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200 get hands-on involvement via church’s missions center


BRANDON, Fla. (BP)–A Southern Baptist missionary in Southeast Asia asks for volunteers to dig wells and instantaneously 600 churches are mobilized to meet the request.

That’s just one of the things the Global Missions Center of Bell Shoals Baptist Church in Brandon, Fla., does to support Southern Baptist missionaries around the world.

The Bell Shoals missions center, started in August 1998, is the first of its kind among Southern Baptist churches. More than 200 volunteer and paid staffers work in its various ministries. Two other missions centers have become operational this year, in Hampton, Va., and Louisville, Ky. The International Mission Board hopes to have 20 such centers throughout the United States to give firsthand, front-line support to missionaries.

Three years ago, IMB President Jerry Rankin and Al Gilbert, the IMB’s special assistant for mobilization, put together an idea to make missions more visible and do-able for the local church.

For 150 years “we’ve depended on the IMB in Richmond, Va., to be doing missions for the local church,” said Jim Kirk, missions pastor at Bell Shoals the past two years. “The IMB has been a sending unit, if you will, and probably one of the best in the world. We have 5,000 missionaries on the field today.”

The problem, Kirk said, “is that the system has made missions less personal to the average Southern Baptist. We have continued to send our missionaries, and we have just simply lost contact with them — out of sight, out of mind. … We didn’t know what was going on with our field missionary personnel although we continued to finance them.

“So the idea was to bring missions back locally to the church where people would know who our missionaries are, where they are serving, what kind of conditions they are working under and what kind of people groups they’re working with.”

The first phase was to develop an information-based center where the local congregation could learn about missions — a sort of Barnes & Noble of missions stocked with up-to-date materials: audio and video tapes, computers and monitors equipped for the Internet with e-mail capability to missionaries, murals of the continents, artifacts from all over the world and books about missions — many not available in bookstores. Also on hand: materials about church planting movements, steps in sending a missionary to the field, information on unreached people groups, research magazines, pictures and other aids.

“We made it a comfortable place so people in our local church can come in from day to day and find out about anything that’s going on around the world — Judea, Samaria and the uttermost parts — who Southern Baptists’ missionary personnel are, where they are serving and what they are doing,” Kirk said.

The center also does information workshops for Bell Shoals’ academy, RAs and GAs groups for boys and girls, and people who come into the center “to plug in and find out what’s going on.”

Kirk estimates that the church has approximately 50 missionaries who are well-known to the congregation and in contact on a weekly basis.

“After we were able to educate our church — if you will, to ‘mobilize’ our church to be on missions — -then we started doing projects for the field,” Kirk recounted. “People like to do things with their hands. So we began to do projects stateside that would help our personnel overseas.”

Previously most of those projects had been done from IMB headquarters in Richmond, Va.,” Kirk explained.

The Bell Shoals congregation does newsletters for missionaries, volunteers type booklets for them, the church sends materials, and members and students do research for them stateside in conjunction with SBC seminaries. The church also has:

— Researched information for well-digging projects in Africa.

— Researched shrimp farming for a missionary in Thailand who wanted to teach the people he works with how to raise shrimp.

— Raised money to buy 20,000 pairs of eyeglasses for needy people in Benin, West Africa.

— Began a project to send sandals to people in Uganda who are getting dangerous parasites from going barefoot on contaminated ground.

— Encrypted messages for missionaries who need secure e-mails.

Linked by computer and e-mail to missionaries and to more than 600 churches across the nation, the center can quickly match requests from missionaries with volunteers.

The Bell Shoals center also:

— Partners with inner-city churches for revitalization and evangelism.

— Maintains a medical supply warehouse on Bell Shoals Church property, sending overstocked medical supplies from Tampa General Hospital to places of need all over the world.

— Has an outreach to internationals, which includes approximately 500,000 students who come to the United States to study.

— Has a prison fellowship.

And when missionaries share prayer needs, “we’ve got a prayer network here with over 500 intercessory prayer warriors,” Kirk said.

Missions is contagious, he affirmed, but it’s a process to get people fired up. “I can say for a fact, two years ago we were sleeping. Today we have awakened, and we are moving and growing. And God is leading us every day to discover that place, in different areas of the world, where he wants us to be plugged into.”
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  • Michael Chute