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Alaska church combines ‘special forces’ with CP

JUNEAU, Alaska (BP) — Elite special operations forces such as the Seals, Rangers and Delta Force keep America strong and safe with advanced military skills, knowledge of regional languages and understanding of the local cultures they infiltrate.

Little did Gordon Mills know when he was pursuing his doctor of ministry degree at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary that his “special forces” ministry project would fit so well at Glacier Valley Baptist Church in Juneau, Alaska, where God led him to pastor in 2011.

Juneau, known for incomparable scenery and often-inclement weather, is located in the Tongass National Rainforest on one of Alaska’s many coastal inlets southeast of the mainland.

As Mills developed the “special forces” concept, he didn’t originally see how seamlessly the concept worked with the Cooperative Program itself and with Southern Baptists’ “special forces” — missionaries serving across North America and throughout the world.

“The actual title was ‘Multiplying Messengers: Discovering and Equipping local missionaries for local missions,'” Mills said. “The premise is a mentality switch … to get people to see themselves as personally capable of doing God’s work where they live.”

Two “special forces” groups are currently active at Glacier Valley Baptist Church, Mills said, located in a state that is 90 percent unchurched.

“They all have to write their life story and share it, read four to six books [from Mills’ approved list] and do a bunch of activities to increase their awareness of the people around them, and what their needs are and opportunities to share their faith,” Mills said. “It’s heavily focused on relationship evangelism.”

The congregation of about 100 Sunday worshippers participates in several initiatives, including Juneau’s Love In the Name of Christ ministry (Love INC) to those living in poverty; Bible study at the local jail; the “Glory Hole” monthly homeless meal service; and English as a Second Language and related citizenship classes since 2011.

Glacier Valley Baptist Church has sponsored a preschool for about 100 students since 1974 and hosts a weekly Awana class of about 30 youngsters. The church ministers at the Pioneer Home retirement center and through the local Baptist Collegiate Ministries.

“Two people from our church are in Eastern Asia,” Mills said. “We have a couple ministering in Tenakee Springs, an isolated community accessible by ferry — they go once a month in winter and every other week in the summer for worship services — and we recently voted to provide support for a man starting a new work in Wasilla/Palmer.”

The church hosts two other congregations in its building, providing a home for the Korean Baptist Church and Emmanuel Baptist Church, which lost its worship center in November 2015 to arson a week after the pastor resigned to plant a church elsewhere in Alaska. Emmanuel’s reconstruction is in process.

Glacier Valley’s “special forces” work extends far beyond Juneau through generous Cooperative Program dollars from its undesignated offerings, Mills said of Southern Baptists’ funding channel for state conventions and for national and international missions and ministries.

“With the Cooperative Program, Southern Baptists have developed a very effective means and method to get people on the field and sustain them on the field so they can share the Gospel,” Mills said. “The Cooperative Program enables every Southern Baptist church to have a hand in reaching out across the world to fulfill the Great Commission.

“A church our size couldn’t begin to do this without the Cooperative Program’s special forces: missionaries trained with advanced skills, the local language and the culture, serving around the world, augmented by the mission teams that go out from local churches like ours,” Mills said. Glacier Valley volunteers recently returned, for example, from a mission trip to Phuket, Thailand.

More than 15 percent of the church’s undesignated income goes to missions, with 11.25 percent forwarded to the Cooperative Program and the Tongass Baptist Association.

Glacier Valley’s commitment to the Cooperative Program dates to its founding in 1963 with CP funding. The church routinely receives recognition for being among the top congregations in Alaska for its giving to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions and the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for North American Missions.

The fact that the church has grown, thrived and continues in missions and ministries is a sign of its core-deep health, and a sign that God has blessed its faithfulness in giving to missions, Mills said.

Numerous pastors who stayed for short stints and the steadily growing congregation kept the focus of giving on the Cooperative Program and seasonal missions. The pastoral turnover was compounded by the transitory nature of the community directly related to seasonal jobs in fishing, charter boats, whale watching and other tourism-related employment, plus the presence of a U.S. Coast Guard station and state government offices.

“The scenery around here is unbelievable,” Mills said, noting another blessing from God. “I can look out from the church and see five peaks and Mendenhall Glacier…. It’s a significant tourist destination. People come here from all over the world.”

Tourism thrives in spite of the city’s geographic isolation and high rainfall. Hemmed in by soaring mountains, the highway in the Juneau area is just 50 miles from end to end. Travel is by ferry, private boat or Alaska Airlines.

“Petersburg [First Baptist] Church is 120 miles south but to hook up with them would take two days,” Mills said. “Being able to hook up with other churches in the association is a major deal.

“A very low percentage of people in this part of the world are involved in church. More than 90 percent of Alaskans overall are unchurched,” Mills said. “There’s an awful lot of need for people to hear God’s truth.”

Understanding the isolation has made it easier for Glacier Valley Baptist Church to see the need to start churches, Mills said. Over the years they’ve started eight churches, but many have grown then struggled.

“It’s not something that comes easy, because of the isolation, lack of accessibility and very, very small communities,” Mills said. “But we’re committed to reaching people wherever they are with the Gospel message and meeting their needs.”