EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been updated to reflect a daily conference viewership of about 2,300.
RIDGECREST, N.C. (BP) -- Using a fill-in-the-blank quiz, LifeWay Christian Resources' Mark Croston evoked phrases that have long spoken to the consciences of Black folks.
He was teaching the early morning Bible exposition at the 2020 Black Church Leadership and Family Conference (BCLFC), held July 20-24 as on online-only event during the COVID-19 pandemic. He guided virtual attendees in completing the phrases.
"First giving honor to God, who is the head of my life. I'd like to say I'm glad to be in the service of the Lord one mo' time. Cause He brought me from a mighty long way. I could'a been dead sleeping in my grave, but He made my enemies behave."
Croston, LifeWay's national director of Black church ministries, brought to mind phrases portraying Jesus as, "water in dry places, a rock in a weary land, a mother to the motherless, a father to the fatherless, a doctor in a sickroom, a lawyer in the courtroom, the lily of the valley, and a bright and morning star."
The traditional cultural rhetoric segued into the weeklong event as a spiritually uplifting educational, motivational and recreational time for Black churches and others involved in urban ministry, outreach to Black communities, and parenting Black children.
The more than 4,500 who registered for the event fueled an average daily viewership of about 2,300, Croston said, nearly double the 1,200 or so who have typically attended the event, which has been held for nearly 30 years at Ridgecrest Conference Center. Because of the online format, training will be available free through Aug. 31.
In addition to daily early morning Bible studies, the event offered worship services every evening with top Southern Baptist pastors, and nearly 100 discipleship and motivational classes targeting gender-specific and age-specific concerns. Speakers addressed various issues and topics including discipleship, evangelism, missions, leadership, marriage, family, small groups, worship, mental and physical health, pastoral concerns and others.
The Whosoever Will Choir, annually drawn from volunteers on the opening night of the event, presented a virtual rendition of "O It Is Jesus," with vocalists from 30 churches led by Roy Cotton of Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship in Dallas, featuring his wife Niya as lead vocalist.
Croston found benefits in gathering virtually, describing the week as "extraordinary."
"I have not seen any other conferences that had to transition from live to a virtual platform, of this size, fully built out like this," Croston said. "I am so proud of LifeWay for putting the needs of the churches first and allowing us to provide this event for free. This allows pastors to invite their entire congregation to take advantage of this free training that will be available through August 31st."
Evening worship preachers
Throughout the week, preachers offered scriptural guidance in addressing current societal distresses and obstacles in fulfilling the Great Commission. Love, forgiveness, trust, individual evangelism, and God's supremacy and faithfulness were exhorted from various scriptural texts.
Darron Edwards, senior pastor of United Believers Baptist Church in Kansas City, Mo., described 2020 as "the year of exposure" in his Monday sermon based on Psalm 51:10.
It's as if God is exposing hearts morally, emotionally and spiritually, Edwards said, offering a "divine bailout" God extended to psalmist King David.
"David began the bailout with these three words, 'I have sinned,'" Edwards said. "When I decide to change the way I look at it, or the way I look at God, that's when a divine bailout happens in my life."
Ben Mandrell, LifeWay president and CEO, challenged listeners to focus on eternity instead of the present temporal life. In his sermon "Challenged to Love the Unchurched," Mandrell used Jesus' ministry to Levi the tax collector in Mark 2:13-17 to encourage individual evangelism.
"What makes you appealing to a nonreligious person is actually not your religion, it's the relationship that you offer to them, a loving kind warm genuine friendship," Mandrell said. "People will listen once they feel loved."
He encouraged listeners to learn the names of their neighbors and start praying for them by name, saying:
"God put you there to pastor that street."
Adron Robinson, senior pastor of Hillcrest Baptist Church in Country Club Hills, Ill., used God's promises in Matthew 6:25-35 to address the anxiety many may suffer during the COVID-19 pandemic. He exhorted believers to trust the promises and providence of God, to live with the knowledge that God is in control, and to know that the pandemic did not take God by surprise.
In his sermon "Christ's Answer to Our Anxiety," Robinson said worrying makes us less effective today and ineffective tomorrow.
"Jesus is not saying stop being concerned. He's saying stop being consumed," said Robinson, a member of the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee. "We ought to be concerned. We ought to follow protocols. We ought to maintain social distancing and cleanse our hands and obey the stay-at-home or stay-in-place order. We ought to follow protocols. But don't let your concerns consume you.
"Seek first the Kingdom, and then the world will get in line."
Fred Luter, senior pastor of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans, encouraged viewers to "Trust in God in Difficult Times," extolling God's assurances in Isaiah 41:10. While God allowed the coronavirus pandemic to occur, Luter said, God has promised "us strength to make it through."
Luter, who served as SBC president from 2012–2014, encouraged Christians to remember God's presence, power and promise.
"I know we're not on the mountaintop in Ridgecrest. I know we miss seeing each other, but in the midst of it all, we should be encouraged ... that this too shall pass," Luter said. "I believe God will give us strength during this pandemic so we can continue to do what God has called us to do, to continue to be the body of Christ. ... God will give us the strength to get through this pandemic and look back on it as a testimony of what God has done in our lives."
Breonus Mitchell, lead pastor of Mount Gilead Missionary Baptist Church in Nashville, Tenn., encouraged Christians to approach missions and ministry by following Jesus' example of interacting with others.
"Jesus is always engaged and connected with the least, the lost, the left out, the looked-over and the looked-down-upon," Mitchell said in his sermon, "A Word for the Wounded," based on Luke 23:33-38. "Mission and ministry is how we interact with others. You can't do ministry without having to be connected and engaged with other people."
In the midst of wounds flowing from current societal distress, Mitchell encouraged Christians to follow Jesus' example of forgiveness.
Jesus "doesn't say, 'Father destroy them,'" Mitchell said. "He doesn't say, 'Father get even with them.' He doesn't say, 'Father, they [are]; never going to change.' He doesn't say, 'Father I don't' trust them.' He doesn't say, 'Father I am tired of them.' But Jesus was saying, 'Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.'
"The heart of our Christian faith is love."
Other speakers and guests
In addition to Croston, daily Bible study teachers included Michael Pigg, senior pastor of Philadelphia Baptist Church in Lithonia, Ga.; Christina Zimmerman, content editor for LifeWay's You curriculum; Curtis Woods, associate executive director of the Kentucky Baptist Convention; and James McCarroll, senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Murfreesboro, Tenn.
Special guests greeted viewers at various times during the event, including Marshal Ausberry, president of the National African American Fellowship of the SBC and SBC first vice president; Ronnie Floyd, president and CEO of the SBC Executive Committee; Edward Graham, assistant to the vice president for programs and government relations of Samaritan's Purse; and O.S. Hawkins, president and CEO of GuideStone Financial Resources of the SBC.
All sessions of the 2020 event are available at digitalpass.lifeway.com.