Seek 'missing persons,' Merritt exhorts 800 at rally
JACKSON, Tenn. (BP) -- Christians must ask everyone to follow Jesus and willingly associate with those who don't, James Merritt, a former Southern Baptist Convention president, said during the third annual West Tennessee Evangelism Rally at Union University.
Merritt was the keynote speaker at the rally that drew more than 800 people for a worship service, dinner and breakout sessions March 4 at Union's campus in Jackson, Tenn. The event included for the first time a women's track and a student track.
"The students and the ladies in the women's track were all more than just encouraged to be sharing Jesus -- they hopefully picked up a few truths along the way that they can apply in their own life to be a better witness for Jesus," said Ernest Easley, professor of evangelism at Union and organizer of the rally sponsored by Union and the Tennessee Baptist Convention.
Frank S. Page, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Executive Committee, in one of the rally's breakout sessions encouraged Christians to actively cultivate a "ministry of presence" as they share Jesus with others during times of suffering.
"Practicing the ministry of presence gives you an entree into people's lives that nothing else does," Page said.
Speaking candidly about his daughter's suicide in 2009, Page said everyone will confront grief and suffering at some point in life, and those dark chapters can be opportunities for people to present the Gospel to those in need.
Doing so requires believers to confront bad theology and bad thinking, Page said -- such as the notion that if someone is suffering, they must have done something wrong. In reality, he said, suffering may come as a result of doing the right thing.
But such opportunities need to come naturally as a result of established relationships, Page said. Rather than trying to comfort people in distress with platitudes and trite expressions, it's often better to say nothing at all and just be a silent presence, he said, noting that those times of presence can then lead, through the Holy Spirit's prompting, to open doors when the Gospel can be shared more explicitly.
Other workshop sessions covered such topics as apologetics and evangelism, witnessing to Muslims and creating an environment for evangelism.
Merritt, in his keynote address, spoke from Luke 5:27-31 about Jesus calling Matthew, a despised tax collector, as one of His disciples.
Merritt described those who don't know Jesus as "missing persons" for whom Christians need to be searching. Though it can be easy to bypass intentional interactions with some people, Merritt said those who follow Christ and are committed to rescuing those missing persons can't do that and be obedient to the Bible's commands to evangelize the lost.
"When you accept the call to follow Jesus, He does not call us to isolation," Merritt said. "He calls us to association.
"We think we come to church on Sunday morning, and we get in our holy huddles and we've done what God's called us to do," Merritt commented. "You haven't even gotten started to do what God's called you to do," he continued, "till you leave that holy huddle and go out into a dirty, dark, dank, lost world and start associating with people that a lot of people think they're too good to associate with. We're not to avoid missing persons.
"We're to go fishing for them and finding them and inviting them to follow Jesus."