2017 National Association: Convention Review

by the Helwys Society and Friends

Another Convention is on the books. All seven Forum contributors were among the 4,603 Free Will Baptists to attend this year’s meeting in Louisville, Kentucky. We were blessed to be able to represent our churches, provide seminars, watch our young people compete, and worship with our brothers and sisters across the denomination. In this post, we recount some of our reflections from the 81st National Association.

Worship Services

This year’s Convention theme was “Equipping the Saints,” and thus this topic undergirded services throughout the week.

Sunday School and AM Worship: Dr. Tim Eaton (OK) of Randall University taught the Sunday school lesson from the Fusion Curriculum on 1 Thessalonians 5:12-28. The lesson dealt with some of the practical aspects of Christian living in the body of Christ

Rick Dement (MO) preached the morning service examining the characteristics of discipleship, which paved the way for other messages later in the week. (Jackson Watts)

Sunday Evening: Marshall Bonéy (VA): Marshall Bonéy delivered the Sunday night sermon, “Equipping the Saints to Serve,” from Ephesians 4:11-12. He called on Christians to consider both internal and external motives in their teaching. He highlighted that what impassions us and what perturbs us might reveal the ministries the Lord has for us. The Spirit uses us who are broken to do His work by indwelling us and working through us. He also reminded us of the need for right doctrine so that we might have right practice. Christian ministry, he says, must be mature, doing what is uncomfortable when necessary, but always “looking like love.” (Christa Hill)

Monday Evening: Joel Franks (KY): Joel Franks, who has recently been commissioned to go to Alabama to start a church, preached on “Equipping Saints Through the Word.” He encouraged congregants to remember the Word of God, which equips us with power, precepts, and promises. He reminded preachers of their responsibilities in caring for the flock entrusted to their leadership. He called on the congregation to look to the Word to know how we ought to live, finally challenging us to commit to the Word and to allow it to change us. (Christa Hill)

Tuesday Evening: This was perhaps the most unique service not only in this Convention but of recent Conventions as well. As this year marks the 75th anniversary of Welch College, members of the college community (present and past) led the Tuesday evening service. Dr. James Stevens, chair of the Welch College Music Department, provided several excellent new arrangements of hymns and newer songs for the evening, helping delegates to glorify God through song, as well as giving a window into the music of the college’s chapel life and beyond. Two videos reminded the congregation of God’s faithfulness toward and working through Welch College through its history and through its campus relocation.

Dr. Matt Pinson’s powerful sermon, “Equipping the Saints Through Christian Higher Education,” from 2 Corinthians 10:3-5, was a rousing call for all believers to Biblically navigate our complex culture. He stressed that we are not the first generation of the church facing a hostile culture and that we must not panic. Instead, we must be faithful followers of Christ who engage the whole personality in His service. He called us to engage in the kind of warfare appropriate to spiritual people involved in spiritual work. (Christa Hill and Jackson Watts)

Wednesday Evening: Many people often note that Wednesday is always a favorite service. In it, we recognize the many serving the Lord through North American and International Missions. It is also a time when new missionaries are commissioned for their work. One of our own Forum members, Jesse Owens, his wife Tiffany, and son Gavin, were commissioned as they have begun a new church since the last Convention in Gallatin, Tennessee. IM Director Clint Morgan preached a stirring message, “Equipping the Saints to Reach the World: Lessons from the Life of Christ,” that wedded Matthew 28:18-20 to larger theological principles he felt should guide us our missiology. (Jackson Watts)

Business Sessions

Aside from approving the reports and budgets of each department and confirming the location of the 2023 National Convention, the business session was largely uneventful. The Missouri State Association did submit a resolution that called for the appointment of a five-person committee to conduct a feasibility study regarding the establishment of a national department for church revitalization. The resolution communicated that current efforts toward revitalization were spread across several departments, and it implied that a department devoted to this specific purpose merited serious consideration. Missouri State Executive Director Stan Bunch will serve as the Chairman of this study committee. The full General Board Report with recommendations can be downloaded here.

The following are brief synopses of each department’s report:

International Missions: Director Clint Morgan provided an overview of matters related to the work of the mission department since his last report in 2016. IM is still in a transitional period from a general plan of giving back to designated giving. Even so, it is pressing on and setting strategic goals in the areas of funding and deployment that it hopes to reach by the year 2020.

One notable development was a proposed name change to shorten the mission’s official name to “IM, Inc.” Morgan provided a sound rationale based on both issues concerning official documentation difficulties the mission had been experiencing in recent years, as well as the ongoing effort to be shrewd in how it places workers on various fields of ministry which are especially hostile toward religious organizations.

Welch College: President Matt Pinson gave an uplifting report on the heels of the college’s successful relocation from its West End campus to its newly-constructed one in Gallatin. He began his report with a brief video that gave a video tour of the new campus. There’s nothing like visiting the new campus, Pinson said. He extended an invitation to all delegates to attend the 75th anniversary celebration and new campus dedication event on September 29.

VP for Financial Affairs Craig Mahler also commented on some recent financial undertakings that would facilitate this transition with the expectation that more fundraising would place the college on solid footing for the future.

