By David Winfrey
RIDGECREST, N.C., 8/7/09 – At this year’s Black Church Leadership and Family Conference church leaders explored a multitude of issues and resources including improving Sunday school, helping churches attract men, strengthening couples and raising godly kids.
Pastors and lay leaders met at LifeWay’s Ridgecrest (N.C.) Conference Center July 20-24 to address spiritual, relational and systemic challenges in their congregations and homes.
The weeklong event featured enthusiastic worship, more than 100 workshops and time to forge relationships and discuss issues informally. Many attendees said they came for the speakers and resources. Returning participants cited friendships and the Ridgecrest retreat setting as reasons to come back.
Workshop speaker Elizabeth Luter called the week an "oasis" for relaxation and renewal.
"Because of the busyness of most ministries, for some of us it’s the only time we get away," said Luter, who has attended the conference for 12 years. "It’s just as rewarding as a vacation because we get to glean from the wisdom of so many people around us."
She and husband Fred Luter, pastor of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans, led a workshop presenting a set of marriage strengthening resources titled The Love Dare. Based on the film Fireproof, the resource includes an eight-week couples study on such topics as unconditional love, forgiveness, and honoring and cherishing one’s spouse.
"I’ve seen too many couples married and miserable," Fred Luter said. "Somewhere along the line we’re not loving each other and cherishing each other the way God desires."
A healthy relationship with God can result in a healthy marriage, he added. "If you have an intimate one-on-one relationship with God, you can’t help but honor your spouse because you’ve got to answer to God for everything you do."
Attendee Roszylin Akins said she intends to share The Love Dare with another leader at her church, First Baptist Church of Bracktown in Lexington, Ky. "That will be a great tool for us to use as we prepare for our couple’s retreat."
She and her husband, C.B. Akins, pastor of FBC Bracktown, used information from previous conferences to help First Baptist simplify its structure and align all ministries to the church’s mission.
One change the church made was to rename its Sunday school "religious education hour" because "school" implies an eventual graduation, Roszylin Akins said. "When you’re in God’s Kingdom, there’s no graduation – there’s just progression."
Another workshop speaker encouraged pastors to empower other leaders to direct many church activities.
"A lot of times in our churches we try to go solo, and we cannot accomplish the task that God has given us," said James Richardson, a coaching consultant for the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina.
He described a church launch in which he recruited members to direct discipleship, worship, fellowship, ministry, evangelism and stewardship efforts. "A lot of times we get bogged down with things that somebody else can do," he said. "We’ve got to learn to delegate."
Jerry Pipes told another workshop audience that parents must model their faith if they hope for their children to adopt it. "God called the home – not the church, not the school – to be the primary place of spiritual instruction," he said, citing Deuteronomy 6:7-9. "We don’t have a student ministry problem. We have a parenting problem."
Pipes, leader of the prayer and spiritual awakening team at the North American Mission Board (NAMB), said churches can equip parents to use modeling, informal instruction and family worship to teach kids about faith in meaningful ways.
He lamented the high percentage of children who leave church after age 18, but said his research has found that percentage to be significantly lower when kids see their parents demonstrating their faith. "When mom and dad model their faith, and when they get engaged in the harvest, we’re keeping the next generation."
Conference organizer Jay Wells said the week was designed to provide multiple resources for church staff and members in one location. "We’re meeting a need for churches to help them renew, regenerate and equip their people in a way they couldn’t do themselves," said Wells, director of black church relations and consulting for LifeWay Christian Resources.
The conference featured presentations and resources from several Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) agencies including the International Mission Board (IMB), NAMB, GuideStone and the SBC Executive Committee. "A lot of this week is designed to deliver all of the SBC to one audience at the same time," Wells said.
IMB President Jerry Rankin presented the closing message, telling attendees that SBC missionaries reported 27,000 new churches globally last year. "The Gospel’s being proclaimed to nations where we never dreamed we would have a missionary witness."
Yet the greatest tragedy remains those who have never had the opportunity to hear about Jesus, in part, because many Christians won’t consider going abroad. "Where did we get the elite myth that only a few are called to go?" Rankin asked. "When are we going to take the initiative and say, ‘Here am I. Send me’?"
During energetic worship services, pastors often urged church leaders to trust in God in the face of congregational, economic or personal challenges.
"When we’re caught off guard, God is not caught off guard," said Wayne Chaney Jr., pastor of Antioch Baptist Church in Long Beach, Calif. "In times of hardship, the Lord is still speaking."
Chaney noted that God spoke to Joshua after Moses’ death, during a time of transition for the people of Israel. Chaney urged the audience to lean on God during times of transition, despite tension and uncertainty.
"Even when you can’t understand him … He’s still reliable. He’s still doing wonders. He can still blow your mind."
Nearly 1,000 people attended this year’s conference. Next year’s event is scheduled for July 19-23 at Ridgecrest. For more information, visit LifeWay.com/blackchurchlife.
Eugene McCormick, director of African-American church development for the Florida Baptist Convention, said the conference offered attendees the opportunity to learn what God is doing through churches and believers throughout the country.
“You get an opportunity to experience church life on a broader perspective,” he said. “That allows you to gain or get some perspective in regards to contextually how things are going where you’re at, and some ways that you can continue to improve.”
Robert West, senior pastor of One Faith Fellowship in Memphis, Tenn., said he brought 27 people from his church to the conference.
“Every time that we come here, there’s something that we’re trying to get to take back, not just for us, but to help other churches develop,” said West, who has been coming to LifeWay conferences at Ridgecrest for 20 years.
He called the event cost-efficient. “Whatever area you need to develop in, you can bring your members here for a week and all the people are already here,” he said. Plus, “The preaching is awesome.”
Georgia: (To follow Wayne Chaney comments)
Likewise, Dennis Mitchell, pastor of Green Forest Community Church in Decatur, Ga., urged attendees to focus on God during life’s storms.
“If I’m facing a storm, I’m not going to be looking for help from somebody in the same storm,” Mitchell said. “I’m going to be searching for help from somebody who’s in control of the storm.”
Kentucky: (To follow Wayne Chaney comments)
During a morning Bible study, T. Vaughn Walker, pastor of First Gethsemane Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky., told attendees not to be discouraged if the immediate results of their faithfulness are not what they expect.
“Sometimes success just means doing what God told you to do and leaving the results to God,” he said. “Don’t give up on God because you don’t know what God has yet to do.”