Welch travels N.C. highways to spark evangelistic flame
EDITORS’ NOTE: Joni B. Hannigan, managing editor of the Florida Baptist Witness, spent three days in late April with Southern Baptist Convention President Bobby Welch to give readers a glimpse of his life on the road.
GREENSBORO, N.C. (BP)--Munching on nourishment from a complimentary buffet in a hotel lobby, Bobby Welch readied his final message in Greensboro, N.C., last April before he returns there for the Southern Baptist Convention’s June 13-14 annual meeting.
“Whether it looks like it or not, this is a very easy week,” Welch said, grabbing a cup of coffee and his Bible before climbing into the passenger seat of a waiting SUV.
Nearing the end of his second year as Southern Baptist Convention president, Welch, pastor of First Baptist Church in Daytona Beach, Fla., spent much of April and March traveling from the highways to the hollows of North Carolina in more than 100 meetings encouraging Baptists to be involved in evangelism.
The message is pretty much the same wherever he goes: “Witness to, win and baptize.” Preaching from Luke chapter 16, Welch has repeatedly and passionately told the story of the rich man in hell who begged for Lazarus to dip his finger in water and touch his parched tongue.
Last year, Welch made history as SBC president when he completed a 50-state tour in 25 days, traveling primarily in a bus to launch his challenge to baptize 1 million people in a 12-month period beginning officially in October 2005 and ending the final week of September 2006. His rallying cry, “Everyone Can!” is a reference to his belief that all Christians are called to share their faith.
In Greensboro April 26, Welch praised several hundred believers at the semiannual meeting of the Piedmont Baptist Association at Lawndale Baptist Church, challenging them to take part in what he predicted will be a great time of dedication and renewal in the days to come.
Of the state’s 79 associations, 74 have signed on to be involved in outdoor baptism rallies. Many others will be involved in “Crossover Triad,” a June 10-11 blitz encompassing a tri-community area of North Carolina which includes Winston-Salem, Greensboro and High Point just prior to the June 13-14 annual meeting.
“We need your help,” Welch urged those gathered in the large auditorium, warning them they won’t want to have to explain to their grandchildren one day why they were not involved but chose to mow their lawn or go fishing instead.
“I have every belief that the fire’s getting ready to fall. And I think it’s gonna fall in North Carolina. I believe it’s going to happen in Greensboro,” he said.
Arriving early and staying late to greet as many as he can has become Welch’s trademark. Wearing a small gold FAITH pin on his suit, the 62-year-old co-founder of the FAITH Sunday School evangelism strategy is tireless in his effort to share his message with as many as possible.
“I’m Bobby Welch, who are you?” the energetic Vietnam combat veteran asked as he gave firm handshakes to each in a group mingling in the Lawndale sanctuary before the service began.
Tweaking 9-year-old Rachel Ayres on the nose while calling her pretty, Welch turned to greet her father, Brian Ayres, pastor of First Baptist Church in Gibsonville, N.C.
Buddy Cotton, a member of Lawndale and former member of First Baptist Church in Winter Park, Fla., told the Florida Baptist Witness that Welch is as “well known” as he is “well seen.”
“That’s so special [in a leader] because so many leaders let others do the work,” Cotton said of Welch, noting his extensive travel to Southern Baptist churches and meetings since the Alabama native was elected SBC president.
From the pulpit, the church’s pastor, Joe Giaritelli, expressed gratitude for Welch’s visit, calling it a “historic night” for the association and church. The senior adult choir sang a quiet arrangement of “Sweet Beulah Land.”
At the conclusion of the service, at the altar where dozens had knelt with Welch in his characteristic invitation for recommitment, pastors lined up to accept gifts from the affable leader -- a dated, silver-colored coin with the words: “President, Southern Baptist Convention, Bobby H. Welch, Everyone Can! 2005-2006; One Million, Witness, Win, Baptize, I’m it!”
The significance of receiving a coin from an officer in the military is a tradition said to demonstrate the officer’s high regard for the recipient. Welch, who was at one time a captain in the Army Green Berets, was believed to be dead after being shot at point-blank range by a Viet Cong guerrilla during the Vietnam War. After a struggle to survive, the decorated war hero graduated from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.
“What’s your name?” Welch bent and smiled into the eyes of 5-year-old Adbeel Kumar, who stood with her parents at the front of the church. “What a beautiful girl and a beautiful name.”
Handing Vijay Kumar a coin, Welch told the man and his wife, Madhu, to keep him apprised of the new church plant they will soon begin for families from India living in the Greensboro area.
The next morning, April 27, Welch paused to pray with his frequent driver and companion on the trip, Mike Smith, a FAITH evangelism specialist at LifeWay Christian Resources, before heading out.
