- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 26, 2004

The new president of the Southern Baptist Convention will kick off his turn at the helm of the 16.3-million-member denomination by staging a 50-state tour to inspire Baptists to recruit new members.

Starting Sunday, the Rev. Bobby Welch, 61, will embark on a 25-day, 20,000-mile tour beginning in Daytona Beach, Fla., and ending in Waikoloa, Hawaii. Most of the tour will be conducted by a custom bus.

Mr. Welch aims to reverse a slow decline in baptisms in the nation’s largest non-Catholic denomination, ranging from a high of 446,000 in 1972 to 377,000 in 2003.

The pastor will visit two, sometimes three, states a day. He will speak with denominational officials across the country and at one church in each state, including Staples Mill Road Baptist Church in Glen Allen, Va., on Tuesday and First Baptist Church in Rockville on Sept. 5.

Arrangements are pending as to which church he will visit in the District on Labor Day.

“It’s a challenging bit of choreography to put this together,” Mr. Welch said of his 70-stop itinerary, which will be posted on www.firstbaptist.org and www.bpnews.net. “I am sharing the love of God through the Lord Jesus Christ as the only savior of the world. That is my obsession; that is my quest.”

His 2,000-member congregation, First Baptist Church of Daytona Beach, is footing the bill for the trip. Fuel for the bus, whose crew includes two drivers, a photographer and a videographer, will cost $50,000 alone.

The trip will mold the glitz connected with a presidential campaign tour into the evangelistic fervor associated with the 18th-century circuit riders who preached the Gospel on horseback to Colonial America’s scattered citizens. The company that built Mr. Welch’s 45-foot bus, Hemphill Brothers Coach Co. of Nashville, Tenn., also built President Bush’s campaign bus.

During the day, SBC officials and members of the press will ride with the convention president. Mr. Welch hopes that the spiritual energy from his speaking engagements in churches along the way will result in 1 million conversions by next year.

“We are lacking in this convention a unity of purpose that stimulates people to move out and do what our main mission is, and that is evangelism,” he said. “I am attempting to come alongside the pastors and the local church to encourage them to come together over the next 12 months and to witness, win and baptize 1 million people.”

The idea for the tour occurred to Mr. Welch earlier this year when he realized that he might be nominated to be the 53rd president of the SBC.

“I began to pray and think, ‘Why would the Lord allow me in such a place at this time?’ I decided it was my strong emphasis on reaching people, plus the time I have spent among pastors in this country and other countries,” Mr. Welch said.

“There are many good things our people can do and are doing. But the main thing we should be doing is reaching the world with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. That’s where our strength lies.”

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