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Available and open, Arkansas church sees 76 baptisms since August

In recent months Central Baptist Church has seen an increase in participation and baptisms among college students, said Senior Pastor Archie Mason. Of the 76 who have been baptized since August, more than 30 are collegians. Photo courtesy of Central Baptist Church

JONESBORO, Ark. (BP) – If you ask Archie Mason, senior pastor of Central Baptist Church, how many cattle he manages alongside his son, Ty, he’ll tell you, “One too many.” However, for the last couple of months a mentality of “just one more” has taken root at the Arkansas church as 76 baptisms have been registered between its campuses in Jonesboro and Paragould.

When it comes to the kind of revival Central is experiencing, the harvest analogy in Matthew 9 may come to mind first. But Mason, with his background behind the pulpit as well as with his cows, also looks at it through the lens of Matthew 18.

A surge in baptisms at Central Baptist Church has coincided with renovations to its worship area, but is driven by the Holy Spirit and those being responsive, said Archie Mason, senior pastor. Photo courtesy of Central Baptist Church

“When you hear Jesus talk about shepherding, and leaving the 99 to go find the one, that all applies” he said. “There are so many people who are hurting and so many things are taking place out there.

“As for the harvest, we live in a row-crop area with a lot of farmers in our church – rice, cotton and soybeans and such. They put the work into it and have to trust the Lord for the rain and to provide. You learn to walk by faith and not by sight.”

Like many churches, Central relied on God during the pandemic last year for its people to stay connected as it went nine weeks without meeting. On Mother’s Day 2020 they regathered, but with only around 70 percent returning to in-person worship.

Central continued to meet with its customary three services each Sunday. Over time, leaders also developed a plan for several of its campuses to be self-sufficient and become their own congregations. That required investing millions of dollars into those churches, including equipment and technology upgrades that the pandemic proved invaluable.

In that process a realization dawned that Central needed to make similar investments in its own campus. So, the day after Easter this year, the church’s sanctuary was effectively closed down and worship gatherings moved to the gym.

Pews that had been in the sanctuary since well before Mason arrived in 2005 were removed for updated seating to accomodate 1,325 people. The platform was remodeled. Audio and lighting improvements came, as did fresh paint and new flooring. Touchless sinks and automatic toilets were added in the bathrooms.

“It was all paid for in cash,” Mason said. “God has been good to us and blessed us.”

The gym served well in the meantime, but the smaller confines kept some members and guests at home. When worship moved from the gym back into the sanctuary, people were ready to be back together, one group in particular, he added.

“More than 30 of our baptisms have been of college students. Arkansas State University is in Jonesboro, and we’re seeing a movement among them. We’ve been seeing it in years past, actually, but they’re packing out our third service now.”

Those students are also showing up and being baptized on Wednesday nights, when a gathering for them is held alongside other discipleship classes at Central. In addition to God moving, Mason credits the leadership of Jonathan Freeman, Central’s college pastor and a former ASU student.

“He’s from this area and his dad serves at the Paragould campus. Jonathan was here under the ministry of Blake Ligon, who is now the teaching pastor for the Paragould campus,” Mason said.

College students were – and still are – hungry for community, he said. Throughout the pandemic students kept meeting together. Central continued to build those connection points through efforts such as helping on move-in day and, with the renovations complete, are seeing results. The harvest has built upon itself as those witnessing the baptisms have also looked at their personal relationship with God.

“We hear many say they realize they haven’t been born again,” Mason said. “We always give an invitation. And many go home and think about what they heard.” Church members have been trained to use the 3 Circles evangelism technique in those conversations, he added.

Central’s ministry has extended into mental health as well. A year ago, some farmers at the church asked Mason if he was aware of the number of suicides among their peers. The conversation led to forming the podcast That Farm Life, led by Mason and available on numerous podcasting platforms.

“We want farmers to know that it’s OK to not be OK. We just don’t want you to stay that way,” said Mason.

Locally, “grower meetings” are held in person. They include cooking steaks and talking shop about farming, but also about marriage, parenthood, stress and, of course, how the Gospel addresses them all.

To be an effective shepherd, one must be willing to deal with those who are hurting. That hurt can come from the stress of farming or dealing with isolation originating from a variety of directions, not just a pandemic.

“The Holy Spirit draws people,” Mason said. “You have to be available and open, prepared and responsive to let God work.”