Randall House: CEO Ron Hunter gave his characteristic detailed and interactive report on the ministry of Randall House and its specific strategy for adapting to the changing landscape of denominational publishing houses. He highlighted some of the new partnerships RHP has formed with multiple Christian universities and seminaries and how these fit into their larger ministry strategy            to equip pastors, layman, parents, and congregations to be inter-generational disciple-makers. Hunter also reported a significant financial turnaround since last year’s report, which noted significant financial losses.

FWB Foundation: CEO David Brown reported on the work of the Foundation. While its overall work is continuing to gain significant assets, endowments over the last year were “disappointing as the rate of return was slightly negative for the year.”[1] Still, the Foundation is excited about its work and for being in a position to continue providing at least half a million dollars in grants toward Free Will Baptist ministries. The late Rick Locklear (MI) and Waymon Fields (AL) were honored for their years of service to the Board, and four board members were elected, including Bobby Edwards’s (TN) re-election for a second term.

Board of Retirement: CEO John Brummitt shared a newly created video that gave an overview of the work of the Board, new developments and initiatives, and its long-term, strategic vision for its work in the denomination. One significant development was that 2016 saw an all-time high in the number of new enrollees to retirement plans. The Board also elected new members. After a round of floor nominations, Danny Baer (NC) and James Beasley (SC) were ultimately re-elected, and Jack Daniels (GA) was elected to begin a new term.

North American Ministries: Director David Crowe thanked the delegates for their prayers during his recovery from a recent stroke. He then recognized Director of Chaplain Support Kerry Steedley who honored two of the Free Will Baptist chaplains (John Carey and Tracy Kerr) who were present, along with their wives. Crowe went on to report that in one fiscal year the department had reversed their financial situation and were back in the black. This turnaround was especially aided by a record-high North American Ministries Offering in November. Josh Baer (NC) was added to the board, and Bob Lewis (TN) and David Sexton (VA) were reelected to new terms. Outgoing board member Bob Thebeau (MO) was recognized for his many years of service.

Woman Nationally Active for Christ: Executive Director Elizabeth Hodges’s report was unique in that she was able to introduce two Ivorian believers to the body. These two ladies shared greetings as Clint Morgan translated. Hodges then discussed some of WNAC’s work with women and young ladies over the past year. Despite many positive things, she expressed significant concern over the financial standing of her department. She highlighted several cuts they had made in hopes to see a brighter financial picture in the next year.

Each of the denomination’s four Commissions also gave reports on the activities and resources involving their commissions, although no major developments were reported by these ministries.

While a few new General Board members were elected, no other changes with the Executive Committee or General Officers occurred. Cory Thompson (OK) will serve as the Chairman of the 2017-18 Nominating Committee. Questions about the nomination process and nominations for boards, commissions, and other offices may be directed to him prior to the 2017 Leadership Conference in December.


Various national departments and ministries provided eighty-three total workshops or seminars, as well as three panel discussions. Topics ranged from practical issues in music, youth, outreach, and apologetics, to substantial reflection on theological and historical issues. Some of the ones we went to included the following:

Free Will Baptists and Upward Mobility: At nearly ninety-one, F. Leroy Forlines and his wife Dr. Fay Forlines made the trek from Nashville to Louisville. Forlines spoke to a packed room on the changing socioeconomic stations that he has observed among Free Will Baptists in his lifetime. As Free Will Baptists have transitioned from being uneducated to being educated, and from living in the country to living in the city, they have also been confronted with different norms of morality and ideals. Whatever their changing stations in life, Forlines earnestly encouraged Free Will Baptists to remain true to Biblical morality and high ideals. Forlines spoke for about forty-five minutes, leaving ten minutes for questions and dialogue. In this workshop, Forlines showed that he can still engross an audience as he spoke with earnestness and yet with winsomeness. (Matthew Steven Bracey)

Freedom of the Will Against the Theological Giants: Dr. Robert Picirilli spoke to a standing-room only crowd as he addressed a topic he is uniquely suited to discuss: free will. Drawing largely from his recently-published book Free Will Revisited: A Respectful Response to Luther, Calvin, and Edwards, Picirilli provided an overview of various understandings of free will, followed by his own argument for what free will is and why humans have it. He proceeded to explain why he chose to address his arguments to these specific “theological giants” and why they were worthy of our respect, even if we disagree with them on this specific issue. I couldn’t help but think as he was presenting how thankful I was that God had allowed one of our own to be so productive and clear well into his eighties. (Jackson Watts)

The Reformation at 500 Years: What Does it Mean for Us? Dr. Matt Pinson spoke to a packed room about the significance of the Reformation for our Free Will Baptist context in modern times. He organized his presentation primarily around the Five Solas (Grace alone, Faith alone, Scripture alone, through Christ alone, to the glory of God alone), explaining each point in both its historical context and its relation to the modern church, its ministry, and Free Will Baptist doctrine. While our movement, with such forebears as Arminius, Helwys, and Grantham, certainly differs from many of the other heirs of the Reformation, Pinson argued that we have much to be reminded of and committed to as we celebrate this pivotal anniversary. (Jackson Watts)

