The baptism, the fire and a 150-year kingdom collaboration

Bob Putman

Former director of Communications for Converge

Point Magazine // September 2022

On August 13, 1852, Swedish immigrant and pastor Gustaf Palmquist baptized three adults in the Mississippi River at Rock Island, Illinois. Converge cites this as the origin of the Swedish Baptist General Conference (later renamed the Baptist General Conference and now Converge). A heartfelt passion for Christ, incessant evangelism and a burning hunger for God’s Word grew this number to 1500 converts in seven states in 1871. Today more than 300,000 people meet in 1700 churches across the U.S., plus thousands more in Converge international ministry in 29 nations.

From the 1870s through the early 20th century, Swedish “Bible readers” fled to America in waves, escaping persecution and the cold formalism of the state church in their homeland’s state church. Their core beliefs were the commitment of heart, will and intellect to God; the Bible as their sole authority; changed lives; doctrinal truth; and insistence on born-again, educated clergy.

The fledgling conference’s rapid growth created a problem. Who would train pastors for all the churches?

John Alexis Edgren, a Swedish sailor, missionary and scholar, arrived in Chicago in 1870 to pastor First Swedish Baptist Church. A year later, he opened Swedish Baptist Theological Seminary (now Bethel University and Seminary in Arden Hills, Minnesota) with one student, immigrant Christopher Silene. The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 set back the church and seminary, but Edgren and Silene soon reconnected. Ten years later, Edgren reported his students had won 2000 souls to the Lord, started at least 55 churches and constructed buildings for 27 of these.

Thus began the 150-year partnership Converge and Bethel University celebrate this year. Theirs is a collaboration of mutual accountability, shared beliefs and tremendous benefits to each ministry.


United yet distinct

Both Converge and Bethel are individually accountable to Converge churches. The president of each organization is required to serve on the other’s executive board. The majority of Bethel’s board must consist of Converge church members, and all full-time Bethel Seminary faculty must attend Converge churches.

Ross Allen, the first Bethel graduate to be appointed university president in Bethel’s 150-year history, was appointed in 2020 and serves on Converge’s board of overseers. New Converge president John K. Jenkins, Sr. serves on Bethel’s board of trustees. And three of the 10 Converge regional presidents are Bethel graduates (with another working to complete his D.Min. degree). Two of these serve on Bethel’s board.

“The connection between Bethel University and Converge provides a pipeline of leaders for Converge,” said Converge pastor Paul Johnson, former co-director of TeAMerica, a multi-decade church planting team.

Bethel and Converge are called to different tasks. Bethel’s mission is to prepare passionate world-changers who serve in strategic capacities to renew minds, live out biblical truth, transform culture and advance the gospel. Converge exists to start and strengthen churches and send workers into God’s mission field.

While these purposes require each organization to set independent goals and design appropriate ministries, great overlaps provide mutual benefits.

What unites Converge and Bethel beyond a common history and organization co-accountability? A shared Affirmation of Faith.

Former Bethel president Jay Barnes, who retired in 2020, said the two share many biblical convictions and enduring values. Both are Christ-centered, Bible-based, evangelical Baptistic, pietistic (heartfelt faith, holy living, irenic spirit), generous, concerned for lost people, focused on unreached people groups and a willingness to take the gospel where it’s not always welcome.

“Bethel has always been part of the glue that holds together our conference, churches and ministries,” said former Converge president Jerry Sheveland. “Bethel has trained so many of our pastors, church planters and missionaries. It’s difficult to imagine what Converge would be without Bethel’s educational arm.”

Benefits for Bethel

How does partnership with Converge benefit Bethel University? Converge provides a theological anchor point for Bethel’s theology and a “home,” so that the university is clearly seen as a school under the Converge legal umbrella. Barnes says this “legal weight” enables Bethel to address cultural issues of the day from a position of religious freedom.

Pre-Covid, Bethel choirs and the Bethel Connection (former drama team) toured the country, showing students “we come from your family of churches” and telling churches, “you have a college.”

For 25 years, Paul Johnson taught church planting, evangelism and discipleship classes at Bethel Seminary. Paul and brother Steve earned degrees from Bethel Seminary and through TeAMerica went on to see tremendous fruitfulness and continual church planting growth from the early 1980s into the 2000s. The Home Missions/TeAMerica goal to plant 52 churches in 1992 resulted in 60 that year. Converge deployed 300 church planters from 2000 to 2005.

