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Alaska church grasps its mission

FAIRBANKS, Alaska (BP)–“Prayer is not a fire-and-forget weapon, and neither is our work with missions or the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering,” said Mark Howdeshell, pastor of First Baptist Church in Fairbanks, Alaska.

Howdeshell knows about weapons. He spent 21 years in the Army, retiring in 2006 as a Chief Warrant Officer 3 at Fort Wainwright Army Base in Fairbanks.

“You’ve got to be prepared,” Howdeshell said. “God blesses our praying and our giving but often expects much more. The job is not done once we’ve said ‘Amen’ or have written the check. It’s often just begun.

“In aviation, there is always one rule that can never be broken,” said the man who, before he became a pastor, flew on Army helicopter missions in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Korea, Germany, Belgium, Alaska and the Lower 48.

“Take-offs are optional; landings are mandatory. We have chosen Jesus as our Lord. That’s the take-off. ‘Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit’ — Matthew 28:19 — that’s mandatory.”

First Baptist Fairbanks has more than tripled since Howdeshell was called as pastor in July 2007, from fewer than a dozen to more than 30, and 16 people have been baptized.

“I attribute the growth to the Lord blessing faithful prayer and the hard work of the [First Baptist] family,” Howdeshell said.

The roots of First Baptist Fairbanks can be traced back to Southern Baptists’ Cooperative Program and Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for North American Missions, which helped launch a mission in 1944 that eventually became the first Southern Baptist church in Fairbanks, and one of the first in Alaska’s vast mission field.

“We pray for the lost every Sunday as part of our service,” Howdeshell said. “Christ tells us to be burdened for the lost, both as individuals and as a church family. During part of that prayer time, I give the congregation an opportunity to lift up the first names of those they are praying for, and tell them I prayed for my father for 15 years before he was saved. We need to continually lift up our brothers and sisters in prayer and be ready if we are given the opportunity to plant the seeds.”

In 2010, the church gave an average of $55.12 per person to the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering, which the pastor attributes to “our being founded by missions, and the fact that we have a very strong, mature and generous church family.”

The Annie Armstrong Easter Offering helps pay the salaries and ministry support of more than 5,000 missionaries serving in North America under the SBC’s North American Mission Board.

“I emphasize from the pulpit how God has different callings for all of us. He calls some to be missionaries in Africa, the Philippines or San Antonio,” Howdeshell said.

“His calling for us is here in Fairbanks, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be involved in missions in all these other areas,” Howdeshell said. “By us giving, it puts into motion God’s plan to enable the missionaries to do what He has called them to do. The Annie Armstrong Offering provides the resources necessary to accomplish the mission all over North America.”

Fairbanks is about 360 miles north of Anchorage, separated much of the year by a vast amount of snow and linked by the Al-Can Highway, which ends its northward route in Fairbanks.

“Only about 3 percent of the people in Fairbanks are saved, so our mission field is right out our door,” Howdeshell said. “If each church focuses on the mission field their church has been placed in, and we each make a difference in our own backyard, God can work miracles in our nation and our land.”

The Annie Armstrong Offering connects nearly 43,000 Southern Baptist churches across North America, the pastor said. At the same time that it helps start and strengthen new churches, it provides an opportunity for churches to work together, doing more than any could individually.

“Just as beans and bullets together enable a unit to go into battle, the [Annie Armstrong Offering] enables every church, big or small, to play a role in the accomplishment of the greatest mission ever given,” Howdeshell said. “In combat, strength is often measured in numbers, but in reality, soldiers’ strength lies within their hearts. Our commitment to missions and the [Annie Armstrong Offering] shows the heart of our family at First Baptist.”

In addition to the strength of its giving to the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering and to Southern Baptists’ other seasonal offerings, First Baptist Fairbanks allocates 10 percent of its budget to the Cooperative Program, 5 percent to Tanana Valley Baptist Association and $300 per month to help another church in the association.

“The money for Annie Armstrong and the other offerings is an enabler,” the pastor said. “It enables us to be a part of the ministry in each of the areas, and by us giving, it puts into motion God’s plan to enable the missionaries to do what He has called them to do.

“It helps that we don’t have any debt,” he said. “Not having debt allows us to turn our attention and focus fully on missions ministry.”

Locally, members do that by reaching out to their friends, neighbors and co-workers in a part of the United States that usually has snow on the ground from October to May, has sunshine nearly 24 hours a day in the summer and has darkness nearly 24 hours a day in the winter. Church fellowships take place weekly and youth events take teens to Anchorage or Delta Junction when they’re not in church members’ homes or out in the greater Fairbanks community.

Howdeshell works bivocationally in a civilian job at Fort Wainwright. This helps him establish relationships with base personnel, and several have come with their families to First Baptist. He and his wife Jo also focus on youth ministry.

Fairbanks now has seven Southern Baptist congregations and four missions, many of which were planted by First Baptist and each of which has a specific focus. As the downtown church, First Baptist gets most of the tourists. With the pastor’s military background and civilian on-base job, and all of their deacons being retired Air Force, one of the church’s main focuses is on military families.

“We simply can relate to the soldiers in a unique way,” the pastor said.

“God wants work to be done,” Howdeshell said. “I’m just privileged to have a purpose — the purpose of advancing His Kingdom, one person at a time.”
Karen L. Willoughby is managing editor of the Louisiana Baptist Message, Dakota Baptist Connections and The Montana Baptist.