DEL CITY—More than 2,000 people flocked to Del City, First Southern, Jan. 25-26, to hear inspiring messages from energized preachers about how to be bolder witnesses for Jesus Christ at the 2016 State Evangelism Conference (SEC).

Focusing on the theme, “Unashamed,” the SEC featured atheist-turned-Christian Lee Strobel, the former award-winning legal editor of The Chicago Tribune, and a New York Times best-selling author of more than 20 books and professor of Christian Thought at Houston Baptist University; Johnny Hunt, pastor of Woodstock, Ga., First; Rob Zinn, pastor of Highland, Calif, First; Jim Henry, pastor of Nashville, Tenn., Dalewood; Anthony L. Jordan, executive director-treasurer of the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma (BGCO); Miles McPherson, former National Football League (NFL) athlete and pastor of The Rock Church in San Diego, Calif.; Sean McDowell, assistant professor of Christian apologetics at Biola University in San Juan Capistrano, Calif.; Vern Charette, professor of preaching at Southwestern Seminary; Alvin Reid, professor of evangelism and student ministries at Southeastern Seminary; Don Wilton, pastor of Spartanburg, S.C. First  and America’s “Minister of Encouragement,” Dennis Swanberg.

Worship was led throughout the conference by Master’s Voice from Bristow and the final evening featured a concert by the Annie Moses Band, a classical-crossover ensemble of six siblings, known for their virtuosic string playing, eclectic vocals and stylistically diverse arrangements. In addition, the morning session Jan. 25 focused on senior adults, and featured a large choir of senior singers from across the state directed by Randy Lind, BGCO worship and music ministries specialist.

/// Monday morning session

Henry led off the conference that morning with a shocking statistic, revealing to those present that there are 9,900 different “religions” in the world.

But, Christianity is unique, he reminded, in that Christ is at the center of it, and provides “the way” to salvation, other than other views, such as universalism and inclusivism.

Unfortunately, the world today, Henry said, rejects absoluteness, considering it bigotry, and believes there is no universal truth and that each person defines his or her own reality.

Asking how Christians can respond to the lost, Henry said being humble and admitting to past failures, such as acceptance of slavery centuries ago; understanding that all religions claim to some type of exclusivity such as Muslims praying five times daily toward Mecca; and joining together to battle evil, such as abortion and pornography.

Henry said Christians must show tolerance in three ways: on legal, social and intellectual levels.

“We must stand up for the right of others to practice their religion, lest we lose the right to practice ours; we must respect those who don’t believe as I do, yet we must speak up against false ideas,” he stressed.

“We must expose our children and grandchildren to basic, critical thinking concepts,” he concluded. “We must teach them to share their faith and recognize the exclusivity Christ claimed for Himself. In this world, there are many ways to be wrong, but only one way to be right.”

Zinn, speaking from Matthew, Chapter 5, reminded those present that they are the salt of the Earth and bemoaned that society’s “standards of morality are dwindling to nothing.”

He reminded the crowd that they are to “be pure . . . . we are here to preserve, to influence to keep things from getting rotten. And, be sure, people are watching, watching what we do and what we don’t do.”

Zinn said salt lends flavor to things, and thus, Christianity has a flavor all its own.

“But, Christianity is not a religion,” he cautioned, “Christianity is a relationship.”

He asked why so many churches are dying?

Answering, he said, “They have become a closed society. The members see only each other. They have no lost friends. The church grows old, has no young people, and the older ones say they are retired.

“I tell you, the greatest resource the church has is its retired members. If they can’t drive in the dark, they can visit in the daytime! And, they can certainly use the phone!”

Then directing his comments to the many seniors in the audience, Zinn said, “If you can be here this morning listening to sermons, you can certainly be doing something for the Lord. There’s not one of you here today that God cannot use. There are people who need Jesus where you are.”

Lightening the mood as the Monday morning session concluded, Swanberg used his standard repertoire of jokes and vocal impressions of Billy Graham, Barney Fife, John Wayne, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton to entertain and make the point that he “loves real people.”

The “real people” he referenced in his message were Mary, Martha and Lazarus, those whom Jesus loved as friends.

“Jesus loved Lazarus, and many people came to Jesus because of Lazarus,” Swanberg said. “When Jesus came close to the cross, he went back to Bethany to be near his dear friends one last time. Mary, Martha and Lazarus knew Jesus as Savior, but they also knew Him as friend.”

He encouraged the pastors present to find a friend who is a layman.

