HESSTON, Kan. — American Baptist Churches Central Region Executive Minister John Williams opened his State of the Region message at the region’s annual gathering Oct. 18-19 at the Cross Wind Conference Center here with a memory from his youth — a ride on a passenger train.
“I like trains,” he acknowledged, and recalled looking out the window of a Pullman on which he was a very young passenger. As the train rounded the curve, he saw the engine disappear into a tunnel and then watched as car by car did the same. He held his breath when he realized the car in which he was a passenger was about to meet the same mysterious fate.
“Though plunged into darkness, the lights inside the Pullman burned brightly so no one could hardly notice any change at all,” Williams said. “The terror I imagined was far worse than the reality I experienced.”
Over the years, he said, he heard predictions of the demise of passenger rail service and prematurely mourned the passing of a way of travel that is out of step with today’s world.
Then a few days ago, he read that Amtrak had carried a record number of passengers in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30 despite service in the northeast that was knocked out temporarily by Superstorm Sandy.
Apparently there is still a place for passenger trains in American life, he surmised. “Maybe the terror imagined is far worse than the reality that is experienced,” he said.
Experts and others wonder if denominations or their regions can make a comeback in today’s world, he said. “There are those who, with stethoscope in hand, try to listen for the heartbeat of the denomination or region and shake their heads,” he said. He said people sometimes ask him in hushed tones, “How are things in the region?” — halfway expecting him to wail and sob.
“But beloved, I’ve got to tell you, the terror imagined is far worse than the reality we experience.”
He acknowledged that annual gatherings resemble a sea of gray, the budget has been trimmed so much it looks like one of the skinny cows in Pharaoh’s dream, 24 of the region’s churches are currently searching for pastors and almost half of the churches that completed annual reports failed to baptize a single person during the past year.
“It’s simple, God has a different future for us than the one our fainting hearts are prone to imagine,” he explained. “To his troubled and uncertain disciples, Jesus said, ‘Lift up your eyes and look on the fields, that they are white for harvest.’”
Williams reminded delegates of a journey initiated by American Baptists nationally two years ago called “Transformed by the Spirit,” a way to listen to God and obediently follow the leading of the Spirit.
“And God is opening our eyes and inviting us to join in the harvest,” he said.
“There is power in this experience that if replicated in our local churches would transform both church and community,” he said. “How wonderful to feel the wind of the Spirit refreshing our corporate life and filling our sails with Spirit-power to take us to new places of ministry and mission God calls us to engage.
“If we seek God, we will not be disappointed,” he said.
What does that look like in the Central Region? Williams listed a dozen reports of success, including baptisms in a host of churches, decisions by young people attending the region’s camps, the addition of two new Burmese congregations to the region, region staff ministers helping 18 congregations find pastoral leadership, churches doing after-school programs in their communities, effective pastoral training and others.
“Beloved, the terror imagined is far worse than the reality we experience!” he emphasized, acknowledging the region — made up of Kansas churches primarily as well as some in Oklahoma and Arkansas — struggles with significant issues, including budget shortfalls.
Citing Jesus’ admonition to his disciples in Matthew 9:37-38, Williams said, “We must pray for the harvest and pray for the harvesters; we must provide for the harvest and provide for the harvesters; [and] we must participate in the harvest.
“We must be the workers for whom we pray,” he said.
“When we begin to treasure people enough to carry them before God in prayer, our hearts will change,” he said. “We will love them more than we love ourselves and do what it takes to reach them for Jesus.
“We need to be praying for our missionaries and pastors and Christian leaders who labor on our behalf,” he added. “They sometimes believe the job has become too big, the problems too great, the rewards too few and the price too high. They need your prayers that somehow feel like the hand of God on their shoulder and the voice of the Almighty saying, ‘Fear not, I am with you.’"
We need to pray for ourselves, he said, that “ordinary” followers of Christ might become passionate witnesses and workers in the harvest, and we need to pray for the next generation that will join in the harvest.
He told delegates they must provide the resources for the harvest, not unlike farmers who do the field work, buy and repair machinery, and haul grain to market all across Kansas and beyond.
“We are not called to be dying people, dying churches and a dying region,” he said. “We are called to be harvest people!
“So what is the state of the region? In large measure, that’s up to you.
“The imagined terror is far worse than the reality that exists — if you will step into the reality God holds for you.”