The Rev. Billy Russell has been pitching the merits of Minneapolis to fellow National Baptist Convention members across the nation for two years, and this week about 15,000 faithful are taking him up on his offer to visit the Twin Cities for the denomination’s annual gathering.

It’s an unconventional location for the group. The National Baptist Convention USA is the nation’s largest, predominantly African-American religious denomination. The vast majority of its 7.5 million members are from the South, where the historic denomination was started more than a century ago.

For its Minnesota leaders, hosting the event is a way to deepen connections and share ideas with their national colleagues, as well as to showcase a state that isn’t well-known by members of the faith.

“I’ve been traveling around the country to promote this, and the rumors I had to dispel!” quipped Russell, president of the Minnesota State Baptist Convention — the word “convention” meaning their denomination.

“People ask, ‘Should I bring a coat? Are there many black people there?’ ” he said. “I thought this would be a great experience for Minneapolis to have that many African-Americans coming to the city and making a difference. And it would be good for the church.”

It’s just the second time that the National Baptist Convention, started in 1880, has held its annual convention in Minnesota. With 30 churches serving about 10,000 members, and a relatively small black population in general, Minnesota has among the fewest adherents to the faith.

“We are delighted to be coming to Minneapolis,” said the Rev. Jerry Young, president of the National Baptist Convention, crediting Russell with persuading them to visit. “Our main thrust while in the city is to help equip our churches to become much more effective in light of today’s culture, to extend the life of Christ, and to express His love.”

Music and ministry

The annual event is a mix of education, entertainment, preaching, planning and community service. Held at the Minneapolis Convention Center, all events are open to the public. However, special activities require fees.

The convention runs Monday through Friday.

Highlights include a Sound of Gospel concert at the convention center Monday and a fundraising banquet for college scholarships Tuesday featuring Young and Derrick Johnson, president of the NAACP.

Local service activities started with a free meal for 500 people Friday with food trucks around New Salem Missionary Baptist Church in Minneapolis, said Rev. Jerry McAfee of New Salem. On Labor Day, a “fashion share” women’s clothing drive will be held at Greater Friendship Missionary Baptist Church in Minneapolis.

People will also be “just walking around” in certain neighborhoods of St. Paul and Minneapolis, not to proselytize, but to meet and hear from folks on the street, said the Rev. Ian Bethel of New Beginnings Baptist Tabernacle Church of Minneapolis.

The main order of business is for the various Baptist departments, such as women’s, youth and lay people, to plan for the following year. But this is a group of night owls. There’s nightly preaching, starting at 10 p.m. until about midnight.

Also on the agenda will be social issues facing the nation, including immigration, affordable housing, youth issues, crime and justice. This is important work for the denomination, Bethel said.

“There’s a strong emphasis on volunteering, running for political office, supporting black colleges,” he said.

Baptist challenges

Like most religious groups, the National Baptist Convention grapples with maintaining members and growing the denomination. This will be on the minds of many pastors as they meet.

Russell, for example, said he regularly consults with a small group of young advisers about keeping his church — Greater Friendship Missionary Baptist Church — relevant. One of their first pieces of advice: shorten the service. So his normal two-hour service is down to 1½ hours.

“I learned we need to be more time-conscious,” Russell said.

Music has changed, too, to a mix of traditional gospel hymns and more contemporary music. Russell said he also now has just one service instead of two.

“All the churches are trying new things, keeping things moving,” he said.

Sharing ideas with other like-minded church leaders is one of the great benefits of the event, said area pastors, who are eager to learn what’s happening with preaching styles, outreach and justice work in other parts of the country.

“Nobody knows what another pastor goes through except another pastor,” said McAfee. “What’s happening in one community is a lot like what’s happening in another. We can talk about different strategies.”

As preparations wind down and events get started, local church leaders are eager for their colleagues to be in town.

“We’ve been looking forward to this for almost two years,” Russell said. “Just think of all the preachers coming to town. I don’t see this as just a business convention. I see it as a revival.”