“Steve and I had natural abilities and spiritual gifts to start churches,” said Paul. “Bethel equipped us with biblical wisdom and insight that allowed us to launch TeAMerica.”

Pastor Joel Johnson taught evangelism, discipleship and leadership at the seminary. With 1981 graduate Dan Dye, he helped launch the Bethel Graduate School MBA program.

Connection to Converge national and regional events increases Bethel’s reach beyond north-central USA. Events across Converge’s U.S. regions provide Bethel a platform to tell Bethel’s story and show participants that there’s a Christ-centered school beyond their region, which shares an intricate history with Converge.

Recent Converge president Scott Ridout observed that “innovation is necessary in ministry.” Converge offers Bethel students residency programs and church planting opportunities in international settings.

Likewise, Bethel Seminary graduates can find placement in Converge churches through Bethel’s cooperative pastoral search cooperation with the Converge regional offices.

Historically, Converge’s financial team has settled trusts from donors that directed funds to support Bethel. Likewise, Bethel has done the same for their donors who wish to designate to Converge. Bethel also benefited from a timely gift designated at the conclusion of Converge’s Xtreme Steps campaign.

Benefits to Converge

According to Ridout, “Some of the best missionaries come from Bethel.” Twenty of today’s 180+ Converge missionaries are BU graduates. Bethel has hosts important retreats for missionaries returning on home assignment and trains hundreds of pastors, Converge church board chairmen and church members.

Historically, Converge pastors and leaders have benefited from pastors’ conferences, the Youth Pastors Forum, CE Focus and numerous other events hosted by Bethel. In addition, every six years, BU hosts the Converge/Bethel biennial conference.

Former Converge president Bob Ricker earned three Bethel degrees and knew every Bethel president except the first. He became close friends with the late George Brushaber, Bethel’s president from 1982 to 2008, during the 15 years their terms overlapped.

“George and I became very good friends,” Ricker said, “and that helps both Bethel and the Converge movement.”

For Ricker and hundreds of Converge pastors and leaders, the combined conference is “a family reunion.”

Converge regional offices rely on Bethel to provide training, encouragement and ministry information. Converge Rocky Mountain plans to employ Bethel’s online training to prepare bi-vocational pastors to serve in small, rural settings.

Bethel’s seminary dean Peter Vogt and Converge Rocky Mountain’s board chair met this past August to develop the program. David Clark from the seminary led a Bible-based Zoom training on gender dysphoria and transgenderism. Laurel Bunker, Bethel’s former campus pastor, gave a seminar on reaching Gen Z at CRM’s annual meeting.

“Bethel can help us understand the next generation and how we capture those people for full-time ministry and church leadership,” said Paul Mitton, Converge Rocky Mountain regional president.

In past years, Bethel hosted MegaRallies for Converge junior high and high school students. Well-known Christian speakers and Christian musicians performed in Bethel’s Great Hall. It helped up to 2000 students from smaller churches see their youth group “isn’t some little group on the edge of the world, but they’re integrated with Christian students in a variety of locations,” explained Ralph Gustafson, former Converge youth pastor and Bethel’s former executive minister of church relations.

Because Bethel instructors are immersed in training the next generation, Converge pursues input from Bethel professors to learn how 18- to 25-year-olds think on issues such as politics, sexual orientation, diversity and economic justice. Doing so helps Converge leaders create innovative methods to engage millennials, Gen Z and the rising Generation Alpha.

Better together

“Bethel has always been a major part of the glue that holds together our movement, churches and ministries,” said Sheveland. “It’s difficult to picture what Converge would be without Bethel’s educational arm.”

Mitton agrees.

“If both entities cooperate and seek to bless each other and the overall Converge movement, Converge churches can provide an amazing student pool for Bethel, and Bethel can provide excellent, like-minded pastors and leaders for Converge churches,” he said.

Gustafson offers a telling perspective.

“From the beginning, neither would have survived nor thrived if the partnership hadn’t come about,” he said. “I don’t see how Bethel would have continued if there hadn’t been a strong belief in the need for pastors who were fully educated in the Word of God and able to lead churches well. We wouldn’t be where we are without the two having served each other well in alignment with the mission of Christ.”

All to the glory of Christ.

Bob Putman, Former director of Communications for Converge

Bob Putman is a former director of Communications and Point editor for Converge.

Additional articles by Bob Putman