ORLANDO–While acknowledging “no one ever anticipated the challenges of this past year,” Tommy Green implored Florida Baptists to “stay on the wall. You are doing a great work, locally and globally,” during the Challenge 2025 Gathering held Feb. 16 at First Baptist Church in Orlando.
The one-day meeting was a time to “regather and refocus” Florida Baptists and pray for “a powerful movement of God over our lives today,” said Green, executive director-treasurer of the Florida Baptist Convention. It represented the first time Florida Baptists have gathered since November 2019 when the Florida Baptist State Convention meeting was held at the church.
In opening remarks, Green underscored the millions of persons in Florida who do not know Christ as Savior and the state’s burgeoning population with more than 300,000 people moving there annually.
“We need to be speaking the Word of God with boldness. I pray today will be a catalyst in helping us understand what we can do together as a fellowship and network of Florida churches to accomplish the Great Commission in our state knowing it will impact the world around us.”
Green highlighted the annual goals of Challenge 2025:
–75 new church plants;
–100 revitalized churches;
–12,000 mission engagements;
–$33 million in Cooperative Program gifts; and
–$1 million in Maguire State Mission Offering gifts
Keynote speakers during the day were Erik Cummings, lead pastor, New Life Baptist Church in Carol City, and president of the Florida Baptist State Convention; Paul Chitwood, president, International Mission Board, SBC; Kevin Ezell, president, North American Mission Board, SBC; and Green.
The gathering drew over 800 pastors and leaders from 321 congregations across the state, representing a diversity of churches, from urban to rural and more than five language groups. Through it all, the unity among Florida Baptists was applauded and celebrated.
Participants chose from 15 breakout sessions with topics including the challenges of ministry context, language, church planting and church revitalization, financial and technical.
Prior to the meeting Wayne Godwin, pastor of First Baptist Church in Lorida, said he attended the meeting “to get refreshed and listen to those who have so much wealth of experience.” He planned to attend the rural church and technology breakouts to gain new insights.
Godwin contends that after COVID-19, almost every church is a new church plant, or in need of revitalization. Prior to the pandemic, the church averaged 80 in worship. That number had dropped in half in recent months. He believes a complacency had set in among church members, “getting back together may not be a priority,” he said.
Reflecting afterwards on the conference, Godwin said, “It was everything I needed. It was refreshing, encouraging and a day of worship for me. The breakouts were informative, and I picked up some great information for us to use at the church. I am so grateful to the Convention for providing it for us.”
David Tarkington, pastor of First Baptist Church in Orange Park, attended the urban and church planting breakouts.
“Challenge 2025 was like a light in a dark place,” he said, “reminding me that here in Florida and through the cooperative efforts of Florida Baptists, Kingdom-focused ministry to the glory of God alone is not only happening but will be beyond our wildest imagination.”
“After a year where our creative ‘2020 vision’ sermon series, plans, graphics, and events were mostly scrapped, after moving to a new way of doing ministry where online because essential rather than optional, where staff roles were re-worked and many church leaders are still seeking to help their church members to realize that we will never go back to pre-March 2020 ’normal,’ we needed a gathering like Challenge 2025.”
Tarkington said the keynote messages “encouraged us to see that where our plans may have been scrapped last year, God’s has not. I left encouraged after hearing these messages, worshiping with brothers and sisters in similar church situations, and having heart-felt, practical, Kingdom-focused conversations with other pastors in the challenge breakouts and between meetings.”
Tommy Green: Stay on the wall
Citing Neh. 6:3, Green focused on the vision, systems and challenges Nehemiah employed in rebuilding the wall of Jerusalem. Nehemiah had a vision, Green said, allowing that with any vision, challenges will arise.
“Nehemiah declared that despite everything, I will stay on the wall,” Green said–even though others criticized and refused to help. “He would not come down because the work was not finished. He would stay until the work God had put in his heart to do was completed. He would stay on the wall until God released him.”
“I am inspired, encouraged and convicted by those who stay on the wall,” he said. “Those who have every reason to quit but they stay.”
He acknowledged the difficulties of this past year caused by the pandemic and cancellation of church plans and worship.
“There are many who are wounded and struggling in this room that we must continue to come ‘Right Beside’ in love. We need you, we need all of us, we need each other, we must hold together as a multi-cultural, ethnic, generational, locational, and lingual group of churches, if we are going to reach Florida for Christ.”
Ministry is hard and comes at a cost, Green said. It involves struggle, sacrifice and surrender, he added.
“Ministry is carried out in brokenness, hurt, pain, disappointment, crisis, and struggle. God called us to see people at their worst and most vulnerable moments. Ministry snatches you out of your comfort zone, stretches the limits of your commitment, and pushes your obedience to God and His Word.”
He urged Florida Baptists to be stakeholders, not placeholders. “Florida Baptists, we will not be, we cannot be, a placeholder in the state of Florida, we must be stakeholders seeking to reach every man, woman, boy, and girl for Jesus Christ.”
“Stay on the wall! You are doing a great work! Be a stakeholder church! Be a stakeholder convention of churches.”
Green gave an update on Florida Baptists’ accomplishments of Challenge 2025 goals during the past year: 75 new churches launched with 26 church planters trained to be sent; 107 churches received revitalization assistance; 13,323 baptisms reported; $28 million given through the Cooperative Program; $33 million given in food to churches; and $557,972 given to the Maguire State Mission Offering.
He also highlighted Florida Baptists’ leadership in the SBC:
Churches and Missions
10.5 baptisms ratio per reported church
Weekly Worship Attendance
Sunday School Attendance
Referring to Neh. 6:15-16, Green shared that the wall was completed in 52 days. And all who saw perceived the work was done by God.
