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Chicago church’s laypeople committed to launching mission 60 miles away

WOODSTOCK, Ill. (BP)–Every Sunday afternoon about 12 couples from Bethel Baptist Church in Cicero, Ill., make the 50-mile drive to a small town in Chicago’s far-northeast exurbs. Since last August they have been knocking on doors in Woodstock, Ill., sharing Christ, leading Bible studies and holding worship services as part of their strategy for organizing Woodstock’s first-ever Hispanic Southern Baptist mission.

Such a large commitment from a church so distant might seem unusual, but it is part of a culture of evangelism and church planting that permeates Bethel. It is a passion that fits in well with the Strategic Focus Cities/Celebrate Jesus 2000 effort in Chicago that is helping make possible the Woodstock mission and more than 50 others across metropolitan Chicago.

“What moves us is simply our love and obedience for God,” said Moises Ramirez, who like several others from Bethel helping start the Woodstock mission also hosts a Bible study for another potential mission congregation in his home during the week. “We have a strong love of people, we care for them.”

The mission in Woodstock — which meets at the facilities of Calvary Baptist Church — is one of four new Hispanic missions in the Fox River Baptist Association, one of four metro Chicago associations receiving extra help through Strategic Focus Cities. The North American Mission Board-sponsored initiative channels resources and volunteers on two major metropolitan areas each year for evangelism and church planting. The first two cities being impacted are Chicago and Phoenix.

A growing Hispanic population had led leadership of the Fox River association to consider starting several churches focused on reaching those communities, said Larry Wartzbaugh, director of missions. Initially, they considered the traditional route of securing a church planter who would oversee the efforts. But ultimately Wartzbaugh decided to give an alternate methodology a try.

“As it turns out, a group of Hispanic churches in the Chicago area has made a goal among themselves to start 25 new churches over the next five years,” Wartzbaugh said. “In Mexico, churches get together, and they’d send out their volunteer workers from their churches, and they start the churches. So we redirected our strategy from hiring one guy to sending out volunteers.”

It also helps when churches like Bethel are passionate about the need for starting churches. Pastor Humberto Gonzalez became the standard-bearer for the congregation when he left a prestigious position as vice president of the country’s largest interstate bus manufacturers to fulfill a calling to the ministry.

“I guess the passion that he had for new churches, for souls — he got us involved too,” Ramirez said. “We were always spectators,” he added. “Somehow the love for missions was in our heart, but we didn’t have leadership. Now we have leadership.”

The work in Woodstock began in earnest late last summer, and the response to the initial contacts was strong. More than 65 people have made professions of faith in Christ — including Franciso, a young Hispanic and former alcoholic who now is a regular attender at the mission.

Joshue Figaroa, one of the members of Bethel who led Francisco to faith in Christ, said God has been working in his own life as he considers how God wants to use him. His Bible study in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood was one of the first started by Bethel several years ago, and although a large group has yet to emerge he looks back on many lives that have been changed as a result of their involvement in the ministry.

“I want the keys to open many hearts for God,” he said. “I believe God has a plan for me.”

Long term, Gonzalez realizes that for the mission in Woodstock to flourish it will need a committed family to live in the area. The pastor said he anticipates someone from Bethel actually moving to Woodstock to take on the challenge. Meanwhile, others in the congregation continue pressing forward to extend the church’s reach throughout Chicagoland.

“When somebody comes to the Lord in this church,” Gonzalez said, “it is part of the discipleship process that this person ends up in a mission church.”

    About the Author

  • James Dotson