EDITOR’S NOTE — In November 2023, Alabama Baptists will celebrate a huge milestone — 200 years of doing ministry together since the first group gathered and decided they could do more together than they could apart. To read more about the bicentennial celebration, click here.
Sammy Gilbreath buckled his seat belt, and before the plane took off he was already sound asleep.
“I hadn’t had sleep in days,” he said. “I’d been in Venezuela preaching at evangelism crusades for a week, and I was physically and mentally exhausted.”
But then a tap on his shoulder woke him up. It was a flight attendant, and she asked him what he had been doing in her country.
Immediately Gilbreath — who at the time served as director of the office of evangelism for the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions — felt like God might be up to something. He told her the only reason he had been in her country was to tell people Jesus loved them. She asked if he could tell her about that too.
He said yes, and she led him to some empty seats at the front of the plane.
“I shared the gospel with her, and she just cried and said, ‘I want to do this more than anything in the world,’” Gilbreath said.
Before long he had shared the gospel with the whole flight crew one by one, and each one accepted Christ.
“When we landed, they got on the microphone and said, ‘Thank you for flying with us today, but the crew you took off with is not the crew you landed with. Each of us [has] invited Christ into our lives,’” Gilbreath said.
The trip underscored something that had long been part of the fabric of Gilbreath’s life and greater Alabama Baptist life as a whole — the need to share Jesus with others by all means possible.
From the beginning of the Alabama Baptist State Convention in 1823, evangelism was one of its core tenets, starting with protracted revival meetings.
By the 1980s, these meetings had grown to state crusades, inspired by the events that evangelist Billy Graham had been putting on for years.
Mass evangelism themes also dominated the landscape of Alabama Baptist life at the time. Harper Shannon, who became state evangelism director in 1985, said the highlight of his time in that role was a 1990 simultaneous revival emphasis called “Here’s Hope. Jesus Cares.” The emphasis grew into a personal evangelism theme five years later.
“That was the first really concerted, simultaneous revival effort we’d had in many years, with advance preparation, materials and training,” he said at the time of his retirement in 1997.
“‘Here’s Hope’ showed that when you put that much concerted interest into evangelism, you always show increases in baptisms. It showed that if you keep promoting, keep training people and keep witnessing, then you will win people to Christ.”
Gilbreath, who served as Shannon’s successor, carried that idea on through the late 1990s and into the 2000s, organizing evangelistic meetings and training people to share their faith.
He also helped develop more evangelism themes, such as “Through Every Door,” which taught people how to tell others about Jesus in their community, and the “Effective Evangelistic Invitation,” which trained pastors how to invite people to follow Christ at the end of a sermon.
Gilbreath also developed and expanded the idea of creating evangelistic events that were geared toward specific segments of the population — for example, horse whisperer events where people who loved rodeo could come watch a gifted trainer talk about gospel truths while training a horse.
Gilbreath wanted to leave no group unreached. He helped develop events like turkey rodeos for hunters, tournaments for golfers and fishermen and car shows for car enthusiasts, creating places where people could hear the gospel who ordinarily might not.
Roger White, pastor of First Baptist Church Arley, said he has seen events like this work well in his context. Over the years, the church has put on a number of car shows and turkey rodeos. White remembers story after story of people who have been drawn into the church through these types of events.
In one situation a man’s wife had been visiting the church and had been trying to get him to come with her, but she hadn’t been successful. She was hoping he would come to the car show — he had an old Corvette.
“They pulled up at the car show just as we were wrapping up,” White said, “and she came and introduced him to me, and he said, ‘I see these people walking around in these T-shirts — how can I get one?’ I told him I didn’t think we had any more.”
But then White remembered he might have one in his office. White lightheartedly asked the man if he would be willing to trade a visit to the church for a T-shirt, if White could find one.
“He said sure, and I went and got the shirt,” White said. “He put it on and said, ‘I’ll be there in the morning.’”
He was. He heard the gospel, and two months later, White baptized him.
“It was the car show that got him there,” he said.
Daniel Wilson, who has served as state evangelism director since Gilbreath retired in 2020, said evangelism strategies and methods have changed over the years, but he said he would never point to any one of them and say it doesn’t work anymore.
“As far as evangelistic efforts go, I think the more hooks you have in the water, the more fish you’re likely to catch,” he said. “As soon as I say, ‘That method of evangelism doesn’t work anymore,’ I guarantee I’ll come across someone in Alabama who’s making it work. Different techniques work in different places and for different churches.”
Wilson said no matter which way someone chooses to go about it, evangelism should be a way of life.
“It’s not a once-a-week activity or annual event at the church,” he said. “We sometimes treat evangelism as an event on the church calendar … but evangelism is not something we schedule on the calendar; we live it everywhere we go.”
Wilson said it’s a personal responsibility that each follower of Christ should take on with integrity, humility and patience.
“Evangelism is hospitable rather than argumentative. While the truth of our message is of most importance, we must be sure to share it with a whole lot of grace,” he said, noting it’s important to listen as well as speak.
It takes time to provide the biblical framework for someone to understand their need for salvation, Wilson said. “It’s absolutely important in today’s world to approach lost people from a posture of humility. The only way our message is going to be believable to non-Christians is if we are living it with sincerity and transparency.”
Whatever method a person uses, Wilson said he believes evangelism is important for Alabama Baptists because he truly believes “our hearts have been touched by God’s love.”
‘It spills over’
“God’s love has been poured out on us, and it spills over from us onto others around us,” he said. “In its simplest form, evangelism is just living out the golden rule. If I were still lost in the guilt of my sin and hopeless without Christ, I’d want someone to tell me about God’s wonderful love for me. Therefore, I’m going to share with others this awesome news that ‘God proved His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.’”