In his first public interview since being named vice president of the North American Mission Board’s Midwest Region on Feb. 9, Stephen Davis sat down with Pathway Editor Don Hinkle for this wide- ranging interview during his April 7 visit to the Baptist Building in Jefferson City. Under NAMB’s restructuring, which will emphasize evangelistic church planting and leadership development, North America is divided into five regions. Missouri is in the Midwest Region. NAMB’s church planting initiative called “Send North America,” is targeting 25 cities. Five of them, including St. Louis, are in the Midwest Region.
Don Hinkle: How long have you been on the job, and what are some of your early impressions concerning the tasks for the Midwest Region?
Stephen Davis: I’ve been on the job since March 15.
My early impressions of the Midwest Region are that we’ve got to do a better job of penetrating the lostness in the Midwest and we’ve got to do a better job of increasing the number of church plants across the Midwest. We’ve got to be able to recruit a lot more church planters to the Midwest than what we have been able to get before. We’ve got to do a better job of training and assessing.
I think we have got to get more church planters who are trained on-site and in-context in the Midwest. I don’t think you can just parachute-in folks from the South. I don’t mean this in a negative way, but it is a different culture across the Midwest and it is really important that we get these guys trained on-site and in-context.
When I looked at the top 12 cities in population in the U.S., five are located in the Midwest. Those five cities are areas where the resources are not as great, but the population centers and the lostness is huge. We have a huge task in front of us. But I also see a huge amount of interest being generated across the Southern Baptist Convention of folks that are calling North American Mission Board (NAMB) and saying I want to be mobilized to be part of “Send North America.” That is what it is going to take. We’re going to have to mobilize more Southern Baptists across all the new work areas to penetrate the darkness.
DH: How do you see Missouri Southern Baptists fitting into the Midwest Region’s strategy as far as planting evangelistic churches and leadership development?
SD: I just finished talking with Missouri Baptist Convention (MBC) Interim Executive Director Jay Hughes and Associate Executive Director Jerry Field about that very thing. Here’s what excites me: Originally NAMB did not have Missouri in the Midwest Region and I mentioned it to NAMB President Kevin Ezell. I said you know when you look at it, it is kind of painted in yellow and here is Missouri right here and the Midwest going all around it and Missouri sticking up as part of the South. I know the rationale was because the convention here is 175 years old and is considered more of an old-line state. But I suggested to Kevin that in reality Missouri is a Midwest state.
For example, Midwestern Seminary relates more to the Midwest states than it does to the Southern states. I know they get some students from the Southern states, but predominately they relate to the Midwest. I encouraged Kevin to consider putting Missouri in the Midwest Region. So I was really excited when they did, and one of the reasons I am excited about it is – because as I shared with Jay Hughes and Jerry Field – I think Missouri brings a dimension to the Midwest Region that we haven’t had.
DH: What dimension does Missouri bring to NAMB’s Midwest Region strategy?
SD: Well, several things. The maturity of the MBC could be a huge asset to all of our conventions involved in new works in the Midwest Region. The number of MBC churches and their resources helps, plus you are embracing being Midwest. It is a lot more exotic for a lot of churches in the Southern region to go to places like Colorado or Wyoming than what we have across the Midwest. So here is the MBC, a large state convention that is in the Midwest. It knows the values of the Midwest and understands the culture. That is a huge plus.
For example, the MBC is already partnering with Chicago. It already has a huge investment in what we are doing in the Midwest Region.
I think that a lot of the personnel opportunities will expand the ministry of some of your state personnel into other states. The MBC has about 1,900 churches. Illinois has a little under 1,000, I think Ohio has about 600, Indiana has 412 and Iowa doesn’t even have 200. Those conventions are so small that having the strength of the MBC will really help the whole region. I’m glad the MBC is here.
DH: Churches plant churches, but what role do you see associations playing in the Midwest Region strategy?
SD: I think associations have got to become more strategic in their focus when it comes to church planting. Associations, like state conventions, have a broad scope of needs they are trying to meet. But our associations are really under a challenge today. Associations are going to have to figure out a way to stop meeting for meeting’s sake and really begin to focus around a purpose. I think if they begin to generate what they do around a purpose they could become really valuable.
“Send North America” could be one of them. There may be an association in Missouri, for example, where they have an opinion that they have all the churches we need. Well, that’s great, but St. Louis doesn’t. So let’s do some work in St. Louis, or let’s partner in Chicago, or let’s partner in Indianapolis or Minneapolis, or some of these other cities that could really benefit from mission teams from Missouri coming to help them.
DH: Where do the state conventions fit into the “Send North America” strategy?
SD: Dr. Ezell says we want to work with the state conventions as the primary portal. We want to strengthen the partnerships with our state conventions. I am working to create a Midwest Advisory Group where every state convention is at the table, some key pastors are at the table, and we are talking about the bigger picture of the whole Midwest. Every state convention will be represented.
DH: How often would the Midwest Advisory Group meet to discuss strategy?
SD: We haven’t talked about how often we would meet yet. I would say at least once a year, maybe twice.
But in the “Send North America” cities, for example, we want to create an advisory team – like for St. Louis, working together to develop a strategy. We want the state convention at the table, we want the associational missionaries in St. Louis at the table, we want some key church planters at the table, we want some key church planting pastors that support church planting at the table. If there are partners outside the state of Missouri that want to partner with St. Louis, we want them at the table so that we can create a stronger network of sharing of minds, resources and getting everybody on the same page for how we are going to attack St. Louis for the sake of the Gospel. So my prayer, my hope is that we are going to create greater partnerships and stronger partnerships than we have ever had before.
DH: How do you respond to anyone who worries that the new NAMB structure creates another layer of costly bureaucracy? How big a staff will you have?