“This is it,” Welch said, squinting at the early morning sun and swallowing hard. “We won’t be back until June.”
Greeting Welch at the airport, 72-year-old pilot Charles Nicholson, a member of First Baptist Church in Charlotte, N.C., told Welch he wanted to meet him and so offered to give him a short lift to Asheville -- typically 35 minutes by air or nearly three hours by automobile.
Nicholson, a retired cardiologist and private pilot who volunteers for Angel Flights, a compassionate aviation ministry in which North Carolina Baptist Men are involved, told Welch he had a good reason to be grateful for the Florida pastor.
The agile pilot told Welch that his son, who is now a commercial pilot, became a member of Welch’s Daytona Beach church when the young man was training to be a pilot at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona.
“That’s great, that’s excellent,” Welch said, plucking a copy of his book, “You, The Warrior Leader,” from the front hold of the small plane to autograph it for Nicholson.
Weathering what turned into a nearly hour-long flight which reached an altitude of about 8,000 feet to skirt some stormy weather, Welch relaxed and read a newspaper while the plane skimmed along at about 170 mph. After a smooth landing, Welch thanked a beaming Nicholson for the lift.
Tucking his new book under his arm, Nicholson told the Witness he was glad for the opportunity to be a part of Welch’s tour in North Carolina.
Welch spent the rest of the afternoon studying and meeting with some local pastors from his base at a Hendersonville, N.C., hotel, near Asheville. Mud Creek Baptist Church whose pastor, Greg Mathis, is a member of the SBC Executive Committee, was his dinner host.
Milton Hollifield, the new executive director-treasurer for the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, and his father, Milton Hollifield Sr., were also dinner guests at Mud Creek where Welch preached during the Wednesday night service in a packed sanctuary with a full choir.
Before the service, Mathis invited Hollifield and Welch to his office for prayer.
“Bobby, talk to my son,” Mathis gestured to the telephone on his desk at one point. “He’s a student at Southeastern.”
Grabbing the handset of the desk phone, Welch told the young man to “be willing to go anywhere, anytime and preach everywhere you can.” Listening intently, he chuckled at the memories of being a seminary student.
“Well, kick ole Danny Akin on the leg,” Welch jested with Jared Mathis just before ending the call with a prayer for the student. Akin is president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C.
After lively worship during the Mud Creek service, Welch acknowledged the enthusiastic singing.
“I want to tell you as officially, as statesmanly and presidently as I know how: Wow, what a service tonight!” he yelled. “It’s a joy to be in North Carolina. It’s a joy to get into the home stretch by being here.”
Welch again gave his dramatic explanation of the rich man in hell who begged for a touch of cool water and pleaded with Lazarus to warn his brothers to repent lest they end up there as well.
At the end of Welch’s message, hundreds crowded toward the altar to pray, while on stage Mathis knelt on a carpet behind Welch, wiping his eyes with a handkerchief.
Afterward, Welch mingled with the crowd, pressing more coins into the hands of those who greeted him. He stooped down to shake hands with an aging man in a wheelchair, grabbed 4-year-old Madison Marlow in a hug and patiently looked at a handwritten letter delivered by a shy young boy in a three-piece suit.
Much later at the hotel, Welch spoke with reporters before finally turning in for the day.
“Don’t let me forget to call Maudellen,” Welch said in reference to his wife, who suffers from health problems and toured with him for much of the two months but had already returned home to Daytona Beach.
Readying himself with a cup of coffee, Welch strode into the hotel lobby April 28 for his final meetings in North Carolina before heading to Colorado for an evangelism conference over the weekend and to New York to meet with the trustees of the North American Mission Board before heading home to Florida.
At Fruitland Baptist Bible Institute in Fruitland, N.C., a smallish campus set amidst lush green trees and meadows, a regularly scheduled chapel service went long when Welch was told not to share a “devotional thought” but to preach.
With his gleaming white hair and bright blue eyes a contrast to the dim chapel interior, Welch briefly shared the parable of the rich man in hell but also sketched out a bit of his background including his prowess as a soldier, illustrating the strength of one person bent on completing his mission.
“I believe everybody in hell this morning is a soul-winner,” Welch said. “Is it possible that there could be more soul-winners in hell this morning than there are in this room?
“It is absolutely unthinkable that you would be saying you are called to preach the Gospel, that you say God has put His hand on you,” and not be a soul-winner, Welch said. “And, by the way, if you can’t say that [you are called to ministry] you’re just on a career course, get your carcass out under a tree and do without food and water until God gives you a call or just get on home.”
Asking the 100 or so students who filled the small chapel to search their hearts, Welch spoke of the importance of soul-winning as a partner and a prerequisite to discipleship, lest any mistake the Gospel message to be one of comfort.