“Preachers need a best friend who is a layman, not another preacher,” he said.

photo: brian hobbs The State Evangelism Conference at Del City, First Southern drew a large crowd Monday evening, Jan. 25

photo: brian hobbs
The State Evangelism Conference at Del City, First Southern drew a large crowd Monday evening, Jan. 25

/// Monday afternoon session

McPherson led the Monday afternoon session and opened by sharing his testimony as a former NFL player with a cocaine addiction who “called out to Jesus” and walked away from doing drugs.

McPherson spoke from Ex. 3:7 on God hearing the cries of His people and sending deliverers in response to the cries.

“Your town is in critical condition,” he said. “There are people there who are going to die and will go to Hell. That is why He sent us, to bring hope to that city, not to have a Bible study for the Christians in that city. There’s a difference.

“I had a pastor ask me a couple of years ago, ‘Can you help me grow my church to 4,000 people?’ I said, ‘Why? Why do you want 4,000 people?’ And he didn’t say anything. Why? Because his reason was not right. Why would God give you more people if you don’t know what to do with those people?”

McDowell followed McPherson with a challenging message about reaching non-Christians today, and how difficult it can be because of how they view Christians.

Speaking from Mark 2 on Jesus connecting with sinners, McDowell quoted a recent study of non-Christians who were asked what they thought about Christians. “They said, ‘Number one, our perspective is they’re hypocritical.’

“Second, they are too focused on getting converts. Christians don’t really care about them.

“Third, anti-homosexual. According to the study, they said 91 percent of non-believers when they hear the term ‘Evangelical Christians,’ instantly in their mind they associate that with anti-homosexual. So if you say you’re a Christian you might as well tell them, ‘By the way, I hate gays.’ I’m not saying that is true. I’m saying that is the perception.”

McDowell, son of famous apologist Josh McDowell, ended the list of perceptions that non-believers have about Christians is they lived “sheltered, old fashioned lives,” they are too political and too judgmental.

The conclusion McDowell gave was for Christians to make friends of those who don’t have the same views and find ways to speak truth to them.

“Friends, it’s amazing in this culture where Christians are viewed a certain way when we reach out with love how receptive people are with the Gospel,” he said.

Jordan concluded the Monday afternoon session with an unconventional presentation involving fly-fishing. He opened with how his interest in the hobby started about 20 years ago, and he went through the process of how he obtained the proper fishing equipment and demonstrated the attire to wear when fly-fishing. After going through displaying fishing poles and putting on his fishing outfit, he confessed that he has not been fly-fishing in nine years.

“I have not put into practice what I know,” Jordan said.

Jordan challenged pastors and church leaders to use the training to witness to others and engage their respective communities.

“If it is so that Jesus said ‘Follow me, and I will make you a fisher of men,’ then I have to come back and ask myself, ‘Anthony, if you are not fishing for men, then how much following are you really doing?”

Jordan emphasized the “3151 Challenge,” which was introduced at the 2015 BGCO Annual Meeting in November. This strategy involves praying for three lost friends, learning one gospel presentation, inviting five people to a small group at church and sharing the Gospel with one person.

“Can I just be candid?” Jordan asked at the conclusion of his speaking time. “In some ways, I’m almost embarrassed to ask so little of myself, and yet I would tell you that if your church, if you would lead your church… to pray for three people in their life, learn one simple Gospel presentation—Rom. 5:8 or anything else you want to share, but teach them how to share the Gospel and get them to invite five people to come to church and hear the Gospel in small groups… and then challenge your people to share the Gospel just one time, there would be thousands who would come to Christ in Oklahoma.”

/// Monday Evening Session

Strobel was the keynote speaker during the Monday evening session and addressed the “Evangelistic Edge” Christians have in regards to sharing Jesus Christ with unbelievers. His points involved praying, being available and being authentic in how Christians should treat neighbors and others. He referenced his experiences of Christian witness from a book he co-wrote with Mark Mittelberg titled The Unexpected Adventure: Taking Everyday Risks to Talk with People about Jesus.

Strobel mentioned a significant debate he moderated between a well-known atheist and a well-known Christian apologist, William Lane Craig. He said 117 radio stations broadcast the debate live, and 7, 778 people were in attendance. The debate lasted 2.5 hours, and Strobel said 47 confirmed atheists walked out as followers of Jesus Christ.

“We have an unfair advantage in the debate against atheism,” said Strobel. “We have truth on our side.”

