ASHEVILLE, N.C. (BP)–When Robert Sulaski invited Biltmore Baptist Church Pastor James Walker to hold an outdoor baptism in 2003 at a lake his company owned, they expected four or five people would want to participate.
Instead, 96 people went through believer’s baptism in Biltmore Lake in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains as family members and friends gathered around to watch.
In 2004, they were surprised again, when 164 people were baptized together in the picturesque 62-acre lake. On Aug. 15 of this year, another 142 were baptized in what has become a much-anticipated annual celebration for this growing church.
“We just brought back what used to be,” said Sulaski, a deacon at Biltmore Baptist Church and vice president for residential development for Biltmore Farms, recalling a time when people were baptized outdoors all the time.
His daughter, Rachel, 6, was baptized this year in the lake, with Sulaski emotionally recalling the day, Dec. 14, 2000, he purchased the 1,300 acres for the planned Biltmore Lake subdivision.
“I knelt next to a tree and said, ‘Father, this is your property,’” Sulaski said of his hope that it would give glory only to God.
More than 1,000 people gathered at the lake Aug. 15 for a summer picnic of hamburgers, chicken and veggie burgers before watching their loved ones get baptized under a crystal-blue sky.
For 6-year-old Jonathan Hart of Mills River, N.C., it was “So everyone can know I have Jesus in my heart.”
For Bud Styles, 72, of Arden, N.C., it was a chance to be baptized “on the right side of my conversion.”
“I was baptized when I was 7,” Styles said as he stepped out of the lake. “The Lord’s been working on me for a while. I wasn’t living how I should be living.”
“I’m very proud of him. He’s a good example,” said his granddaughter, Amber Raby, wiping a tear from behind her sunglasses. Styles has been a father figure to her, since her father died when she was small. He gave her away at her recent wedding.
Styles’ wife, Barbara, said for many months it was clear he was under conviction to re-dedicate himself to the Lord, and the baptism was a natural outgrowth of that obedience.
“Baptism is not just a Baptist thing,” said Pastor Walker, standing waste-deep in the lake before the ceremony.
“It is a command the Lord gives. These waters do not wash away our sins. If it did, we’d kill the fish,” he quipped. “It is an outward sign of inward change.”
Walker said he believes Southern Baptist Convention President Bobby Welch’s challenge for churches to hold similar events to reach the goal of 1 million baptisms will capture the hearts of many.
It has done so in this mountain community.
“It excites people. It renews their commitment to evangelism” to see such a bold public expression of faith, Walker said. “It’s a testimony to the community, drawing attention to the Gospel. It rouses curiosity.”
As 14-year-old Alyssa Ivy, who invited friends to the event, said as she stood in the line waiting her turn to go through the waters, “It could reach people.”
It also affords the opportunity to present the Gospel to family members who attend, Walker said.
On Sunday, one of the bus drivers, hired to taxi people from a general parking area to the lake for the event, heard the recorded video message played on the bus and also asked to be baptized.
The celebration also gives those being baptized a memorable “spiritual mile marker” to remember a very important event.
“You have to consider how pleasing the event is to the Lord. A church that wants to be blessed has to be blessable. Our bottom line is evangelism,” Walker said.
It is just one of numerous community-oriented events the church holds throughout the year, said Mike McKee, pastor of missions and evangelism at Biltmore Baptist in Asheville.
On Sept. 15, the church will hold its third annual “Feed the City” outreach, serving a lunch of grilled hamburgers, veggie burgers and chicken to more than 3,000 city, county and state workers in front of the courthouse in downtown Asheville.
While it isn’t an event where the Gospel is presented, it provides an opportunity to show the community that the church cares for them, McKee said.
If there is a need in the community, Biltmore Baptist Church tries to develop an outreach to respond.
On Aug. 25, former NFL quarterback Frank Reich is slated as the guest speaker at Power Lunch, a meeting of a thousand area business people and an opportunity to introduce the church to that sector of the community. And the list of initiatives goes on.
“We’re glad to have a visionary like James for a pastor. He created an atmosphere where worship is not about us, it’s about Christ,” McKee said.