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Church personalizes missions for members

NAPLES, Fla. (BP)–In what he hopes will be a “game-changer in terms of the Cooperative Program and our whole relationship with missions,” Hayes Wicker has led First Baptist Church in Naples, Fla., to launch the “Great Commission Connection.”

The initiative aims to personalize missions by linking church members with missionaries and others who serve the denomination while also boosting support for Southern Baptists’ cooperative missions funding channel.

The project already has resulted in connecting 507 families in the Naples’ congregation with about 1,500 Southern Baptist missionaries, the Florida Baptist Convention and faculty members of Southern Baptist seminaries. In the coming weeks, especially as seasonal members return to Naples, the church anticipates additional families signing up as well.

“I had a growing conviction early in 2009 that the Lord wanted us to do more in the area of missions than we had been doing,” said Wicker, senior pastor of the church since 1992.

The Naples church remains “very missions-minded,” even though, like other congregations, it has been affected by economic recession, Wicker noted. First Baptist contributes about 6 percent of its undesignated receipts through CP, as well as supporting other missions organizations and sending multiple teams each year on short-term missions trips, he said.

The Great Commission Connection concept asks church families to adopt a “missionary package” that includes one IMB missionary, a NAMB missionary or combat chaplain and either a Florida Baptist Convention missionary or seminary faculty family. Congregants agree to establish contact with the three to ask about their prayer needs and be an encouragement to their ministries.

Special protocols guide church members in contacts with missionaries in regions of the world where the workers’ safety is a concern.

Church members also commit to giving at least an additional $300 per year over their tithe, with some of them using a “Change the World” piggy bank to collect loose change throughout the year. The additional funds will complement the church’s budgeted allocation to the Cooperative Program in hopes it will generate an extra 2 percent giving from the church through the Cooperative Program.

“In no way is this a substitute, but is a supplement for Cooperative Program giving,” Wicker said. “And the exciting thing about this is it opens the doors for us to talk about how to pray for missionaries, how others are involved in missions that they don’t normally think about — like seminary professors, Baptist missionaries in our state and others.

“I believe we have the greatest missions program in history. Our people need to know how wonderful it is,” Wicker added, noting the strength of the Cooperative Program is that it frees missionaries from the need to raise their own support. He said the CP’s weakness is “facelessness” and “lack of personal contact.”

Wicker hopes the Great Commission Connection will address the lack of personalization, while undergirding CP funding — especially by connecting grassroots Southern Baptists in prayer for their missionaries.

“Giving should follow prayer, not precede it. I believe it’s time to make a difference,” Wicker said, noting the initiative’s theme verse is Romans 15:30: “Now I urge you, brethren, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to strive together with me in your prayers to God for me.”

There is a need in the congregation, he said, to make First Baptist members more aware of Southern Baptists’ missionary efforts because many members come from a non-evangelical background in which they did not learn about the missions mandate, or they come from independent churches that support missionaries who raise their own support.

Ken Winter, the International Mission Board’s vice president for church and partner services, praised the Naples congregation’s “conspicuous Great Commission passion for their Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth.”

The prayer aspect of GCC will help both the missionaries in their Gospel efforts and the First Baptist families, Winter said.

“We pray that the prayer partnership that develops between each of these missionary families and the families in the church deepens into strategic intercession for the unreached people group being engaged by that missionary, the challenges being faced and the divine opportunities to see the Gospel spread among them,” Winter said.

David Howard, the North American Mission Board’s team leader for church relations, noted he has received similar requests from other churches.

“I hope it catches fire,” Howard said. “While I’m a proponent of other forms of personalization, prayer tops the list as something everyone can/should do, regardless if they are ever able to do anything else,” he said.

“The missionaries and chaplains will know that others ‘have their back,’ while the praying Christians develop a more powerful sense of ‘co-laboring’ as their prayers become an integral part of that missionary’s work,” Howard added.

Don Hepburn, director of the Florida Baptist Convention’s public relations department, said providing information about its missionaries will help the members “see how Cooperative Program gifts underwrite actual persons involved in ministry efforts being conducted on the Florida mission field.”

Cecil Seagle, director of the Florida Baptist Convention missions division, said providing information about its missionaries will help members “see how Cooperative Program gifts underwrite actual persons involved in ministry efforts being conducted on the Florida mission field.”

Steve Lemke, provost of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, said the Great Commission Connection is a “great idea that is long overdue,” especially with its emphasis on prayer.

“I believe in the power of prayer, and I believe that people praying through the Great Commission Connection will bring about some things for the Kingdom of God that would not have happened had people not prayed,” Lemke said.
James A. Smith Sr. is executive editor of the Florida Baptist Witness, on the Web at www.floridabaptistwitness.com.

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