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Church spreads FAITH in Idaho Mormon country

BURLEY, Idaho (BP)–By the start this fall of its ninth semester of the FAITH evangelism strategy, members of First Baptist Church in Burley, Idaho, had made more than 2,000 FAITH visits and 357 people had responded with professions of faith in Jesus Christ.

The church’s first semester of FAITH in 2000 set the pace: Five teams – 15 people total -– made 92 visits during which 30 people came to know Christ as personal savior.

“Our church was running about 100 that August [in 2000],” said Pastor Dennis Stoneman, who accepted a call to the church with the agreement that the entire pastor search committee go through at least two semesters of FAITH.

“To have 30 people in 16 weeks accept Christ was a revival! It set the tone for everything else we were going to do.”

First Baptist Burley was Stop No. 47 on Southern Baptist Convention President Bobby Welch’s bus tour of Southern Baptist churches across the nation, underscoring the cause of evangelism in kicking off “The Everyone Can Kingdom Challenge for Evangelism” campaign which has the goal of “Witness, Win and Baptize … ONE MILLION!” in one year.

“When [the church] first called me, I said absolutely not,” Stoneman said. “Three months later they called me again and said, ‘God told us you’re supposed to be our pastor.’ I said, ‘That’s interesting He’d say that to you.’ I asked all the hard questions and they pursued me even harder, until finally I said, ‘You’ve got my interest up because you’re so persistent.”

He and his wife spent a week in Burley. At dinner one night, Stoneman asked church members why they thought First Burley was a special place.

“They said different things, but I heard the same line -– ‘At some points our lives were broken and when we came here our lives became stronger,’” Stoneman said. “I thought, if a person was broken and came to these people, they’d know how to treat them.”

That understanding and that life experience is what has helped FAITH be so effective in Burley, a rural town east of Twin Falls, Idaho, with a population of about 9,200.

First Burley’s slogan when Stoneman arrived was, “Reaching the Magic Valley and Beyond with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

“I asked, ‘How are you doing that?’ They didn’t know,” the pastor said. “FAITH became the structure and strategy for accomplishing our purpose. Everything we did as a church began to change.”

About 300 people now attend Sunday morning worship and about 170 in Sunday school. The church has baptized 80 people this year.

“We keep pretty good statistics because they’re one of the only ways we can tell where we are and where we’re going …,” Stoneman said. “We’re averaging about six new people a month entering into our church body.

“We generate about 30 visitors a week -– a visitor is somebody who hasn’t come three times in a row. But we don’t let anyone miss three times in a row.”

Stoneman said he takes “great pains” to learn peoples’ names from the welcome cards that are passed out each week. He keeps a master list of regular attendees and Sunday school members that he compares each Monday with Sunday’s welcome cards.

The FAITH evangelism strategy works, Stoneman said. He uses Fred Hoyt, a “rough and tumble guy” 64-year-old man as an example. Hoyt digs ditches and grates roads to earn a self-employed living. A FAITH team stopped by for a visit one night at the request of a friend.

“Fred couldn’t believe anyone would go to him,” Stoneman said. “He had never heard about Christ before. He prayed with the FAITH team and hasn’t missed a Sunday since. Fred started bringing Gerald Carlisle, who’d never been to church either. Now both of them, they’re fixtures here…. I don’t believe they ever would have accepted Christ if someone had not gone to them.”

Among First Burley’s key challenges: Breaking out of a “holy huddle” mentality, the pastor said.

“It’s scary to change,” Stoneman said. “We’ve had to build a core of leadership that will rally the vision of our church to all our ministries. Plus, when you’re talking about a new birth in the Kingdom of God, you have to remember, babies are messy. You have to change diapers, put up with crying all night, and you have to feed them. It’s a very time-consuming, energy-zapping proposition.”

First Burley ministers in its predominantly Mormon community with scripturally based social ministries.

“We find out their physical needs and why they have them, to deal with the problem and not just the symptom,” Stoneman said. “When we find kids who need the backpacks stuffed with school supplies that we put together, we give them the backpacks and then have the teens go and share Christ as well.

“We see Jesus’ example. He said ministry comes from serving the widows and orphans. You can’t tell a hungry heart about Christ if they have a hungry stomach, too. But we do it in a graceful way. The Mormon church will minister to you but the caveat is you have to go to their church first. We offer the love of Christ with no strings attached.

“I think that’s been refreshing to a lot of people,” Stoneman added. “Most people are tired of religion because what they’ve seen hasn’t the power to change their lives. We get to tell them we’re not about religion but about a relationship that has the power to change us.”