Historic Pastors' Conference line-up meets to unify sermons; 12 pastors of small- and medium-size churches will preach through Philippians

By Keith Collier, Managing Editor, TEXAN

FORT WORTH—This year’s Southern Baptist Convention Pastors’ Conference has already promised several historic firsts, including the first time all preachers will be from small- and medium-sized churches and the first time all the sermons will walk expositionally through a book of the Bible. But this year’s line-up added another first to the list—the first time Pastors’ Conference speakers met in advance to discuss their passages to ensure a cohesive unity to the sermons.

Eleven of the 12 pastors, whose churches range in attendance from 60 to 500, met with Pastors’ Conference officers as well as preaching faculty from Southwestern and New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminaries on the campus of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Feb. 6-7, for what was called the Pastors’ Conference Colloquium.

“The Pastors’ Conference has never had a full slate of preachers only from small- to medium-size churches in the convention,” David Allen, Dean of the School of Preaching at Southwestern Seminary, told the TEXAN. “Additionally, the line-up is amazingly diverse ethnically. The idea to preach through a book of the Bible at the conference is also a historic first.”

Allen led the main sessions of the colloquium, walking the pastors through what he called the “seven foundations” of building effective sermons and exhorting them to preach “text-driven” sermons that reflect the substance, structure and style of the biblical text. Recognizing this would be the largest audience to which most of the pastors have preached, he also gave advice for adjusting to a larger preaching venue, including addressing distractions, eye contact and voice projection.

Additionally, SWBTS and NOBTS preaching faculty led breakout sessions, pairing up preachers with a professor to discuss their specific passages and approaches to preaching the texts.

“The goal of the colloquium was informational and inspirational,” Allen said. “I wanted to provide the preachers with information that would assist them in writing text-driven sermons on the paragraph units of Philippians. But we also wanted them to be inspired and encouraged as they approach the Pastors’ Conference to preach.”

Allen admitted to the group that he was initially skeptical of sequentially preaching through a book of the Bible in a conference format because of fears of maintaining continuity, but he changed his mind after helping in a similar approach at the 2016 Southern Baptists of Texas Convention annual meeting, where the six convention sermons walked through Romans 8.

Pastors’ Conference President Dave Miller, a small-church pastor from Sioux City, Iowa, proposed the idea for changing the conference line-up and preaching expositionally through a book of the Bible in a blog post last April. Miller said he was surprised two months later when he was nominated and elected president of the conference.

Miller called for recommendations of smaller church pastors who practiced expository preaching, and after a thorough process of prayer and listening to sermons, 12 men were selected, the overwhelming majority of whom Miller had never met. His team also selected the book of Philippians for the pastors to preach through.

“One of the reasons we chose Philippians was because it had good preaching passages but did not have a lot of the theological mine fields,” Miller told the TEXAN. “We wanted to stay away from some of the things that had been controversial in the convention.”

Miller said the colloquium provided a venue for the pastors to get to know one another and create a team approach.

“We really want to make this a team, not just 12 individual speakers,” Miller said. “That was the purpose of the colloquium, to get a unified approach to Philippians so that it’s not just 12 individual sermons but a common outline, a common approach.”

Miller said the colloquium would not have been possible without the generous hospitality of Southwestern Seminary; the expertise offered by Allen and other preaching faculty from Southwestern and New Orleans seminaries; and the Pastors’ Conference’s partnership with the Caskey Center for Church Excellence at NOBTS, which focuses on smaller membership and bi-vocational Southern Baptist churches and is directed by professor Mark Tolbert.

Tolbert exhorted the pastors to be faithful witnesses of the Word during one of the sessions. He challenged them to walk in humility and to rely on the power of God’s Word in their sermons. He also worked one-on-one in the breakout sessions with a few of the preachers.

Tolbert told the TEXAN he is excited about this year’s conference format.

“We think it’s going to be great to model of what it is to preach through an entire book of the Bible. Some pastors have heard about that but have never done it, and this is going to be an example of how to do that. We think expository preaching is one of the best practices for how to have church health,” Tolbert said.

“These guys are not celebrities, but we want the celebrity of the Pastors’ Conference to be the Word of God and the Lord Jesus.”

Tolbert said the Caskey Center will be sharing research data conducted in partnership with the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism and Ed Stetzer on “best practices in smaller membership churches for health and growth” at the Pastors’ Conference.

Ryan Rice, pastor of Connect Church in New Orleans and one of the Pastors’ Conference speakers, said he left the colloquium greatly encouraged despite possibly being the pastor with the smallest congregation ever to preach at the conference. Even though this will be the largest audience to which he has preached, Rice told the TEXAN he has peace, “knowing the Lord is with me, and we will be proclaiming his Word.”

“But isn't that the beauty of this conference—pastors unknown to the larger body of the SBC that love their church, people and the Word of God? I was immensely humbled to be in the room with brothers who love Jesus and can preach the Word.”

Rice noted that the breakout sessions gave him further clarity on preaching Philippians 2:12-19.

“Additionally,” Rice said, “having the brother who would be preaching before me helped me to see how the main message of the book ties in with the passage I would be preaching as well.” 

Spencer Plumlee, pastor of Riverview Baptist Church in Osage Beach, Mo., echoed Rice’s sentiments, saying he benefitted from the breakout sessions, where he was able to bounce ideas off a preaching professor and hear of resources for further sermon preparation on Philippians 3:12-16.

“I loved the opportunity to meet different pastors in similar contexts throughout the country,” Plumlee said. “It was very encouraging to know that there are many faithful brothers dealing with similar if not the same issues.”

“I think every preacher at the Pastors’ Conference will be tied to the text very tightly because of the colloquium. 

Bart Barber, pastor of First Baptist Church in Farmersville, Texas, will preach from Philippians 4:2-9, a difficult passage, he said, because the relationship between the three paragraphs can be difficult to discern.

“I feel so much better prepared to bring a message that fits as a part of the unified whole of the Book of Philippians and the sermons that all of these men will bring,” Barber said.

“It is my desire that the pastor of an average-sized church in the SBC walks away from this conference and says, ‘I didn’t know who any of those guys were, but they all did a good job. They don’t know who I am, either, but I can do a good job, too. The power is in the Word of God, and the Bible in my hands is the same Bible that the famous pastor holds in his hands. I’m going to preach it with faithfulness and excellence.’”