RIDGECREST N.C. (BP) – Race is not the issue of Black Church Leadership and Family Conference leaders told Baptist Press upon the 25th anniversary of the event described as the largest gathering of African Americans in the Southern Baptist Convention.
"It's the culture" said Jay Wells a retired LifeWay Christian Resources executive who helped found the event during his tenure in 1993. "Each generation and each people group have culture and God created us with differences and uniquenesses. It's not to say one is better than the other. It simply says this is just who we are."
Wells spoke to Baptist Press after receiving the 25th-anniversary plaque on the opening night of the motivational educational recreational and worship event hosted by LifeWay July 16–20 at Ridgecrest Conference Center in North Carolina.
"When you look at people you have to accept people for who they are and appreciate that and celebrate that rather than devaluing it" Wells told BP. The conference focuses on ways "to penetrate that culture with the Gospel and having people mobilize themselves to advance the Kingdom of God which transcends all cultures."
Mark Croston LifeWay's national director of Black and Western Church Partnerships said the conference's survival in attracting a thousand or more attendees annually is a testimony of its relevance.
"It offers training that is geared toward the nuances of African American church culture. It offers worship that is in the African American church experience and it offers fellowship with other African Americans from across the country" Croston told BP. "In some of our areas to be black and Southern Baptist can be kind of lonely. And so one of the places you come just to get some fellowship with other people who are of your same experience is a place like this."
Roy Cotton Sr. director of African American Ministries of the Baptist General Convention of Texas told BP he has attended the event 24 of its 25 years annually since 1994.
"More than getting your plate filled you get your cup running over at black church week" Cotton said. "When people go they want to come back because of all that is offered. … It's just a plethora of resources to feed the quest in us to provide the very best for our churches.
"If anybody goes to Black Church Leadership and Family Conference week they shouldn't come back the same" Cotton said. "If you open your mind and your heart to receiving and having it really impact your life it will."
More than 100 faculty members pastors speakers and coordinators led just as many breakout sessions and classes in various aspects of ministry capped nightly with worship and preaching from noted Southern Baptist pastors. Classes spanned 29 educational tracks embracing church growth law and security; evangelism; youth and children; gender specific ministries and missions; discipleship worship arts and other concentrations. Attendance spans various ethnicities.
Cotton's participation spans his denominational leadership formerly as director of African American Church Development with the Baptist General Association of Virginia and his founding pastorate of Centerpointe Church For The Communities in Red Oak Texas where he served from 2002–2015.
Cotton especially commends the children's activities and youth ministry track. His sons 35-year-old Roy Cotton Jr. and 31-year-old Justin Cotton grew up attending the conference.
"That ought to be the very best training you get is how are you going to train those children and the people who work with your youth" Cotton said of church training. "We would be so excited just listening to our boys talking about what all they were learning" he said of himself and his wife Inez the July 18 Woman2Woman Bible study leader.
The event allows generations to benefit and grow in Christ Wells told those gathered at the 2018 event.
"I'm just grateful to be able to have served in this capacity and seeing the generations of people who are continually blessed by being here on this mountain and in this place" Wells said. "My heart is glad [as] I walked up to the campus and saw new faces that I had never seen before because that says that what has started is going to continue.
"The Lord starts it the Lord's going to finish it and we just serve in the middle of it" said Wells who retired from LifeWay in 2012 as director of black church relations but has remained active in denominational life. "I'm grateful that He let me run one little leg of this race and I'm grateful that He let me see who has picked up the baton to keep on running the same race."
The conference began in 1993 as a Sunday School training event and has expanded to include additional ministries and outreach Wells said in the event's anniversary video.
"One of the things we have at this conference that helps all of us is to see how God has equipped the local church and equipped us with so much diversity of gifts that we now find room to use our uniqueness in ways that we may have never considered" Wells said. "When they walk away peoples' eyes are wide open to all the possibilities that they can serve in ways that they may have never even considered before. That has been a plus."
Dan Garland LifeWay's director of church partnerships honored Wells and Croston for the conference's longevity.
"Isn't it exciting that God passed the baton from Jay Wells to Mark Croston" Garland said at the event. "That's a God thing right there. Both of these men are incredibly anointed."