As Sammy Gilbreath introduced each speaker and musician at the 2020 State Evangelism Conference, it hit him just how long he’d been doing this.
He hadn’t had a conference in years that didn’t include pianist Frank Jones. When he introduced worship leader Daniel Crews, a solo artist from Starke, Florida, he realized he had been watching Crews’ young family grow up as he had involved him through the years in the evangelism conference.
And when he introduced Vance Pitman to speak, he talked about how he had watched him grow up in the Shoals area and eventually follow God out to Las Vegas to plant a church there — a church that now runs more than 4,000 in attendance.
“I didn’t realize just how long it had been until I was standing up and introducing people that I had a personal relationship with,” he said. “It wasn’t Don Wilton the speaker, it was Don Wilton I’d known all these years.”
But at this year’s State Evangelism Conference — his 23rd to organize — Gilbreath passed the baton to Daniel Wilson, the new director of the office of evangelism at the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions (SBOM).
Rick Lance, SBOM executive director, said Gilbreath has been a state missionary “par excellence.”
Wilson called him a “spiritual giant.”
“It’s an honor to follow in your footsteps,” he said, noting that the office would keep on working to “decrease the population of hell and increase the population of heaven.”
Gilbreath will move into the role of leading the state’s special event evangelism, like for the World Games being held in Birmingham in 2021. From here on, he said it will be “fun to sit back and watch the [evangelism] conference take on Daniel’s fingerprints and his personality, and that’s the way it ought to be.”
Gilbreath did the same when he inherited the conference from his predecessor, Harper Shannon.
“It’s been a team effort that I’ve had the privilege of leading,” Gilbreath said. “It will continue to be a great blessing to Alabama Baptists, and it will be fun to see it from the pew side next year.”
This year’s conference — held Feb. 23–24 at Heritage Baptist Church, Montgomery — featured a broad range of speakers preaching on topics aimed at stoking a passion for evangelism and equipping pastors to reach young people by answering the questions they raise about their faith.
Michael Catt, pastor of Sherwood Baptist Church, Albany, Georgia, kicked off the event Sunday night with a message about revival and reaching the next generation.
“We have a big sign at our church that says, “Whoever wants the next generation the most will get them,’” Catt said. “If you don’t want a church to die, you’re going to have to start reaching some young people.”
On Monday, Sean McDowell — an author, speaker and apologetics professor at Biola University — followed up with some practical information about how to understand Generation Z, the generation born between roughly 1995 and 2010.
Needs of Gen Z
They’re roughly 25% of the population, and they are “on the verge of the greatest mental health crisis in history,” McDowell said, underscoring the need for building bridges and sharing hope with them.
Don Wilton, pastor of First Baptist Church, Spartanburg, South Carolina, also talked through some of the different questions he feels young people questioning their faith ask on a regular basis — questions like, “How is the world going to end?”
“We’re living in a precarious day and age in which we need to ‘always be prepared to give an answer,’” he said. “I can tell you one thing I deal with every single day as a pastor is very deep searching and perplexing questions about this God, this Jesus whom you and I preach.”
Christians need to be ready to share hope in the midst of challenging questions, Wilton said.
Brett Kunkle — founder and president of MAVEN, a movement to help the next generation know truth, pursue goodness and create beauty — spent his time slot on the program equipping conference attendees to do just that.
He started with the problem of suffering and the skeptic’s question of “how a good God could create evil,” then explained how to have a logical conversation about that topic with someone who doesn’t believe.
‘God is absolutely real’
“Even with all the evil and suffering in the world, there is still reason to think that God is absolutely real,” said Kunkle, explaining the importance of knowing how to talk well about these kinds of topics with the growing number of people who have questions.
North America is one of two continents where Christianity is on the decline, said Vance Pitman, pastor of Hope Church in Las Vegas and a national mobilizer for the North American Mission Board. “We’re not catching the wind of the spirit of God.”
He said prayer is a necessary component to sharing hope well.
“We’ve got time to do everything but pray,” he said. “That’s why we don’t have the spirit of God on us. We drifted over time, and I became deeply convicted over this.”
Devoted prayer essential
Devoted prayer goes hand in hand with the preaching of the Word, Pitman said.
“God in His sovereignty established it that way,” he said. “We’ve relegated the Word to being the seasoning rather than the substance of our sermons.”
But God is in the business of helping us recover from our mess, said Robert Smith, the Charles T. Carter Baptist Chair of Divinity at Samford University’s Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham.
He wants us to be able to “give testimony to His sustaining and keeping and delivering power.”
Throughout the conference, music was also provided by Andrew Peterson, a Nashville-area singer-songwriter; Kenneth Loomis, worship and senior life minister at Heritage Baptist; and a combined choir of several Alabama Baptist churches.