“You need a call. God is calling today. ... I understand there is a place to search, but somewhere you’ve got to get a call from God,” Welch said.
Recalling his own preparation for ministry, Welch said soon after he graduated from seminary he was asked to be a church’s associate pastor and instead ended up corralling 170-175 riders “on a good day” for a bus ministry.
A hundred days later the church owned 20 buses and transported more than a thousand riders.
Undaunted by friends and mentors who told him he could do “much better” with his training and experience, Welch said he deflected the remarks of those who asked him if God had called him to drive a bus or to preach, but still wondered what God had in store.
Sorely tested one day after tearing apart a brand-new pair of leather shoes while carrying a bus battery across a hot and deserted parking lot to help fix a problem, Welch said he “could have cried” when he looked up to see two white automobiles driving past while the occupants waved at him on their way home after Sunday dinner. In that moment, Welch said God spoke to him and a peace came over him.
“I discovered God knows where we are all the time and God calls us to be faithful all the time,” Welch said.
Speaking of his bus tour last year, Welch said at some point he discovered the irony of the situation.
“Somewhere between laughing out loud and breaking down and crying hard, I stopped and said, ‘Well God, it looks like I’m right back where I started -- on a bus, again.’”
On their knees throughout the chapel and all along the steps of the altar, some students openly sobbed while Welch prayed for a commitment to evangelism.
Delbert Austrew, a junior at Fruitland, said he was a “beach rat” who started out at Welch’s Daytona Beach church more than 25 years ago, but was sidetracked for more than two decades. Austrew’s sister, Judy Sipes, and her husband Bill were members of Welch’s church from 1973 until 1980. Now members of First Baptist Church in Waynesville, N.C., Judy Sipes said they’ve kept up with Welch because they believe his leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention has been providential.
Comparing the spiritual climate to that of Asbury College in Kentucky when revival broke out, Sipes told the Witness, “I look back over the years when God had different people at strategic times. He is God’s strategic man for this strategic hour at this critical point in the history of Southern Baptists and probably all of Christendom in the age of grace.”
Sipes told the Witness it is Welch’s emphasis on evangelism which qualifies him as a great leader.
“It’s his honest, unabridged, on-fire desire to win souls. And that’s what the whole thing’s about,” she said. “If you take that out, you just have religion -- you have a form of club or membership or anything else that people join.
“But the thing that sets Christianity apart from the rest of the secular world is the winning of souls. You follow any church, any denomination through history [and] any one of them that deviated from that diminish over history,” Sipes said.
Winding up his scheduled meetings near Asheville with a leadership luncheon at Biltmore Baptist Church in Arden, N.C., Welch spoke to pastors and directors of missions gathered at a leadership summit hosted by James Walker, the church’s senior pastor.
Encouraging each of them to continue the momentum of outdoor baptism rallies and to get involved in Crossover Triad, Welch said he believes renewal could take place in Greensboro, but he also acknowledged “interesting discussions” are bound to arise.
“You know what I say? Bring it on, bring it on,” Welch said. “You know what we’re going to do? I’m going to be the air traffic controller, and I’m going to keep all of them from running into each other on the same runway. I’m going to try to keep it all sorted out [and] we’re going to do business, but my main objective in this convention ... is going to be to keep their collective head, hearts and eyes of this convention above the flak and the muck on the high ground of witness, winning and baptizing a million.
“We are not going to let this convention go in the ditch,” Welch said to applause. “I hope you’ll pray toward that because that’s easier said than done. You don’t know what’s coming your way as a moderator. It isn’t an exact science.”
Welch said he will try to stay the course despite his assertion that people in a variety of settings have a tendency be drawn to the drama.
“Whenever a stink starts, everybody shuts down everything they are doing and runs to the smell,” Welch said. “We can’t have that. We are on higher ground now, folks. We have to do business. We will do business. We’ll do it [as] sweetly and kindly and Spirit-filled as we know how. But we are not giving up the higher ground.”
Citing statistics from the Annual Church Profile from 2005 which shows declines in baptism and church growth, Welch said it is especially important at this time in history that Southern Baptists move ahead.
“Do not let anybody bring you down from the high ground,” Welch told the pastors. “We have to be careful at this point. Be your own man. Be God’s man. God is fully capable of leading you. Do not allow yourself to be misdirected by someone’s personal agenda.
“Don’t allow you and your church to be hijacked on some quasi-political quest. Be your own man. Be God’s man and let him work through your life.... Trust Him, follow Him and stay on the high ground,” Welch said. “Stay up there where soul-winning is a priority. Stay up there where lives are being changed. Stay up there where the victory is being won, and I guarantee you this other will have to follow us. If we stop ... we’ll never get to where God wanted us to go.”