EDITOR’S NOTE: Updated June 12, 2019, at 10 a.m. to correct final attendance.
“Sweet home, Alabama, where the skies are so blue. Sweet home, Alabama, Lord, I’m coming home pursuing you.”
With a bit of creativity, National Woman’s Missionary Union (WMU) president Linda Cooper introduced the theme “Pursue” as she welcomed more than 1,000 guests to WMU’s 2019 annual meeting June 9 at The Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham.
“While we are together I pray you will experience a time of renewal and encouragement … reuniting with your WMU family members,” Cooper said. “God is doing amazing things throughout the world and you are a big part of it.”
The first session of the annual meeting began with music and creative dance, followed by a time of prayer for global missions.
Ruth Ripken, who along with her husband, Nik, spent 35 years serving in countries where persecution of Christians was common, led the WMU tradition of praying for missionaries on their birthdays.
“By their prayers the persecuted have a voice,” Ripken said.
Kevin Ezell, North American Mission Board (NAMB) president, introduced Philip and Jummai Nache, church planters in Minneapolis where hundreds of Africans come each year for education and work opportunities. Philip Nache, a third generation Christian in his home country of Nigeria, came to the U.S. for seminary but God had other plans. Now the Naches help prepare believers to return to their home countries to start churches and share the gospel, he said.
“They know the culture, they know the language. Their friends and family trust them. Through them we’re helping to spread the gospel all over the world,” Philip Nache said.
The Naches said they are grateful for NAMB and for gifts to the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering which helps support their work.
“There is no equal to what God is doing in NAMB and through the WMU, that we’ve had this tremendous support you’re giving. That’s what makes us able to do what we’re doing. Without you we would not have planted those churches and many souls who have come to the kingdom of God would not be there,” Philip Nache said.
“Thank you so much for allowing God to use you and bless us as missionaries,” Jummai Nache told the crowd. “Being here is a privilege and we don’t take it for granted.”
David George, president of the WMU Foundation, presented the Dellanna West O’Brien Award for Women’s Leadership Development to Ruby Fulbright, retired executive director of North Carolina WMU.
Fulbright said she was “overwhelmed” at being chosen to receive the award among so many women who “with God’s help have accomplished so much for the Kingdom.”
In the only business conducted during the meeting, Cooper, who has served as WMU president since 2015, was re-elected president and Shirley McDonald was elected recording secretary.
Cooper’s presidential address ended the first session of the annual meeting.
She reminded attendees of what she called “the common denominator” in Scripture.
“God wants us to actively, relentlessly pursue Him as He does us,” she said. “We cannot expect others to see Christ in us if we are not actively following, always pursuing Him.”
“Our missionaries and many of you are doing just that — passing it on to others as you ‘pursue him,” Cooper said.
Sandy Wisdom-Martin, executive director of WMU, began the second session with encouragement for believers to live on “on call as Christians each and every day.”
“If you want to pursue God, pray for His power. If you want to pursue God, live for His purposes. May we pray for His power. May we live for His purpose. May it be so,” she said.
Throughout the second session national Acteens panelists and WMU president emeritae took the stage to share their testimonies, echoing Wisdom-Martin’s call to daily be on mission.
Grace Cain, national Acteens panelist from Pineville, Louisiana, said in the midst of the many decisions she has to make as a high school student, she has learned to test her choices against what the Bible says.
“Does it allow me to be holy? Does it allow me to share the gospel? As I am on this quest for answers, I am able to get closer to God’s wisdom and peace, … chasing after a deeper knowledge of God so I can live a life that pleases Him,” Cain said.
Acteens panelist Ashley Fan of Blacksburg, Virginia, said she was the first in her family born in the U.S. One of the first people to show kindness to her family when they arrived in the U.S. was a Christian and as a result her family had become believers.
“God really does pursue us individually,” Fan said.
Todd Lafferty, International Mission Board (IMB) executive vice president, introduced a couple who has served as IMB representatives in East Asia since 2012 in training for seminary students and outreach to college students. The couple expressed thanks for gifts to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering and asked for prayer.
“Without your prayer and support we can’t do anything. Keep praying for us to share the gospel and make disciples and make small groups and church planters and build new leadership in local churches. Pray for us to open the door of evangelism, to open the door to boldly proclaim the gospel.”
Nik Ripken, author of two books on the global persecuted church and founder of Nik Ripken Ministries, closed the evening session with stories and a challenge to the Church.
The Ripkens collected hundreds of stories of persecution during their years of serving among Muslim people groups — stories of pastors and believers jailed and tortured for putting their faith in Christ, of mothers and children separated from husbands and fathers and sent far away from their homes in attempts to stop the spread of the gospel.
Missionary training did not prepare them for the world they entered, he said.
“We knew how to be sheep among the sheep,” he said. “We didn’t know how to be sheep among the wolves, especially when the wolves were the vast majority and hunted the sheep just because they loved Jesus.”
Ripken recalled the funerals of more than 140 fellow believers martyred for their faith, “hunted down the way we would hunt animals.” The bodies were disposed of in terrible ways, he said.
“For 25 years we never had a believer’s body at their own funeral,” he said.
Those funerals gave him clearer understanding of what it must have been like for the women who were the first to arrive at Jesus’ tomb, seeking a body that wasn’t there.
“What missions does for you and to you is to get you inside the context of the Bible, when we are so addicted to the content of the Bible,” Ripken said. “I never understood the emotion of that passage, but I understand it now.”
Ripken challenged attendees to go to the nations, even if doing so is costly.
“Somehow we have reduced living for Jesus to climate control in our homes. We have reduced Jesus to where somehow we think we can meet our worship needs, our teaching needs, our spiritual needs somehow, someway in an hour on Sunday morning,” he said.
Ripken said there’s not a people group on the planet where God is not making Himself known.
“Where there is no body of Christ, God continues to take the initiative and make Himself known. The only way this can happen is through the power of the Holy Spirit,” Ripken said.
But when God has to make Himself known in darkest places, that is due to the disobedience of His church to partner and pursue others as He has pursued us, Ripken said.
“Where the church exists He expects and commands us to pursue others for Him just as He has pursued us. Everywhere we see thousands of young men and women giving their lives in wars around the world are places where the Church has failed to take the gospel for 2000 years,” Ripken said.
Matthew 28 tells us to go, he said, but fear is Satan’s No. 1 tool.
“In the midst of fear we can choose to trust and we can choose obedience to our Savior,” he said.