16:5 Conference in Rochester, N.Y.

“I love the local church,” says David Whiting, pastor of Northridge Church and host of its 16:5 Conference. “The local church is the hope of the world, because the gospel was given to the local church.”

Whiting introduces the conference theme in simple terms, gesturing to a few bullet points on a high-tech flat screen monitor. He’s not the sort of pastor who wears his seminary degree on his sleeve. Yes, he still knows how to diagram the participles of the Great Commission, but he would avoid using the phrase “Greek participle” in public. And speaking of sleeves—it’s a short-sleeve gray shirt with extra pockets, not tucked into his jeans. His new dress code is deliberately cultivated. He wants to look exactly like the people who will visit his church. But his ideas go deeper than the technology and clothing styles.

“More and Better. Churches should make more disciples, and better disciples,” Whiting says during the evening ses-sion, summarizing his teaching about the Great Commission. “Churches tend to do one or the other, but rarely balance both.” More to the point, Whiting expresses concern that some churches in our circles tend to have very successful Bible teaching ministries—they excel at “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20). But in Whiting’s outline, these churches have emphasized making disciples that are progressively “better,” without a balancing emphasis on evangelism, the making of “more” disciples.

Over coffee the next morning, I ask Pastor Whiting how he would characterize this conference, now in its second year. Is it a “church growth” conference?

“I don’t like that phrase,” he answers, mostly because of its negative connotations. Whiting suggests “church leader-ship conference” or “church health conference,” but he also seems interested in drawing a line in the sand. Strictly speaking, he’s not interested in a “seeker sensitive” or “Willow Creek” model (which he critiques by name). He wants to help equip churches that are united by their core theological ideas (and yes, he still uses the word “Baptist” to describe them). “We can maintain our theological distinctive and still bear much fruit.”

Bob Kadlecik, pastor of Bridgewater Baptist Church, Montrose, Pa., agrees, explaining why he wanted to attend. “There are other conferences like this, but they are very broad theologically. Here you don’t have to do as much sifting to separate the good advice from the bad theology,” he says.

Pastor Don Shirk came to the conference with several people from Grace Baptist Church, Batavia, N.Y. “We’re moving into our new building in a few months, giving us a chance to reevaluate some of what we do,” he says. “I hope this conference gives us more tools for the toolbox.”

About 220 people registered for the conference, representing 52 churches. The farthest was Oak Grove Baptist Church in Kansas City, Kan., an 18-hour drive for Pastor Aaron Patton and his associate, Dennis Thompson. Six years ago when Aaron arrived at Oak Grove, church attendance was around 50—with only two children who regularly attended. It was a big task for a young man with only two years of pastoral experience.

“I’ve discovered that I don’t have to compromise to reach people for Christ. But I might have to live differently, and my church might need to change,” Aaron says about the lessons he has learned.

Here’s where it gets interesting. On an evening when some of the discussion is about older church members who resist change, one obvious fact jumps out. Aaron is clearly younger—much younger—than Dennis. “Actually, I have children who are older than he is,” Dennis says, describing their 35-year age difference. “But the last thing I want to do is be an irritant to him, and I know that older people can do that sometimes.”

Aaron fills in the happy ending: “Now Dennis has become one of my best friends.”

Part of the conference teaching model seems to involve healthy churches teaching other churches how to improve their ministry focus. But Pastor David Whiting also includes a measure of caution—he’s not suggesting that participants return home with plans to clone what he is doing. In fact, he encourages church members to support the ministry of their own pastor. “When you return home, your job is not to push your pastor into doing whatever you are thinking. Instead, ask your pastor, ‘What are you thinking? What can I do to help?’”

Kevin Mungons is managing editor of the Baptist Bulletin. Darrell Goemaat is director of photography.

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