Wheaton College Billy Graham Center Receives $1 Million Grant from Lilly Endowment Inc.

January 21, 2021

The Wheaton College Billy Graham Center received a $1 million grant from Lilly Endowment Inc. to launch the African American Church Evangelism Institute in partnership with prominent African American pastors.

Billy Graham Hall at dusk 380x253Lilly Endowment Inc. has awarded a $1 million grant to Wheaton College (Ill.) to establish a new African American Church Evangelism Institute as a program of the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center.

The program is funded through Lilly Endowment’s Thriving Congregations Initiative. The aim of the national initiative is to strengthen Christian congregations so they can help people deepen their relationships with God, build strong relationships with each other, and contribute to the flourishing of local communities and the world.

Lilly Endowment is making nearly $93 million in grants through the initiative. The grants will support organizations as they work directly with congregations and help them gain clarity about their values and missions, explore and understand better the communities in which they serve, and draw upon their theological traditions as they adapt ministries to meet changing needs.

Through this grant, the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center in partnership with influential African American pastors will help catalyze a movement of evangelism and mission in local communities through local African American churches across the country.

Pastor John K. Jenkins, Sr., chair of the Oversight Team for this effort and Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church of Glenarden said, “I am excited about this opportunity to help African American churches across the country to become more evangelistic, have greater impact in their communities, and develop leaders who are more effective in their congregations and communities.”

These influential African American pastors created a vision to facilitate cohorts that will serve 150 African American churches over the next five years and beyond. The new institute will focus on challenges facing African American congregations such as effectively reaching the next generation, fruitfully navigating shifting contexts and demographic changes occurring around their churches, developing team ministry approaches and leadership pipelines in congregations to launch new ministries, and creating new evangelism models that work effectively in a new era.

Rev. Dr. Michael Henderson Sr., vice chair of the Oversight Team launching the Institute and Senior Pastor of New Beginnings Church in Matthews, N.C. sees the potential of this new Institute. “African American churches nationally are facing new challenges. We need culturally adapted methods and approaches for community engagement and evangelism and strengthened strategies and structures for leadership development. I could not be more enthusiastic about the partnership with Wheaton College to work toward these goals.”

Through a two-year cohort journey, pastors will learn how to revitalize congregations by helping them to become “conversion communities,” where unchurched and de-churched people come to faith and their congregations become welcoming places for emerging and young adults. “My cohort experience changed my pastoral leadership and helped my church see more people come to Christ and become disciples,” said Rev. Keith Gordon. Keith is a church planter and early African American cohort participant who now serves on staff at the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center as Associate Director of Urban Ministries to coach other pastors and leaders. “I think this Institute could ultimately help thousands of other African American churches like my own.” 

The new cohorts will include each congregation’s Senior Pastor, an outreach leader, and a leadership development person from the church, with the goal that one of these will be a leader under 40 years of age.

The Institute will also launch a pilot project with church music ministers in the area of missional worship in collaboration with the Wheaton College Conservatory of Music. Dr. Donte Ford, Assistant Professor in the Conservatory and leader of the Wheaton College Chapel worship team said “African American worship shapes the kind of Christians people become and also serves as an important bridge into the community and to the unchurched. We want to explore and develop these dimensions of African American worship through our pilot project in the Institute.”

The Institute emerges out of an already-functioning partnership between African American pastors and the Wheaton College Church Evangelism Institute, funded by a previous grant from Lilly Endowment, Inc. Dr. Rick Richardson, professor of Evangelism and Leadership and Executive Director of the Church Evangelism and Research Institutes said, “We are building on already very strong relational and effective partnerships with key African American churches and leaders. We are currently taking 65 African American pastors through pilot cohorts, seeing God do amazing things in these churches and with these pastors.”

We will also cultivate synergy between this Institute and our graduate academic departments. Dr. Ed Stetzer, Director of the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center and Dean of the School for Mission, Ministry and Leadership sees many benefits for pastors to participate. “We are already working on ways to provide a path for many of these African American pastors to also be able to get their Master’s degree through this partnership,” Dr. Stetzer said.

Rev. James Meeks, Senior Pastor of Salem Baptist Church of Chicago and member of the Oversight Team has led a pilot pastor cohort with the Church Evangelism Institute and also participates in a Wheaton College academic cohort getting his Master’s in Ministry Leadership. He said, “The value of combining ministry help through the AACEI and academic opportunity through these envisioned academic cohorts could not come at a better time for our community and our pastors.”

Wheaton College President Philip Ryken cited another important dimension of the project: “Our hope is that through this collaborative approach between Wheaton College and African American senior pastors, we can model mutual learning and genuine partnership in ways that will inspire and start to heal some of the racial divisions that challenge our nation.” Toward that end, the new Institute’s leadership structure maximizes African American leadership, decision making, and ownership.

Pastor John K. Jenkins, Sr. said, “We will need an immense infusion of God’s grace, but I believe we have God’s favor and delight in partnering together to see the extending of God’s kingdom in and through African American congregations across our nation.”

Wheaton College is one of 92 organizations taking part in the Lilly initiative. The Lilly grants and partners represent and serve churches in a broad spectrum of Christian traditions, including Anabaptist, Baptist, Episcopal, Evangelical, Lutheran, Methodist, Mennonite, Pentecostal, Presbyterian, Reformed, Restoration, Roman Catholic and Orthodox, as well as congregations that describe themselves as nondenominational. Several organizations serve congregations in Black, Hispanic and Asian-American traditions.

Lilly Endowment launched the Thriving Congregations Initiative in 2019 as part of its commitment to support efforts that enhance the vitality of Christian congregations.