Bro. Kevin Bethea
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After his baptism, the Baltimore native placed membership with what is the now the Deer Park Church of Christ in Randallstown, Md., and later served as assistant minister.
In December 1995, Bethea and a group of about 35 original members planted the East Baltimore Church of Christ. The congregation met at a hotel and in converted storefronts before buying a former Masons building. In 10 years, it has grown to 325 members.
The East Baltimore church has helped plant two other churches, including the recent launching of the Southside Church of Christ, a project of the Sunset International Bible Institute’s Focus Northeast. Richard Brent, a graduate of Sunset in Lubbock, Texas, is the Southside minister.
Bethea hosts a radio call-in program, Search the Scriptures, and serves as certified satellite school administrator for the East Baltimore Bible Institute, a Sunset external studies program.
He and his wife, Brenda, have four children: Erica, 22; Eric, 20; Eian, 15; and Erin, 4.
You mentioned that you debated and searched the Scriptures for about five years before converting. What finally swayed you?
I’ll tell you what did it. I was impressed with the Church of Christ knowledge of the Bible and their attempts to stick as close to it as possible. Because in the Pentecostal movement, you had to have a creed. You could discover some Bible truth, but if that Bible truth is contrary to what Pentecostals believe, you just don’t do it.
So, I enjoyed the freedom. I thought, “Wow, these guys are reading the Bible and they’re quoting Scriptures.”
What happened when you turned in your Church of God licenses and credentials to the bishop?
I told him I was leaving. He said, “You don’t want to go over there to those people.” I said, “Why?” He said, “You don’t know about those Church of Christ people. They fight about everything. They’ll fight about the color of the drapes.” ... I couldn’t believe it, but then I got over here. (Laughter.)
I understand that you have not had to deal with a lot of that kind of divisiveness here at East Baltimore.
This is, I would call it, a very passionate church. We won’t be hanging from the chandeliers and shouting and stuff like that. But we sing with passion and zeal. And we really enjoy coming together in the fellowship of worship.
We really enjoy that, and all that nonsense we’ve been trying to keep out. And it’s worked quite well. We’ve grown. Because I come from the Church of God/Pentecostal roots, I’m able to convert a lot of them.
The members are evangelistic. Our theme is “Saving Souls and Keeping Souls Saved.” We preach evangelism, so we want to double every year -— everybody bring somebody so that they may be taught and obey the gospel.
You keep a running list on your wall of people converted each year. How many converts are you able to keep active in the church?
Our retention is probably about 75 percent, so three out of four stay. Our new converts’ class is basically a must to train them because a lot of times people leave because they come in and they really don’t build relationships and they’re not trained.
So, the first six months when you come into the congregation, we’re not hitting you hard with doctrine. We’re hitting you hard with relationships — just loving you to death.
If we can build that relationship first, then we’re going to have that opportunity to pour the gospel of Christ into you.
We’re going to give you enough to obey the gospel — hear, believe, repent, confess, be baptized, be faithful — but then we’re going to start with relationships the first six months.
How do you approach ministry?
To me, ministry is about keeping people passionate. ... We don’t come to preach to each other. We want to come and make a difference. We are a life-changing institution. And that’s how we want everyone to see it. We want to bring our friends, our family, our neighbors, everyone.
We do a lot of life applications sermons, too. A lot of churches you go to, they’re preaching, “We’re the one church. ... We are the one institution. We don’t believe in Reverends.” We do a little of that, but mostly we do life applications ... about the children in school, about husbands, especially about marriages. Marriage is a struggle.
In a recent sermon, you described how you bought your wife a present every day for a week for her birthday. How did that go over?
A lot of the guys were like, “You’re starting something, brother.” So, we teach them about marriages. We’re really family-oriented.
But I know you have a concern that congregations can become too family-oriented.
What you don’t want is a church to become so family-oriented that they don’t want anyone else in.
That can happen very easily. It’s like, “We’re happy with 300. It’s just enough to know everybody.” But that’s not the will of God.
The will of God is for us to teach this gospel to the world.
In planting new congregations, is there ever a fear that you lose some of your core group that you really need?
Yes. What you have to do, though, is kind of make a pact with the evangelist you’re planting that you will assign people that you can free up to work over there. That way, they will not campaign for people in the congregation. If you do that, and you’ve got a good man, good integrity, it will work fine.
One thing that God has blessed me with is a spirit of security. I’m not insecure. Yeah, the devil puts that on me sometimes. But you’ve got to keep thinking about the Lord and be secure in who you are as a leader. Therefore, if half the congregation goes to plant a new church, I’ll go baptize another half and we’ll keep rolling.
You mentioned that you’re “results-oriented” when it comes to church plants. What do you mean by that?
When I hear people talking about plants, it’s not the plantings I’m thinking about.
I’m thinking about planting a functional, effective ministry or congregation, not just to be able to say, “Look, I planted a congregation. There’s 10 of us.” You know, if you’ve been out there two years, it should be like 80 now.
Is it an advantage or disadvantage in your ministry that churches of Christ are not well-known in the Northeast?
Down in Tennessee, Texas, Alabama, places like that, I believe that churches have pushed the “I’m right, you’re wrong” for so long, they are not in a position to grow and plant like we are.
Here, we are basically unknown. I was well into my adulthood before I heard about the Church of Christ. I said, “What’s that?” All my relatives had never heard of the Church of Christ. The Church of Christ was just another church ... just another nice, friendly group.
So it’s not combative, and that’s what we teach our membership: Don’t be combative. When you go out there, rather than saying, “You’re wrong,” just tell them what’s right. Let them know that our plea is unity; our plea is not anti-unity. Our plea is that everyone would turn back to the Bible.
If you start there and stay there, people will be more open to hear the word of God.
Do you have any trouble finding people willing to listen to the gospel?
I hear people say, “No one wants to be saved anymore.” What do you mean? I’m sure you’ve got cousins and aunts and nephews and sisters who’ve never heard the gospel. Maybe you’re not the one to tell them. Maybe you need to bring in somebody strange to tell them.
So, that’s how we do it. That’s how we get the contacts. Contacts are not the issue. I think the issue is keeping the church evangelistic.
From the January 2006 Print Edition.
Dialogue: A conversation with Kevin Bethea
BALTIMORE - In the late 1980s, second-generation Pentecostal preacher Kevin Bethea engaged in a series of radio debates with Church of Christ ministers.
As Bethea recalls, “I lost, but I won Christ.”