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College students give spark to declining congregation

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (BP)–In 1981, Haywood Cates Baptist Church was a thriving congregation with more than 400 members. The predominately Anglo congregation in Tallahassee, Fla., packed out two worship services each Sunday and was reaching the state’s capital city with the gospel message.
Then, for more than 15 years, the church suffered from an ailment all too familiar to many churches — an older and declining congregation unable to reach its younger community. Now, however, the 59-member congregation may have discovered a cure — the energy and enthusiasm of five college students.
“Members had been down for so long and they needed a boost,” pastor John Cone said. “We were looking for something and the Lord sent us the college students to give us a big shot in the arm of youthfulness.”
In response to a request by Cone and Florida Baptist Convention officials, Baptist Student Union students from neighboring Florida State University volunteered their spring semester to help “jump-start” the small congregation. A core group of five students participated in the project, Mary Carter, Heath Lambright, Jeff Lehman, Cherly Dewees and Holly Whyte, and several BSU singing and drama groups were added in special events.
During the three-month project, the students joined church members in weekly church services as a means to reach out and encourage the congregation. They utilized contemporary singing and skits as they often led church members in a time of praise and worship.
The collegians also canvassed communities near the church to seek out youth and children, distributing flyers and inviting local youngsters to softball games and Back Yard Bible clubs.
Only a few children attended the first event, but as word got out, Cone said more children showed up for the recreational activities. “The kids are very much excited” and talking about the outreach, Cone said. In the future, we “hope to see and involve more youth in visitation and planned activities.”
The mission project proved to be just what the doctor ordered for the frail church. Since the project began, more than 40 area adults and youth have visited the church services and eight people have joined.
“The students created a spirit of excitement in our church,” Cone said. “Our members really went out of their way to accept the students and they enjoyed the students’ more contemporary worship style. They really blessed our hearts.”
“College students bring energy, freshness and enthusiasm to churches,” said Linda Osborne, director of Baptist student ministries at FSU. “They bring with them good ideas for ministry. At their age, they don’t have it in their minds that, ‘This is the way we always did it or it’s always been like this.’ So they come up with ideas and just do it.”
Several church members, Cone said, have commented they are “anticipating great things for the church. They know something big is about to happen.”
The congregation members were not the only ones who benefited from the mission project. Several of the BSU students said they reaped personal rewards. Carter found a new church home and Lambright plans to attend the church when he returns to FSU next fall.
“The members really loved the Lord and they loved us and were very appreciative that we were there and what we were doing,” Carter said. The mostly senior adult church members “were able to see that college students were actually out doing things for the Lord. I believe they were encouraged to see that there are some good young people out there,” she said.
To show their appreciation, the church group thanked the students by hosting a “dinner-on-the-grounds” during their last Sunday.
“If churches are looking for something to excite and refocus their members, I would highly recommend a big dose of what college kids can do,” Cone said.

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  • Stella Anderson