By Erin Roach
BRENTWOOD, Tenn. — The Southern Baptist Conference of the Deaf celebrated its 70th annual meeting with nearly 200 people from 20 states at Brentwood Baptist Deaf Church in Tennessee. The theme was “Let go … Follow God” based on Jeremiah 29:11.
Speakers for the meeting July 8-12 on the campus of Brentwood Baptist Church in Brentwood, Tenn., were Kris Courson, Danny Bice, Steve Dye and Dirk Hill, and worship was led by Joseph Bulgherini.
Courson is a bivocational co-pastor at New Deaf Church in Hoover, Ala., and a former missionary in Texas, California and Russia. Bice, who has served in Deaf ministry for more than 40 years, is pastor of Deaf Church Oklahoma in Oklahoma City.
Dye is a Deaf ministry catalyst for the Alabama State Board of Missions and is the director of a national men’s conference. Hill is the bivocational pastor of New Beginnings Deaf Fellowship in Tyler, Texas, and president of the SBCD. Bulgherini is the bivocational pastor of First Baptist Deaf Church in Beaumont, Texas.
Nightly programs were presented by the SBCD’s North American Missions Committee, International Missions Committee, Fellowship of Missionaries and Pastors to the Deaf. The final program was led by the Junior Southern Baptist Conference of the Deaf, and the meeting concluded with a 70th anniversary banquet.
According to an SBCD directory of churches, there are about 40 Southern Baptist Deaf churches, about 20 Deaf missions, about 40 churches with Deaf ministries and about 20 churches with interpretive ministries registered with the group.
Hill told Baptist Press the number of churches ministering sufficiently to Deaf people has decreased in the past 20 years. In the late ’90s when the group gathered in Memphis, Hill recalls about 60 Deaf pastors in attendance. Now there are maybe 30 full-time Southern Baptist Deaf pastors in the entire United States, he said.
Workshops during the SBCD addressed LifeWay Christian Resources Bible study materials and Deaf partnerships with the North American Mission Board and International Mission Board, among other topics. About 10 teenagers were part of Junior Southern Baptist Conference of the Deaf, a youth program, Hill said.
IMB reports that 35 million people in 189 people groups worldwide use sign language as their first language. More than 200 sign languages exist, but they are connected through sign roots, IMB says.
Challenges facing Deaf ministry
Hill told BP through an interpreter that one of the main challenges Deaf pastors face is that people who are Deaf and hard of hearing can be difficult to spot in a crowd.
“In the hearing world, you notice if someone is white, if someone is Hispanic, if someone is black. You notice the color of their skin immediately,” Hill said. “But when someone is deaf, they go unnoticed unless you see their hands using sign language.”
That makes it difficult for Deaf pastors to “look for more Deaf people, not just the same old group of Deaf people that we know,” Hill said.
Another challenge is a lack of funding for full-time Deaf pastors, he said. Since a Deaf congregation may only have 20 or 30 people, it’s impossible to independently fund a pastor who can fully devote his time to the church.
“Please have all the hearing churches contact Deaf churches in their area and ask how they can help,” Hill said. “Please do not be afraid to come to our churches. Please go visit because we need all of your help.”
The SBCD directory of churches is online at sbcdeaf.blogspot.com, with pins marking locations for Deaf churches and missions. Southern Baptist churches with Deaf ministries not included in the directory are encouraged to add their names to the list.
Hill suggested that five or so hearing churches could combine their resources to pay for one Deaf church pastor, and hearing churches can allow Deaf churches to meet in their buildings free of charge.
“We the Deaf people are God’s chosen people too, same as you,” Hill said.
The Deaf Theological Center in Brentwood, Tenn., has been training Deaf for missions and ministry since its launch in 2014 by providing theological education and church planting training that is contextualized for Deaf culture. Attendance at the center fulfills the theological education requirements for Deaf missionaries with IMB, Deaf church planters with NAMB and others.
Since its beginning, 37 students have been trained at the center, including 17 serving with IMB and nine who are pastors or church planters, Aric Randolph, pastor of Brentwood Baptist Deaf Church and director of the Deaf Theological Center, told Baptist Press.
Classes, which run from January to May, are offered in hermeneutics, Old Testament, New Testament, doctrines and missiology. Randolph said the center is recruiting students for the 2019 academic year. More information is available at DeafGoNow.com.
Next year’s annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Conference of the Deaf is scheduled for July 15-19 in Ridgecrest, N.C.
For more information, visit sbcdeaf.org.