A Conversation with Our New President

Wes Church, senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Columbia for the past five years, assumed the role of president of the South Carolina Baptist Convention following the annual meeting in November. He will preside at next year’s annual meeting when the state convention will convene at Columbia First on Nov. 11-12. He has chosen “Till All Have Heard,” drawn from Romans 10:14–15, as the theme for the meeting. In December, The Courier interviewed the state convention’s incoming president:

Would you tell us a little bit about your background and your family so South Carolina Baptists can become better acquainted with you?

Church: I grew up in Spartanburg, where I attended Roebuck Baptist Church. My parents, Kenny and Cindy Church, are still very active members in that church. Mom sings in the choir; Dad serves as a deacon and Sunday school teacher. My brother, Ken, and I both made professions of faith as children and were baptized by our pastor, Dr. Rudy Gray. It would be hard to understand who I am without recognizing the spiritual influence my parents had on my life. They love the Lord and love the church. I’m grateful for that legacy.

I attended the University of South Carolina, where I received a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism and Mass Communications. Following graduation, I took a job at First Baptist Church of Columbia ministering to college students. While in that role, I married my wife, Rachel, and she has been a faithful partner in ministry all of these years. We have four children who are very busy with school, church activities, and basketball.

After serving nine years as college minister, I took the position of minister of discipleship at Columbia First. In 2018, my pastor, Dr. Wendell Estep, retired and the pastor search committee recommended me to the congregation to be the next pastor. In August 2018, the church voted to receive me as pastor, and it has been a real joy leading this wonderful family of faith and historic congregation the last five years.

How do you see the state of the South Carolina Baptist Convention and its future?

Church: I am grateful to be a South Carolina Baptist because I know that I am part of a very strong and healthy state convention of churches advancing the Great Commission together. You can see the health of the convention in the strong sense of unity among our churches to cooperate for the purpose of kingdom advance. There is a camaraderie where we celebrate one another, serve alongside one another, pray for one another, and love one another. Nevertheless, the challenges in front of us are serious. We are losing ground in reaching our state with the gospel. Young people are becoming more and more skeptical of religious institutions. Our society is shifting toward a more diverse population, which means some of our traditional ways of reaching people with the gospel are becoming less effective. All this means that the harvest is plentiful for kingdom work in South Carolina, but if we are not willing to strategically act to accelerate gospel saturation in our state, then the future of our convention may be obsolete.

Describe some ways you have led Columbia First to be involved in Great Commission outreach through cooperative missions and the Cooperative Program.

Church: My congregation is very aware of my passion to see the nations reached with the gospel of Jesus Christ. So, to that end, we recently hired the first missions pastor in our church’s history. Todd Elkins and his family were serving overseas with the International Mission Board, but now lead our Global Missions efforts at First Baptist Church. This includes strategizing where we will focus our praying, giving, and going for missions, as well as educating our congregation in missions and seeking to identify who the Lord might be raising up in our church to deploy to the nations.

Currently, we are working with a church planter in Detroit as part of our engagement with SEND Detroit through NAMB. We also work with the Asia Pacific Rim (APAC) affinity group through IMB and look to send our first team to APAC this coming year. We also recognize that the nations are coming to us, so we are engaged in local cross-cultural ministry and missions. After planting a church to reach Burmese refugees in our city a few years ago, we partnered with other local churches in our association to plant a church to reach local Vietnamese. They baptized their first members at our church just a few months ago. Additionally, we are in the process of planting a Chinese congregation and they just baptized their first members in our church in October.

Our church is convinced the easiest and most effective way for us to regularly be involved in reaching the nations with the gospel of Jesus Christ is through our regular giving to the Cooperative Program. We know that when our financial gifts are added to the generous contributions of all our South Carolina and Southern Baptist churches, the ability to make a more strategic and significant global impact for kingdom advance increases exponentially. What a blessing to be part of such an incredible movement.

In what ways do you envision calling South Carolina Baptists forward in seeking to fulfill the Great Commission and undergirding the Cooperative Program?

Church: At the 2024 annual meeting of the South Carolina Baptist Convention, I intend to focus our attention in three key areas: Till All Have Heard, we must strengthen cooperation; Till All Have Heard, we must share Jesus; and Till All Have Heard, we must send the gospel. I plan to ask every church (and every South Carolina Baptist) to take real steps toward strengthening cooperation, sharing Jesus, and sending the gospel to the nations.

How do you foresee speaking to the next generation of S.C. Baptist leaders to be involved in expanding the convention’s Great Commission work and missions engagement?

Church: What South Carolina Baptists believe and demonstrate is that we are better together. I hope to help foster community and collaboration among the next generation of South Carolina Baptists so that they can experience what it means to work together and can see firsthand how cooperative work is more effective. I know that a younger generation is less trusting in our institutions and is more likely to see many things we do together as obsolete. The only way I think we can overcome this is by engaging with and involving the next generation. I hope to do that through special projects, appointments to committees, and personal interaction.

What do you see as South Carolina Baptists’ greatest opportunity in the next decade? Conversely, what is their greatest threat or challenge?

Church: The greatest opportunity is that South Carolina is experiencing significant population growth. From 2010 to 2020, South Carolina experienced a population growth rate of 10.7 percent, which made South Carolina the state with the second highest growth rate on the East Coast, just behind Florida. More people means more opportunity for greater kingdom impact.

But, of course, an increasing population growth means an accelerated rate of change in our culture. So, our greatest threat or challenge as South Carolina Baptists will be failing to properly strategize and mobilize to reach this increasing and shifting demographic. While our message does not change, we must be prepared to adjust methods in order to continue to advance the kingdom in South Carolina and beyond.

What influence on the South Carolina Baptists do you pray to personally have during your term as president?

Church: I hope that South Carolina Baptists’ confidence in our state convention will increase as a result of my service because I faithfully put Jesus first, remained true to God’s Word, and worked to keep our eye on the ball with regards to the Great Commission.