WOODSTOCK, Ga. (BP) -- More than 2,000 church planters, pastors and other Southern Baptist leaders -- triple the number originally predicted -- attended the North American Mission Board's Send North America Conference at First Baptist Church in Woodstock, Ga.
"It's a brand new day for the North American Mission Board," NAMB President Kevin Ezell said as he welcomed the attendees. "Our national strategy is Send North America, which is not only about church planting but also evangelism and church revitalization."
A key intent of the conference was to help mobilize churches to the North American mission field so they can have a more personal connection to and involvement with church planters. Those attending included more than 300 pastors and more than 600 church planters.
NAMB originally planned for 800 at the July 30-31 event, but registration eventually topped 2,200. The meeting drew attendees from all 50 states, Canada, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.
NAMB's Aaron Coe, vice president for mobilization and equipping, told an enthusiastic audience that the conference was about only one thing: Jesus.
"This is a historic night as we kick off this conference," Coe said. "It's been in the making for nine months. There are people in this room from many tribes across the Southern Baptist Convention -- denominational representatives, state convention partners, church planters and churches. But this conference isn't really about church planting. It's about Jesus."
Coe shared NAMB's goal: the net gain of 5,000 new SBC congregations across North America by 2022, while seeing the church "death" rate -- on average about 890 churches a year -- reduced through aggressive church revitalization.
"Send North America is not just a big church strategy, it's an every church strategy," Coe said.
Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research, kicked off Monday night's program as the conference's first guest speaker.
"In the last 10 years, the number of self-proclaiming Christians has declined by 10 percent," Stetzer said. "I don't have to tell you that the world is growing more hostile to the message we bring."
Stetzer quoted Christian author Phil Yancey, who claims in principle it's already "Saturday" on planet earth. But Stetzer told the church planters, pastors and others that "we are not sharing Christ and planting churches like we need to do if it is indeed Saturday."
Louie Giglio, founding pastor of Passion City Church in Atlanta, asked attendees, "Has the resurrection worn off in me and you? Are you still flipping out that Christ is alive? Because if you're not, don't plant a church."
Workshops throughout Tuesday covered topics such as "Reaching the Nations in North America," "Knowing Your Mission Context," "How to be an Effective Sending Church" and "Rural Church Planting." Other topics covered evangelism, bivocational pastoring and planting. A separate track featured content for minister's wives.
In his message during a general session, Johnny Hunt, pastor of the Atlanta-area First Baptist Woodstock, reminded those in attendance that "oftentimes, we don't need more instruction. We just need more encouragement in what we've already learned."
Hunt, a former SBC president, said church revitalization is his personal passion, along with church planting.
"As D.L. Moody said, unless we stab American cities in the heart with the Gospel, we will lose this country," Hunt said. "In addition to planting new churches, sometimes we need to revitalize existing churches."
Representing NAMB, Hunt soon will lead revitalization conferences in eight states.
Vance Pitman, one of many pastors who have learned from Hunt, challenged those at the conference to see God's bigger story at play in the world. Pitman launched Hope Church in Las Vegas just two weeks after 9/11. The church was a plant of First Baptist Woodstock.
"Why aren't Baptists planting churches like they should?" Pitman asked. "We need to get so broken over this world and get on our faces on the floor before God. We don't need to come up with a plan and take it to Him. His plan is better than ours."
Pitman told the audience that God always has something bigger in mind when He plants a new church.
"The church being born is not the finish line, it's the starting line," he said. "Too many times today we think the goal is the church. The goal is not the church plant. It's just the beginning."
David Platt, author and pastor of The Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham, Ala., said successful church planting is about making disciples.
"We come up with all kinds of methods for multiplying churches," Platt said. "We give money, we start campuses, we use technologies like DVDs and satellites. What if we had only what a lot of our brothers and sisters around the world have -- only the spirit of God, the Word of God and the people of God?
"That would still be sufficient to see the Gospel spread like wildfire across North America," Platt said. "Do we really believe that, or have we become so dependent on our money, technology, creativity and ingenuity that we have missed how the church is multiplied through making disciples?"
J.D. Greear, pastor of The Summit Church in Durham, N.C., told conference participants that a "proper vision of the majesty of Jesus will help sustain church planters as they face difficulties. Effective sending is the result of seeing Jesus properly," Greear said. "When we see the Gospel properly, church planting will take care of itself."
While the conference speakers and crowd largely reflected a younger generation of Southern Baptists, it was the oldest -- John Bisagno, a pastor for 60 years -- who received the longest, loudest standing ovation. Bisagno retired five years ago from First Baptist Church in Houston.
He spent an hour counseling young church planters on the importance of hard work and prayer, balance across ministry and family, keeping dreams in line with reality, how leadership is earned and how methods of ministry can change but not the Gospel.
The second night of the conference was highlighted with the commissioning of 23 new NAMB missionaries.
Next year's Send North America Conference will be at the Dallas-area Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, with dates to be announced.
Mickey Noah writes for the North American Mission Board. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress
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