VICTORIA, Texas (BP)–In a city founded by Catholics, Parkway Baptist Church of Victoria, Texas, successfully shares the gospel of Jesus Christ. They start by finding common ground between the two faith groups, never speaking disparagingly of the religion most Hispanics embrace.
“We are not trying to target Catholics,” explained Scott Weatherford, founding pastor of the eight-year old church. “We’ve identified the unchurched population and find the majority of Hispanics in that group are cultural Catholics. And we’ve discovered in South Texas, not only with Catholics, but with most folks, that they have a denominational label, but not a personal relationship with Jesus,” he added.
Parkway Baptist is dually affiliated with Southern Baptists of Texas Convention as well as Baptist General Convention of Texas.
Southern Baptists make a mistake in telling Catholics that they aren’t saved, Weatherford believes, preferring first to build relationships on areas of commonality. “We are honoring and respectful of people and we do not speak disparagingly of any other denomination,” he explained.
Family ties remain strong among individuals who were raised as Catholics, Weatherford has learned. Many express an interest in the gospel message shared by members of Parkway Baptist, but are discouraged by family members from further participation.
“Family is huge — especially in the Hispanic culture,” Weatherford said. “Some respond and back off, then come back.” In reaching people who have a liturgical background, including Lutherans and Episcopalians, Parkway Baptist emphasizes the grace that is available in Christ. “Whoever you are and whatever you’re like, it doesn’t matter. Jesus loves you and we do too,” Weatherford shares with unbelievers in the area. “Whatever a person’s like, I find common ground.”
Weatherford is not troubled by the formal discussion Southern Baptists have had in recently years with Roman Catholics. “I’m a Southern Baptist because of our tradition of being founded on God’s Word. That’s our authority. Anytime we are having healthy dialog with people based on God’s Word, I think that’s a good thing.”
While certain that Southern Baptists will not agree with Roman Catholics on all areas of theology, he added, “The Catholic position on Jesus Christ as Savior is very solid. People can be Catholic and still be Christian,” he noted, urging Southern Baptists to avoid being “spiritually arrogant” in thinking that is impossible.
One of the ministries that Parkway Baptist has found effective in reaching unsaved Catholics is known as “Building Life Seminars.” The sessions address facets of the Christian life through study of Christ and the believer’s relationship to a church, developing spiritual disciplines, serving God by serving people, as well as dealing with missions and worship. In small groups meeting in homes, unchurched people are invited by friends to a non-threatening environment where they hear the gospel explained.
“One of our best small group leaders is a former Catholic who grew up in an abusive dysfunctional family,” Weatherford said. After the man’s wife started coming to a small group she was saved and offered to host the meeting in her home where her husband heard the gospel. “These mature believers intentionally started praying for him and changed the curriculum to the basics of Christianity in order to have a chance to talk to him directly,” Weatherford explained. Years after his own conversion, the man mentors 10 other small group’s leaders.
Such a response is common in the church that has grown from 39 members to 700 since its founding eight years ago. Fifty-three percent of the church’s growth comes through conversions, Weatherford said, but many of those transformations require a great deal of time. “It’s not about getting them down the aisle and in the water, but building their lives,” he insisted. “We have a tendency to be results-oriented instead of life-oriented.”
Converted Catholics also struggle with the purpose of baptism, Weatherford noted, stressing the need to teach that baptism serves as a symbol rather than a sacrament. “That’s a big hang up. We don’t pressure them. We let the Holy Spirit be the Holy Spirit,” he said.
“When churches show themselves as people of grace, acceptance and love, then they start reaching people for Christ,” Weatherford said.