It has been called "unique" by some, "ministry saving" by others, and "a blessing to my ministry" by almost all who attend. What is being referred to are Real Evangelism Bible Conferences sponsored nationwide each year by Bailey Smith Ministries. Designed to inspire and encourage ministers and laypeople alike, the conferences drew 40,000 attendees in 1998, and organizers anticipate 60,000 to attend the 1999 conferences.
Evangelist Bailey Smith is the host of the conferences, which he originated fifteen years ago. Smith has long been recognized for his evangelistic zeal. As pastor of the First Southern Baptist Church of Del City, Okla., he was noted for baptizing 2,000 in one year. He left the church thirteen years ago to enter full-time evangelism, and has conducted more then 400 evangelistic meetings since. He estimates that more than 100,000 have made professions of faith at those meetings.
Smith has also authored a book entitled Real Evangelism. Last year, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forrest, N.C., established the Bailey Smith Chair of Evangelism in recognition of his contribution to the ministry of evangelism.
The conferences serve to inspire the same evangelistic zeal in those who attend.
Smith said in addition to publicizing his crusade ministry, his original intent in sponsoring the conferences was to expose the preaching talents of relatively unknown pastors and evangelists. According to Smith, someone challenged him that, "... the best preachers in the country are not being heard."
Smith said, "It really stirred my soul to give a platform to the men that are really preaching the gospel with enthusiasm."
He hosted the first Real Evangelism Bible Conference fifteen years ago at the First Baptist Church of Euliss, Texas. Jimmy Draper, president of LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention, was pastor of the church at the time. According to Smith, 2,000 attended that first conference.
Since then, the conferences have become a significant focus of Smith's ministry. Smith hosted nine conferences in 1998 and has eleven scheduled for 1999.
Smith says the conferences are not designed to instruct or train. "My real goal has not been for people to learn a great deal," he said. "You can buy a tape or a book to learn principles and concepts. We want a man to leave absolutely changed, blessed, and stirred," he said.
According to Smith, the conferences achieve that goal through a combination of powerful preaching and heart-stirring music. "What we do is display the exciting, vibrant, soul-stirring, heart-wrenching type of preachers," he said.
"I have never had anybody on a program because of their name or to repay a favor," Smith said. "They're people that I know will stir the hearts of those who attend."
Some have asked if the conference title suggests that Smith views state Baptist conferences as less than "real."
Smith explains that the title came from his book by the same title. When he originally submitted it to Broadman, he suggested the name Subtle Substitutes, because it addressed the need for churches to stay focused on the primacy of evangelism. The editors thought the title was too heavy and recommended Real Evangelism. Smith merely transferred the book title to the conferences.
Smith explains that the conferences do not compete with Baptist state convention emphases or conferences. He said, "We never criticize state meetings - never. I still get invited to state convention evangelism conferences and have done most of them through the years."
In fact, Smith suggested some state convention leaders have told him the conferences are an asset to their own evangelistic endeavors. He told of one evangelism director who responded, "We feel these conferences have helped the spirit of evangelism in this state. I wouldn't care if you did one a month here."
Smith recounts that while the conferences are not primarily evangelistic, some of the attendees have been saved. On one occasion, a deacon's wife and a pastor's wife from the same church realized they had never been truly saved. As they traveled home from the conference, each wife gave her life to the Lord after listening to one of Smith's tapes.
Smith also tells of pastors who were ready to quit the ministry until they attended the conference.
On one occasion, Tom Elliff, Smith's brother-in-law, preached from the twenty-third Psalm, and spoke of a sheep being stranded on its back, unable to get up. According to Smith, a preacher stood up with tears flowing down his face and said, "That's me, that's me." Smith recounted, "Going out that day, he said to me, 'This message and this day have saved my ministry.'"