“Florida Baptists stay on the wall,” Green urged. “You are doing a great work, locally and globally. We must lead the way in the SBC of a healthy fellowship of churches committed to respect, love, trust and collaboration with each other.
“May we leave this place laser focused to stay on the wall.”
Paul Chitwood: Who will be the Spark?
Noting that “circumstances force us to the change our plans, a truth each of us has been encountering on a daily basis since March,” Chitwood shared how a specific event can change the world and eternity.
In Acts 6-8, the Early Church was not impacted by a pandemic, he said, but by persecution after the stoning of Stephen served as the spark that spread the gospel beyond the church in Jerusalem.
He recalled the selection of the first deacons to serve the Early Church had been birthed at Pentecost and the calling of Stephen to that role. Almost immediately the religious leaders conspired to kill the deacon who was doing good work in the name of Jesus, ultimately stoning him to death.
After Stephen becomes the first martyr of the church, his death is the “spark that unleashes a wave of persecution” that results in church leaders fleeing Jerusalem. As they go, they take the gospel with them, preaching the good news about Jesus.
“The life and death of one man, a man named Stephen, a man full of grace and faith and the Holy Spirit is the spark for the beginning the spread of the gospel from Jerusalem to the nations,” he said.
He asked Florida Baptists, “Who will be the spark in our day? Whose life will be so marked by good works, that the enemy would make the mistake of targeting that person for death and the end of result would be hell suffering defeat after defeat as the gospel spreads like wildfire to the very ends of the earth?”
Noting there are more than 3,000 unreached people groups in the world, he continued, “Is your church so full of faith and the Holy Spirit, so full of grace and God’s power that God could your church to advance His Kingdom.”
Chitwood assured Florida Baptists that the IMB continues to advance the gospel in the pandemic through virtual events and engagements; new missionary deployments; $159.7 million in Lottie Moon Christmas Offering gifts, exceeding the goal of $155 million; and Send Relief overseas projects of $2 million serving 500,000 people in 77 countries and resulting in 36 new churches.
In personnel highlights, the IMB has 3,604 persons serving; 422 new missionaries appointed in 2020; 856 in the sending pipeline; 133 adults and 54 kids preparing for deployment; and 453 persons on temporary assignment due to COVID-19.
Kevin Ezell, Challenge of North America
Remarking that all missionaries are supported by churches in North America, Ezell said that “we must make sure our base is strong if we are going to reach the uttermost parts of the earth.”
Reading from Acts 18: 9-10, Ezell said that “as everything was crashing around [Paul], God comes to him in a vision and encourages him to keep sharing his name.” Fear, he said, comes from “our ruthless enemy, the devil himself… but God has not given us a spirit of timidity but of power, love and discipline.”
“I don’t know what you’re going through but I know one; that you don’t have to fear, two that you don’t have to quit, and you don’t have to quit and the reason you don’t is because he is with us.”
As an avid sports fan, Ezell says that some time back he started to record his favorite team’s games and watched them only if his team won. One of his favorite games to re-watch was one in which the Kentucky basketball team is significantly down, and the commentators are sure they will not win.
“Ten minutes left in the game and we’re eight down. I’m scared? No I’m not scared. I’m relaxed. I’m petting my dog…I know if I go home tonight and watch the game for the thirty third time, I know what will happen. Right at the two second mark we will steal the ball and throw it around…and we win.”
His point, that even though there was a ton of negativity from those who thought they knew how the game would turn out, he was able to endure it because he already knew what the result was going to be.
“He knows more about your city and your consequence than you do and because of that we can have a sense of peace and we do not have to fear, we do not have to quit because there are many people in this city, he is going to use us to reach.”
In the past ten years, shared Ezell, 51 percent of the churches in Canada were planted, more 41 percent of the churches in New England, more 27 percent of the churches in the non-south North America. Church plants in New Orleans went from none to more than 20 in the last decade, in DC and South Florida the number of churches planted more than doubled. Those churches gave $8.5 million to the Cooperative program, and $1.2 million to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering.
If giving continues as such, more than one third of SBC churches would have been planted since 2010.
What all those numbers mean, said Ezell, is that “we are all in this together.”
Erik Cummings, Comfort Amid Chaos
Reading from 2 Corinthians 1: 3-11, Cummings delivered a message of comfort and hope to Florida Baptists to close the Challenge 2025 gathering.
“We are experiencing a cultural meltdown…it has presented us with challenges and anxieties…but in the midst of this trying season, God is able to do great things,” he said.
First, he said, we have an opportunity to trust God. In verses 8 and 9 of 2 Corinthians 1, Paul shares that the troubles and difficulties he faced were so that he leaned on God and not on himself. “We have an opportunity to lean on God in a way we never have before, to take confidence off ourselves and put our trust in him.”
Next, these pandemic times are an opportunity to “set out hope”. In the following verses Paul shares that he has placed his hope in God and Cummings encouraged Florida Baptists to do the same. “We have to let God fix us; we have to know that he has a plan… Are you going to panic and despair or are you going to adjust and grow?”
In the midst of the present chaos, there is an opportunity to strengthen prayer life, he shared. “Before we can have a strategy, we have to set a culture of prayer, culture of prayer eats strategy every time.” And specifically, he said to pray one for another.
He encouraged those gathered to seize the opportunity to offer comfort in this season. The comfort that is received from Christ is to be shared with others, he said. “God has called you to share that comfort.”
“I hope that you are comforted by seeing your brother and sisters today and that you can pass that comfort to others.”
By Barbara Denman and Keila Diaz, Florida Baptist Convention