SD: Yes, I will be in Indianapolis. Actually the intent is not to build little NAMBs all over the U.S. I am working out of my home and when you ask about my staff, well, we have NAMB missionaries in every state. Those are the staff. So I intend to try to work with them.
As we develop the strategies together and as we have close working relationships with the state conventions and the missionaries across the Midwest, those are our staff. So in my opinion, I don’t need a whole lot of other people.
There is an administrative assistant at NAMB in Alpharetta, Ga., that is servicing me from there. For example, if I am meeting with MBC staff and we’re developing a document, all I need is to tell my assistant in Alpharetta to develop it, put together a Power Point, send it to Jay Hughes or his assistant so they can make copies for our meeting.
I don’t have to create an office in Indianapolis to get something like that done in this day in time. I see NAMB operating more efficiently than it ever has, with less bureaucracy and less red tape for state conventions to get done what we are trying to get done together.
DH: How do you maintain control of the church plants to ensure they are orthodox in their doctrine?
SD: We will get all of that on the front end as we do an assessment of each church planter, complete basic training, secure a commitment to the Cooperative Program and mission offerings from the church planter, and make sure they are committed to the 2000 Baptist Faith & Message. Those are the things that we are working on right now to revamp and improve.
DH: Do they have to sign off on the Baptist Faith & Message 2000 to even be considered?
SD: Yes, just like any employee of the Southern Baptist Convention. The mobilization group just met about this to determine what would be the requirements, what would be the criteria before we get involved in a church plant.
They’ve got to be committed to the Cooperative Program. They’ve got to sign off on the Baptist Faith and Message that they are in agreement with it. We’ve got to do good assessments.
We’ve also got to get them basic training so we want to provide some training for church planters across North America. We’ll probably do this regionally. We want to utilize practitioners that are really sharp so the church planters will want to go. We want the practitioners to build that relationship and the reporting system so that we can track their progress. Kevin jokingly said that if Wal-Mart can track how many rolls of toilet paper they sell in an hour, surely we ought to be able to track what’s going on with our church plants across North America. We have a system that will do that.
DH: The regions are so big, how can one person check to be sure all the church plants are operating properly?
SD: It’s not just one person that will be checking. You’ve got the mother church, the state convention staff member and hopefully the local director of missions. Of course we are looking at it at NAMB.
We also want to do a better of encouraging church planters. I was a church planter years ago. I don’t remember anybody calling me to ask how I was doing or if I needed anything. Fortunately, I had a good sponsoring church pastor. We had a good relationship, but basically I never heard anything from anybody.
That’s been the story for a lot of our church planters. We want to let them know that we love them. We want to celebrate them. We feel like our church planters are sort of the new heroes of this era.
DH: Will NAMB create a means for church planters to fellowship with other church planters without them having to go outside Southern Baptist life? It seems there has been a real void in this area.
SD: That’s our hope, to create an opportunity for Southern Baptist church planters to connect.
Church planters talk a different language. One of the reasons these men have gravitated toward other organizations is because of their sense of brotherhood with other church planters. What we are saying is that we can provide that. We can help create that same kind of fellowship.
For example, I’m going to be hosting an opportunity for church planters in the Midwest Region – who are at the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting in Phoenix – to come and meet with me after one of the sessions. I want to share an idea with them that we are calling “PEG” meetings. It is an idea I got from a church planter in Florida. “PEG” stands for pray, encourage, and give something away. It’s an informal kind of thing where church planters in an area just get together once a month, or however often they want, in order to pray together, talk church planting, share struggles and encourage each other. In those kinds of meetings is when somebody will say, “I’m really struggling trying to get this going,” or somebody else will say, “You know, I had the same struggle and here’s how we handled that and here’s the difference it made.” In that way he is giving an idea away. So that’s the purpose of that. It helps create a sense of camaraderie and brotherhood that these guys really want and need.
DH: St. Louis is one of the 25 strategic church planting cities that NAMB has targeted in the Midwest Region. What can Missouri Southern Baptists expect to see develop there? Is there any special strategy for St. Louis?
SD: We want to get your state convention’s key guys at the table, we want to get the DOM’s to the table, a key church planting pastor or two there, and we want a key supporting church planter pastor that supports church planting to be at the table. And then if there’s a church, let’s say like a Prestonwood in Dallas, Texas, that says, “Hey, we want to partner in St. Louis,” we want to get somebody from their church at the table as well. Then we’re going to sit down and start taking a look at what it will take to impact St. Louis with the Gospel. Issues like, how many churches do we need to plant between now and 2020 to push back the darkness in St. Louis?
I’m not coming in with a preconceived plan. I’m coming in with let’s get the people at the table, and then let’s figure out how to get this done. NAMB is committing 50 percent of its budget to church planting, then in the regions we will have additional resources. I know that it’s not just all a matter of money, but I also don’t want to minimize the importance of money and resources that it will take.
DH: How soon would you anticipate that meeting in St. Louis occurring?
SD: I am trying to put together this initial meeting in May. I’ve got guys in St. Louis that have been e-mailing me already saying when are you coming? But I wanted my first visit to be with the MBC leadership. And as we get everyone around the table, maybe the MBC says, okay for St. Louis. We can help with this piece and there may be a pastor in a Missouri city that says we can help with this piece.
If you want to plant 100 new churches by 2020, and the MBC says it will take 75 of those, there may be a pastor in a Missouri city who says he’ll take five of those church plants over the next 7 years, and there may be an out-of-state church that will say we’ll help with 10, and there may be some churches in the St. Louis area that will pick up the remainder. Kind of get that thing built so that we can begin to get some momentum.