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Churches set up shop in mall to reach 92,000 people a week

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (BP)–A local mall has been targeted as a mission field by the Tuscaloosa County (Ala.) Baptist Association. Baptists there reached out to thousands of lost and hurting people through Wellspring, a nonprofit business site in University Mall’s center court.

During the latter half of last year, the store sold Christian books and other materials dealing with life’s tough issues, said Jerry Wilkins, director of missions for the association and one of the visionaries for the project in the town where the University of Alabama is located. Wellspring closed at the end of December and may reopen around Easter.

The store was staffed with volunteers who encouraged customers to become involved in a local church and to accept Jesus Christ if they had not done so.

“I’ve had the mall on my heart for years,” Wilkins said. More than 92,000 people pass through the mall every week, and approximately 40,000 of them are unchurched, he said.

The association has been burdened over the lack of growth and baptisms in the churches, he said; attendance has not significantly increased in the past 30 years. Wilkins is hoping to change the trend.

The association partnered with a local Christian bookstore to run the Wellspring ministry. Any money from book sales went directly to paying the ministry’s operating costs. The association’s evangelism council also supplemented the $750 monthly lease with the mall.
Wilkins noted Wellspring had four objectives:

— Witness to mall shoppers who came into the store area. Volunteers shared the gospel verbally and through written materials. Mall policy kept the volunteers from calling customers over to the store area, he said, so they tried “to smile them over.”

— Encourage people to join the local church. Volunteers did not promote their own church; instead, customers were given a list of the association’s churches and were encouraged to find one that best met their needs, Wilkins said.

— Sell Christian books and materials addressing specific problems people face. Wellspring offered books dealing with spouse and child abuse, divorce and family problems and other important social issues.

— Aim to be Christ’s presence in the marketplace. Through the work of volunteers and information contained in the merchandise, the mall ministry aimed at spreading the gospel to Tuscaloosa’s unchurched population, Wilkins said.

The people who took the objectives to heart and really made the ministry work, Wilkins noted, were the volunteers.

Frank Kennedy Jr., pastor of First Baptist Church, Gordo, said he volunteered out of a concern for people who are broken and in need of encouragement. He described his volunteer time as an opportunity to “administer the healing presence of God.”

Volunteer Gloria Brown of Alberta Baptist Church, Tuscaloosa, likewise concerned for hurting people, talked with people dealing with spouse abuse and divorce. “People are looking for hope,” she said.

Victor Bonner Jr., pastor of Circle of Grace Baptist Church in Northport, talked with a couple who had not been attending church regularly. After speaking with Bonner for more than 30 minutes, the couple prayed in the mall and recommitted their lives to Christ and to the church.

When Wilkins volunteered at the store, he was able to share with all kinds of people, including a man from India, a man in prison and one man three times on the same day.

While there were no first-time decisions at the store site, Wilkins said seeds were planted. Volunteers made well over 500 contacts since the beginning of the ministry in August.

On Halloween night, Wellspring volunteers distributed 1,000 “Here’s Hope” tracts from the Southern Baptist Home Mission Board, Wilkins reported.

“Who knows what results will come?” he said.

“I am fighting to keep this thing alive,” he said. “We pray every day, ‘Lord teach us how to do this.’

“There is no reason this can’t be done,” he said, encouraging other associations and churches to consider a similar ministry in their area.

“I’m hoping this new ministry will catch on,” Bonner concurred, “and others will see that this is an opportunity to plant seeds. The opportunities are there if we pray.”

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  • Darla Brantley