Beyond Bathrooms: The Truth about Transgenderism: How should the church think about issues of gender identity? This is a question that needs to be answered carefully. In his seminar, “Beyond Bathrooms: The Truth about Transgenderism,” Jackson Watts gave a helpful overview of key terms and concepts related to Gender dysphoria and how to articulate an appropriate Christian response to such issues. One important area that I found especially helpful concerns our need to operate under a Bible-Theological framework that embraces anthropological holism. He drew from Ryan T. Anderson, who shows that many questions of sexual identity, including transgenderism and gender dysphoria “spring from faulty anthropology, a misunderstanding of the nature of man.”[2] Indeed, the nature of humanity transcends everything, and we as image-bearers should reflect on this truth as we engage these issues. Additionally, he explained the importance of learning to listen to those struggling with Gender Dysphoria, especially if we are preparing to develop a relationship with them with the gospel. (Zach Maloney)

Taking Your Christian Worldview to the Movies: Matthew Bracey did an excellent job in this seminar, calling on attendees to take seriously the practice of watching film. He began by laying the theological foundations for human creativity, particularly its manifestations through the medium of film. He discussed the principles of evaluating film through the lens of the Christian critical tradition, thus highlighting the need for a truly good film to have both excellent form and good content. His practical advice and good counsel gave his audience a strong framework for both exegeting the culture through its movies and enjoying truly excellent works. (Christa Hill)

Notable Free Will Baptist Women: Christa Hill spoke to a full room of women and men eager to hear of notable FWB women. She had selected three women who were associated with Welch College in various ways: Mary Welch, Agnes Frazier, and Laura Bell Barnard.

(1) Mary Welch was the wife of John L. Welch who was instrumental in unifying Free Will Baptists (FWB) into the National Association of Free Will Baptists in 1935 and in establishing a college for us. Ms. Mary was actively involved in her husband’s pastoral ministry in the areas of youth and women’s ministry. She was diligent in preserving FWB history and serving the fledgling Free Will Baptist Bible College.

(2) Agnes Frazier was one of the first women to serve on a FWB national board. As a public school teacher, she had a passion for FWB youth work. She wrote many of the materials for the FWB League and the WNAC, which she served from 1935-53. Convinced that FWBs needed an institution of higher learning, she personally raised more funds for the college than any other layperson.

(3) Laura Belle Barnard was a pioneer FWB missionary to India. After she returned from India in 1957 Miss Barnard earned her master’s degree and taught missions until her retirement in the 1970s at the college that Mary Welch and Agnes Frazier had worked toward opening. Our denomination, like most of our churches, has much for which to thank faithful FWB women. (Frank Owens)

From Martha to Mary: Avoiding Burnout in Christian Service: In this very practical, very insightful seminar, Sarah Bracey outlined the causes of burnout, the symptoms of burnout, and the solutions for overcoming burnout. She did an excellent job of engaging her audience as she presented her lecture. She reminded us that burnout occurs where there has once been a flame, emphasized the importance of rest, and stressed that those involved in Christian service must be spiritually filled on a regular basis so that they can most effectively serve. The topic was timely and the counsel wise. (Christa Hill)

Thoughts for Young Men: Derek Altom walked into the Taylor Room all “Ryled-up.” He has been that way since the Christmas break when our men’s group had read and discussed J. C. Ryle’s booklet, Thoughts for Young Men. Derek, father of four sons (ages 11, 9, 4 and 2), caught fire during those discussions. He brought that intensity to our room that was filled with fathers and their sons as well as youth leaders. Though written more than 130 years ago, Thoughts for Young Men is amazingly current. Altom walked us through Ryle’s four major thoughts: five reasons why young men need to be exhorted; five special dangers young men face; six general counsels to young men; and five special rules for young men. Seldom have I seen a man so convinced of the truths of a single book. For the sake of his four sons and of the fathers and sons of our denomination, Derek Altom remains “Ryled-up.” Keep it coming, Derek. (Frank Owens)

Are Hymns Still Useful for Worship? If you imagined that you were headed to a hymnbook burning in this seminar, you would have been surprised by Josh Owens’s presentation. Drawing on his experience at Sylvan Park Free Will Baptist Church and Welch College, Josh made a case for congregational singing, especially the singing of both classic and recently written hymns. Pastors should be aware that songs “are sermons that people will remember”. Our Sunday singing shapes our people’s weekday view of God. Josh encouraged pastors/music leaders to select a variety of songs that represent the broad range of human emotions and experience that our people bring to the service. Hymns, rich with truth, are God’s gifts to the church. Rather than one of discarding hymns, the consensus in the room was, “Let’s reach for our hymnals and turn to . . .” (Frank Owens)


Next year’s Convention will be held on July 22-25 in Little Rock, Arkansas. We hope to see you there.


[1] Digest of Reports, p. 39.

[2] Ryan T. Anderson, “Same-Sex Marriage and Heresy: The Importance of Anthropology,” First Things, July 16, 2015; https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2015/07/same-sex-marriage-and-heresy; accessed July 21, 2017; Internet.

Author: The Helwys Society

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