By Brian Blackwell, Baptist Message staff writer
SHREVEPORT, La. (LBM) – “We planned ECON with the idea that our pastors and our people needed encouragement,” Keith Manuel, Louisiana Baptists evangelism and church growth team director, told the Baptist Message. “They are fatigued and frustrated. We needed to collectively ‘cast our cares on (God), because he cares for us.’
An estimated crowd of 500 participants attended at least one of the sessions of ECON 2021, which took place Jan. 25-26 at Summer Grove Baptist Church in Shreveport. Another 350 also tuned in online through a live stream of the event.
Throughout the two-day conference, pastors heard encouraging music and messages to “press on” during this unprecedented time of challenges for life, work and ministry.
“We serve the sovereign Lord of the universe. In this room we have the gifts and the talents to change Louisiana. Don’t give up,” was the message from Sammy Gilbreath, evangelism event and training specialist with the Alabama State Board of Missions.
He shared his encouragement in the context of his own brush with death in 2004 when his cardiologist told him, “You are going to die and die very quickly.”
But surgery corrected his condition and Gilbreath said he decided he would live from then on with an urgency for sharing the Gospel.
He said Christians should “live like we are dying” and said to do so, it is important to value the promise of life, value spiritual blessings more than physical things, value a clear conscience and value remembering.
“I don’t have to worry about tomorrow,” he said. “Because every day is a gift to me. And my Lord has given me the promise when my family needs grace, there will be more than enough.”
Gilbreath, who preached another message during the Monday evening session, challenged ECON participants to reach one more person for Christ. Many in the room responded by kneeling in prayer, either at the altar or at their seat.
“Most of us in this room have heard about, or read about or maybe been in one great movement of God,” he said. “The real question tonight is would you like to be in one more before you die? Wouldn’t you like to just see what God can do in Louisiana, then spread over to Texas, over in Alabama, down in Florida and Tennessee? Wouldn’t it be neat if the history books recorded the revival that broke out and swept across America changing the fate of America began on a Monday night in an evangelism conference in Shreveport, Louisiana?”
Dennis Swanberg, who enjoys the title of “America’s minister of encouragement,” pressed participants to refresh others through written words such as a note or letter, but also to “show up” when a friend is needed.
Referencing 2 Timothy 1:15-18, he urged Louisiana Baptists to follow the example of Onesiphorus, who traveled to visit the imprisoned apostle Paul.
Paul was waiting in Rome under a death sentence, and although others deserted him, Onesiphorus sought him out and subsequently refreshed Paul to remain strong in his faith to the end.
“It cost Onesiphorus to go on that trip,” Swanberg said. “He may have died for his buddy. He refreshed with his very life. That’s the kind of love we need in this world today. We can rise up as God’s people and believers and we can live this life and make an impact for the future generations. Each generation has to win their generation, but I can influence and help and encourage the next bunch because they’ve got to get it done.”
Swanberg added that Louisiana Baptists should show this same love to the lost.
“Evangelism is going to take some showing up,” he said. “There are times you will show up and you are going to be the one to witness. You will be the one to verbalize, you will be the one to be bold enough to say, ‘Have you come to the place in your life where you know for certain that if you are going to Heaven?’”
“There are a whole lot of us making excuses of why we are not doing where we are supposed to be doing,” said Richard Taylor, associate director of personal evangelism with the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention. “We’ve been blaming everybody and everything and the latest blame goes to the pandemic. We are blaming everything on the pandemic. Never mind we weren’t doing it before the pandemic. But now that we have a pandemic, the pandemic is now the blame for not doing what we haven’t doing all along. If we would use what we do have, we would understand what we do have far exceeds what we don’t have.”
Taylor used a passage in Acts 3 to remind ECON participants about the importance of winning others to Christ. He said too many times Christ followers are like the people who failed to stop and help a man in need just on the doorstep of the temple. He said Christ followers must be like Peter and John, who cared enough to stop and meet his needs.
“Dying from the coronavirus is not the worst thing that can happen to you,” he said. “Wear your mask, social distance, wash your hands. All that stuff is relevant and important. But there is something worse than dying from a virus. And that is to die without Jesus. So while we spend all of our time, energy and resources beautifying, fortifying our beautiful gates, I want to ask a question: ‘What are you doing about the ugly sites not around the world, but just outside your beautiful gates.’”