He emphasized that having a direct debate would not be expected for the majority of Christians.

“For most of us,” Strobel said, “the key word is not ‘debate.’ It’s ‘dialogue.’ It’s communication. It’s friendship. It’s sitting down with someone who is far from God and having an honest conversation about what their questions are about Christianity. It’s more listening than talking.”

The end of his talk featured more of his experiences of people becoming Christians who were either professing atheists or people who did not have a direct relationship with Jesus Christ. Strobel concluded encouraging attending Christians to be open and available to unbelievers.

“We can do this!” Strobel said. “We don’t have to have a Ph.D. in theology. We can love people. We can pray for them. We can help them find answers to questions. And easiest of all, we can just be ourselves—sinners saved by grace. We don’t have to pretend we are smarter than we are. We don’t have pretend we are more spiritual than we are. And God will take us on a series of unexpected adventures that will be the joy of our lives.”

/// Tuesday Afternoon Session

After a morning filled with breakout sessions, including the Women’s Session (see page 12) on Tuesday, the SEC reconvened in the sanctuary that afternoon at Del City, First Southern. Charette, professor of preaching at Southwestern Seminary, opened the session reminiscing of the first SEC he attended.

“The first conference I came to was in 1992,” said Charette. “I was only two years old in the Lord when I came to that first conference. It was ‘The Gathering of the Eagles,” Charette said. “We heard the heavyweights in the Convention. Many were in the twilight of their ministry, men like 80-year-old W.A. Criswell got up and preached the Word. We heard the shoeshine boy from San Antonio, the famous evangelist Angel Martinez, preach. We heard J. Harold Smith challenge us. We heard Roy Fish. All these men are in Heaven now, and I’ll never forget coming to this conference during that time and leaving here absolutely transformed.

“It’s almost a surreal moment for me to stand in this very pulpit because this is the place that hosted ‘The Gathering of the Eagles’ 24 years ago, and I want you to know I am grateful  and blessed to be with you.”

Reid opened his talk with a question, “How is your church doing with the next generation?”

Reid offered a strategy of telling stories to connect with young people. He offered a breakdown of popular movies that are popular, and the reason they are popular, Reid said, is based on a conversation between two famous fiction writers.

“C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien years ago had a conversation about this,” said Reid. “They talked about the reason we love stories is because they don’t give us the remedy we want, but they touch us in the world we live.”

Incorporating a story approach is what Reid does when sharing with young people the Gospel. He presents the whole Bible summary of “creation, fall, rescue, restoration.”

“What I do when I’m talking to young people is I assume they don’t have a clue about the Bible, whether they go to church or not,” said Reid, “and I want to help them understand the big picture of what God is doing in this world. And from that, I show them that in the middle of that story there is a bloody cross, a substitutionary atonement and glorious redemption. And that’s why we love every rescue in every movie.”

Wilton concluded the afternoon session with a message on Hezekiah in II Kings, making comparisons of what the young king was facing in Judah and what is happening in America today. “His nation was in trouble,” said Wilton, “but he was victorious.” Wilton shared about Hezekiah removing the false gods and overcoming the sins of his father.

Wilton is Billy Graham’s pastor and shared many stories of his times meeting with the well-known evangelist. He said Graham told him when he eventually preaches at his funeral to not mention his name but talk about Jesus. Wilton said he asked Graham if he could talk about him for just a little bit while he’s talking about Jesus, and Graham said, “OK, but just a little bit.”

/// Tuesday Evening Session

Closing out the SEC on Tuesday evening, Hunt referenced the first four chapters of the Book of Hebrews, stressing the importance of what he called the “second greatest revelation of God to man, after His Son, Jesus—the Bible.”

“The Word of God will change our people,” he challenged the pastors present. “It cannot be disregarded. It is our friend. It discerns, it exposes, convicts and judges. The preacher would be foolish to preach anything else than the Bible.”

Hunt said the Word of God is “alive . . . . active . . . . probing  . . . . illuminating . . . . and personal. It is instinctive; it will show you things you know without (you) learning.

“It will energize and give you a passion. It alters the conduct and alters the speech. It’s a sharp sword. It’s going to cut some people, and they’re either going to get mad or get glad.”

He said God’s word performs a, “winnowing process on all, sifting everyone. It illuminates the dark areas of life and speaks directly to a person. It’s the Living Word of God.

“Preach the Word, pastors!” he exhorted.

The 2017 State Evangelism Conference will be held January 30-31, 2017 at First Southern, Del City.