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In Report, Upton Focuses on BGAV’s Present and Future

Posted: 6/19/19 at 10:50am. 

“We’ve got hard work to do, but it begins with our own spirit,” said John Upton, Executive Director, as he concluded his message to the BGAV Mission Council.

The group of representatives—both ministers and laypersons—convened at Eagle Eyrie this spring for their annual time together in which they dialogue with BGAV elected Officers, BGAV Virginia Baptist Executive Board, and BGAV staff members, preparing to serve churches across the Commonwealth. At each meeting, Upton delivers an Executive Director’s report.

This year, Upton focused his report on how the BGAV has evolved over its nearly 200-year history in order to respond to the ever-changing needs of its churches and to plan strategically for a future that brings new challenges and opportunities.

Having returned recently from Lebanon, where he helped celebrate the beginning of a new partnership focus on refugee ministry, Upton recalled a story he heard there that inspired him: When Lebanese Baptists needed physical space to minister to Syrian Refugees, they took up an offering. The individual members of the church gave what was most sacred to them. They donated their wedding rings to finance the building for ministry to the refugees.

“Heaven is breaking through in spite of what it may look like the world is becoming,” said Upton. “When Christian faith is lived well it is a beautiful thing, heaven breaks through. The question is how does heaven breakthrough in us?”

“There are two natures of the BGAV,” explained Upton. “We focus on the local church, and we focus on movement—being movemental. These two areas of focus drive everything we do. One is essential for the other to be effective.”

While BGAV’s organizational structure and methods have often changed over the years, its nature and mission have remained the same.

Upton recalled that when he came to the BGAV in the Partnership Missions position back in 1995, the Virginia Baptist landscape was vastly different from what it looks like today. “There was one national convention—the SBC—and it was embroiled in controversy. There was one state ‘convention’—and that was us.”

He explained that BGAV has never used the word “convention” to describe itself, since that word suggests that its members follow a certain list of requirements or rules. Rather, the word “association” has described BGAV since its inception in 1823, signifying the importance of being a group of churches who freely choose to associate with each other in a cooperative way.

Autonomy of the local church is a hallmark of BGAV and critical to its nature as an association.

Autonomy of the local church is a hallmark of BGAV and critical to its nature as an association. He added, “No church should be conventional; each is unique.”

“We’d be a table where everyone could sit,” he explained. “Everyone was welcome at the table. We could be on mission together.”

“Over the last two decades, though, things continued to change. The divide between national Baptist bodies widened. It became evident that not everyone wanted to be at the same table anymore; not everyone wanted to sit together. We knew we needed to do something different with one another in order to continue to honor God’s calling for the BGAV.”

“In 2010, we asked ourselves the question: What is the movement God is calling the BGAV to be a part of, or to create?” Upton remembered.

“As we discerned together the answer to that question, we realized that a movement needs five things: leadership, church planting, revitalization of existing churches, missions, and youth/young adults.” Since then, BGAV has focused on those areas as it has followed God’s call to support the local church through Planting, Developing, Sending, and Resourcing.

As part of his report, Upton distributed and introduced a tangible representation of how the various ministries and ministry partners of the BGAV work together as a whole—an organizational “wheel” that illustrates how the overall organization supports the local church in these ways—and how all are important. No particular areas fall “above” or “below” others; each ministry has its own place in the whole.

Upton then cited some specific examples of ministry initiatives which have been areas of growth for the BGAV.

Through Uptick, young ministers participate in leadership cohorts for “intensive training that yields extensive dividends,” according to Upton. From smaller groups in its formative years, the ministry has grown its vision for 2020 to include as many as 25 groups per year—providing encouragement, networking, and leadership mentoring for hundreds of young ministers.

The V3 Movement, which was formed by the BGAV in 2013, offered a new type of approach to church planting. “Our old way of church planting involved starting with a location, then finding a church planter, funding the new start, and then praying for results,” Upton explained. “It was at high cost to us but provided low yield.”

With V3, we learned that we should invest first in training church planters by putting out a call to those who felt led to start churches. The response has been tremendous. These church planters are in a cohort for two years, and then we invest funds in their church plants where they feel God calling them. Most of these new churches are meeting the ‘five-year test,’ and not only surviving, but thriving. Many are already self-sufficient after only two years.”

“This movement has also opened doors for us to expand our reach, leading us to places like Seattle, New York, Florida, and more. Now we have participating churches in 17 states, and that number continues to grow,” Upton reported enthusiastically. “We birthed them; they’re our family.”

These are only a few examples of the new initiatives that have resulted in sustained and continued growth of BGAV overall.

Upton also drew attention to the other side of the “wheel,” on which is printed the BGAV’s most recent mission statement:

The BGAV (General Association) is a missionary movement unleashing the power of the resurrected Christ through the local church for the renewal of all things.

Upton went on to emphasize the meanings of the different parts of the BGAV name. “Our heritage is ‘Baptist,’ and that’s reflected in our belief in the autonomy of the local church. ‘General’ reflects our attitude of openness, and we’re an ‘Association’ because we’re relational. ‘Of Virginia’ is more about temperament than location. Being ‘of Virginia’ suggests that we are genteel, gracious, civil people even when we disagree with each other.”

“Missions has always been the heartbeat of Virginia Baptists.”

He further explained that many churches who have joined us over the last two decades aren’t from Virginia. “So some folks see us as just the General Association,” he said, “and that’s what we are.”

Upton said that as BGAV is studying and refreshing its brand while retaining its longstanding mission, they have retained a Christian, non-profit marketing consulting firm to do research and make recommendations about how best to communicate the organization’s mission and purpose.“Missions has always been the heartbeat of Virginia Baptists.”

“They created a survey that was distributed to more than 14,000 of you who receive our communications, and it was sent out in late April. In just the first few days, they had already received a larger number of responses than they expected—indicating a high level of confidence in the survey results. The BGAV leadership and Executive Board will receive a report this summer that will help us know how to serve our churches even better.”

Upton also commented that BGAV has been part of forming the Society for Gospel Awakening, an ecumenical movement of Christians who want to partner together with BGAV but who aren’t necessarily Virginians or Baptists. This is creating an even bigger table where people who feel called by God to do Kingdom work together can explore that call in a common space.

“Missions has always been the heartbeat of Virginia Baptists,” Upton said, “And it still is. Our goal is for all to be redeemed and saved for the glory of God.” Earlier in his report, Upton had offered a brief lesson on Virginia Baptist history, stating, “We sent folks to be missional 150 years ago. Virginia was much larger geographically back then than it is currently.” Reaching out beyond itself is not new to BGAV. “We’ve always had a heart for the ‘not yet,’ and our center has always been Jesus Christ.”

As Upton brought his report to a close, he told council members that he will be bringing this same report and message in person to many, many others across BGAV audiences in regional meetings across the Commonwealth in the coming weeks.

“There’s a mission God is constantly calling us to,” Upton challenged. “We are learning how to do this. We have made good progress. Any future God is in—is a future I’m not afraid of.”