptist prays the State Evangelism Conference will witness an outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit.
Those attending the 2014 conference held at Eastmont Baptist Church, Montgomery, got their wish. They were part of an excellent conference, and those who stayed to the end were a part of history. What God’s Spirit did in the closing service will be talked about for years to come by the more than 1,500 people who overflowed into the choir area and into extra seats across the front and down each aisle of the Eastmont auditorium.
The conference got off to a strong start with former Alabama Baptist pastor Steve Gaines, now pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church, Cordova, Tenn., headlining the opening Monday evening program. Gaines was never better as he called Baptists to fervent prayer. From the opening session, everyone knew this was going to be a good conference.
Gilbreath’s special promotion took the stage Tuesday morning. For the first time in Evangelism Conference history, a father and his two sons took turns preaching. Their sermons ranged from suffering to missions to staying encouraged along the journey (see story, page 6) but the rare sight of the “Three Pitmans” — father Bob and sons Vance and Brett — on the same program will be remembered as an example of what God can do with a godly family.
Ballgames always have a lot of related activities and so did the Evangelism Conference. Tuesday at noon Alabama’s Woman’s Missionary Union sponsored a Ministers’ Wives Luncheon (see story, page 8). Participants filled the church’s banquet area to hear Dianne Bentley, wife of Gov. Robert Bentley, describe what it is like to be married to a public figure. Ministers’ wives have some of the same problems because their spouses belong to the church as well as to them and their family.
It was not until the late innings — the final session on Tuesday evening — that the “big bats” came to the plate.
By 4:30 p.m. participants were already lined up waiting for 6 p.m. when doors to the auditorium opened and they could claim seats to hear music artist Guy Penrod. Penrod is equally renowned for his cowboy look as for his fame as a former member of the Gaither Vocal Band. Within minutes of the doors opening every seat was claimed and latecomers overflowed into the choir area.
If one anticipated a musical concert like those featured at a Gaither Homecoming, it was not to be. Instead Penrod asked the congregation to sing along with him through a litany of old hymns. Only once during the evening did the tenor demonstrate his famous voice and that was on the last song. The rest of the 45 minutes was like an old fashion “singspiration.” It was amazing to sense the Spirit of God moving across the auditorium as voices lifted the familiar words of old hymns that affirmed faith in Jesus Christ and care for His hurting children. It was worship. That is the only way to describe it.
The meeting could have ended right there and everyone would have said it was an outstanding State Evangelism Conference. Instead Penrod sat down on the front row and joined the others to hear the closing sermon delivered by another “big bat” — Jim Cymbala, pastor of The Brooklyn Tabernacle in New York City. What God did through him was the final piece that made this year’s Evangelism Conference historic.
Cymbala’s “swings” were hard. He called the emphasis on church growth the “root” of the church’s problem. “Nowhere in the Bible does it say have a big church,” he declared. He chided preachers for being “mad, mean and angry.” “Sinners are not our enemy. They are our missions field,” he pointed out.
He mocked sharing the Four Spiritual Laws with strangers. “Mechanical witnessing programs are going nowhere in today’s world, but if you preach with love you will get through,” he told the overflow crowd. Dealing with the race question he asked, “How can you reject someone for whom Christ died?”
Cymbala’s conclusions did not come from his philosophy of ministry. Rather he related personal experiences of trial and error in ministry that shaped his conclusions and resulted in an approach. His stories about praying for a wayward daughter, about getting trapped in ministry expectations, about trying to communicate with a streetwise 12-year-old all touched the hearts of those gathered and helped them understand the conclusions the New Yorker spat out in rapid-fire order.
With mighty “swings” he made his listeners examine the message they preach, the methods they use and the motivations that propel them. Sometimes the words hurt. Always the words brought hope.
And then came the invitation, which was not related to the sermon. Instead Cymbala acted on what he sensed while sharing a story about his daughter. During a prayer time he asked those burdened for wayward children or grandchildren to stand. Then he asked all those who wanted to be part of a special prayer for these waywards to come to the altar. Hundreds came. The meeting closed with the New York pastor leading an emotional season of prayer and claiming the return of those for whom he prayed.
When it was over, participants were exhausted. The two days had touched every emotion. The worship had been as pure as possible. God’s Spirit had brought conviction and God’s messengers had pointed ways toward change. Baptists got what they prayed for — an outpouring of the Spirit of God. No manager, no player, no team can make that happen but when it does, it is great to be a part of that kind of history.