OH-MI_INTOLEDO, Ohio—Emmanuel Baptist sits a mile from the Michigan border, a natural conference location for Ohio and Michigan churches. But it’s also football season, and the famous rivalry is hard to ignore.

The Ohio Association of Regular Baptist Churches is meeting with the Michigan Association of Regular Baptist Churches for two days of preaching, ministry discussion, and fellowship. Both groups are accustomed to fall meetings—but had never met together, despite their proximity. So Ken Floyd, the MARBC’s executive director, had approached Dave Warren, the OARBC’s state representative, with a novel proposal: What if we held a joint conference? They enlisted the help of host pastor Duke Crawford, then spent two and a half years planning. There were plenty of logistical problems to solve (“We’ve been calling this the OH-MI conference,” Ken Floyd cracks, pronouncing it “oh my!”).

Arriving guests notice that Warren is wearing a scarlet shirt with gray pants. No coincidence, but ironic: Warren was born in Michigan but now ministers in Ohio. Meanwhile, Ken Floyd hands out buckeyes (either a beloved state symbol or a useless nut, depending on one’s loyalties). Ken uses the buckeyes as prayer reminders—he was born in Ohio but now ministers in Michigan.

“My desire is to have us rejoice over the heritage God has given us, rejoice in who we are now, and learn how God wants us to be engaged in future ministry,” Ken Floyd says of the conference.

The theme, “Standing Together for the Gospel,” is more than a trendy buzz word. Each sermon has been planned to address the practical aspects of  gospel-centered church ministry. Speakers include Steve Viars (Faith Church, Lafayette, Ind.), Greg Gilbert (Third Baptist, Louisville), and Dannah Gresh.

Keeping with the football subtext, Greg Gilbert reminds guests of an old Vince Lombardi story, where the coach delivers his famed “Gentlemen, this is a football!” speech to a floundering team.

“I think we ought to do that in our churches,” Gilbert says. “Gentlemen, this is the gospel. This is what we center our lives around.” Then Gilbert adds a quick definition: “The gospel is the good news about what God has done, is doing, and will do through Jesus Christ.”

During the evening sermon, Steve Viars expressed appreciation for the current gospel emphasis, but also raised a practical question: “Shouldn’t it lead to a more passionate proclamation of the gospel to those who have not yet heard?”

Viars questioned whether this is happening in every church. He wonders if “gospel centered” has been distracted by “your lattes and your scones and your skinny jeans and your witty tweets.” But he also offers a solution: misdirected priorities can be fixed by “sloshing waters in the baptistery.” His Indiana church will baptize 100 this year and add 200 new members.

For Viars, a gospel-centered church is one that is committed to community outreach. “Biblical Christianity is a public enterprise,” he says, critiquing churches that have become too insular. Later he challenges his conference guests to prepare for inevitable challenges. “I have zero interest in pastoring a country club church. I want to pastor the ‘we made a mess’ church. I want to pastor the ‘trophies of grace’ church!”

The conference continues through Wednesday.

Kevin Mungons is managing editor of the Baptist Bulletin. Darrell Goemaat is director of photography.