America needs a revival, Louisiana Conference of Southern Baptist Evangelists President Gary Bowlin said.
Bowlin said in Mark 2:1-12 a group of men took the bold step to bring their friend to Jesus, in hopes that he would heal him of paralysis. He encouraged ECON participants to be bold for Christ in the area of evangelism.
He noted that to do effective evangelism, there must be a committed heart, a cooperative spirit, a consecrated effort, a common goal and a Christ glorifying motive.
“One of the reasons evangelism is floundering in our day is our hearts are not right,” Bowlin said. “We need a good old-fashioned revival, because there’s a direct correlation between revival and evangelism.
There’s no problem in America today that revival wouldn’t take care of. There’s no problem in evangelism that revival would not take care of if we get our hearts right with our God. I’m praying that God would break my heart. If we can’t have revival, if we don’t have revival, this country is gone.”
Bowlin said even amid COVID-19 restrictions, revivals are taking place across the country and are seeing a great spiritual harvest.
“As a God-called evangelist to all you pastors and the rest of you I confess I need you,” he said. “And you know what? You need us.
“I ask you to pray about inviting one of these evangelists to come to your church and share the Gospel,” he continued. “The task is too big to do alone. You can’t do it without getting some help. I can’t do it without some help. I can’t fulfill my calling without some help.”
Roc Collins, director of evangelism for Tennessee Baptists, urged Louisiana Baptists not be distracted from praying for a lost world.
He said, now, in the midst of the pandemic, is the time to imitate Paul’s example in Romans 10:1 – pray for the lost like never before and point them to Jesus.
Collins made it a special point of emphasis that this means Christ followers must intentionally invest themselves in the lives of the lost.
He said too many people in our communities think they can do enough good to get into Heaven, and that believers need to help others understand “The only way to get righteous is to get Jesus.”
“You are to point them to Jesus with every fiber of your being. You tell them there is only one way to be saved,” Collins declared.
“We need to point them to Jesus,” he said. “Because He is the answer.”
Evangelist Luke Hockenjos of Haughton challenged youth gathered for Student Night, Jan. 24, to get serious about their walk with Jesus. He said that Christians might not face the same level of persecution as the imprisonment of Paul and Silas (Acts 16), but that when faced with opposition and obstacles to make even these kinds of experiences count for Christ.
“Jesus doesn’t leave us hanging in our trials,” he said. “Jesus doesn’t leave us hanging in our testing. He says, ‘Listen, you will go through stuff, but I have already overcome the world and greater is He that is in you than he that is in the world.
“So when you face these hard times, you are not going to face these alone,” he assured them. “When you face the persecution, you are not going to face it alone.”
Hockenjos told the students not to delay being obedient to God’s command to tell others the Good News.
“Tomorrow may not come,” he said. “Our trials are coming and they are already here. And if we found not focusing or following Christ, the enemy who lurks arounds like a roaring lion is going to knock us off our feet.”
Hockenjos said the coronavirus pandemic is an opportunity for young believers to show others how to respond to trials.
“Somebody is always watching the way you handle yourself,” he said. “Somebody is always watching to see if you are going to stand for your belief in Christ or if you are going to fall and allow the world to consume. Somebody is watching to see if you are serious about the father’s business. There’s somebody always watching. That’s why above all else we guard our heart. Your life is so valuable on earth that God can use you in a powerful and mighty way.
“The whole world is watching Christianity today, seeing how we are going to respond what is going on,” he continued. “Don’t get tied up in political issues that don’t have a biblical foundation. Don’t get tied up in opinions. You stay focused on what Jesus said. Because what he says will outlast what any man says. Don’t be worried about what’s going on around you other than what God is doing through you and for this world.”
Manuel thanked those who chose to press forward with the conference in the midst of uncertainty.
“I’ve heard multiple times from pastors and church members who joined us in-person or online how much they needed to be refreshed,” he said. “I truly believe God answered our cry.
He reminded participants that the Louisiana Baptists state missions services team is available as a resource to any church needing assistance with furthering the Gospel in their community.
“Our team is available,” he noted, “to assist our churches when they are able to safely gather to equip and encourage their church members in all areas of church life.”