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Cooperative Program central to small church’s big outreach

BOURBONNAIS, Ill. (BP)–Missions is a well-established component of Bethel Baptist Church’s overall ministry program. The arrival of a new pastor has sparked a fresh awareness within the Chicago-area congregation of about 120 people of their shared commitment with other Southern Baptists.

“I believe that as Southern Baptists — being the independent-minded people we tend to be — to have strategized back in the 1920s to voluntarily work together to provide security and consistency for our missionary effort was one of the most visionary and spiritually blessed things we as a convention have ever done,” said Wright Eavenson, Bethel’s pastor since March.

“And for us as Southern Baptists to have actually maintained it all these decades, it has to be a God thing.”

The pastor noted, “Because we voluntarily cooperate through the Cooperative Program, we have a worldwide missionary force that is able to accomplish things no other organization can. I think that’s the genius of how this works, without anyone forcing it. It works cooperatively and that says something to the world. The Cooperative Program is probably as close as Southern Baptists come to having a statement of unity.”

Bethel’s missions commitment since its start in 1948 in Broubannais, about 60 miles south of Chicago, has spawned at least four career missionaries; many short-term North American and international missions volunteers; a disaster relief/construction team complete with tools and a trailer; and the foundational leadership for a team in its Three Rivers Baptist Association spearheading outreach to an Eastern European people group.

And two years before Eavenson’s arrival, the church accepted the Acts 1:8 Challenge to minister in simultaneously in the local-to-global biblical framework of its “Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and uttermost parts of the world.”

For many years, Bethel has given 13 percent of its undesignated offerings through the Cooperative Program, Southern Baptists’ channel for supporting missions and ministries of state conventions and the Southern Baptist Convention. Another 6 percent is given toward the work of Three Rivers association. Meanwhile, active Woman’s Missionary Union and Brotherhood groups and Sunday morning “Missionary Moments” tidbits about SBC missionaries undergird the congregation’s knowledge of and interest in reaching out across the world.

“We do Missionary Moments every Sunday right before the offering is taken, and a part of that is saying through the Cooperative Program we have a part in the ministry and work [which the day’s missionaries] are doing,” Eavenson continued. “In that way we keep the Cooperative Program before the church all the time.

“Every time we adopt the annual budget, we get an opportunity to teach about CP too,” the pastor continued. “What I tell them is that when they give to the Cooperative Program, a significant portion stays in Illinois. Being in the Chicago metropolitan area, that puts us on the receiving end of Cooperative Program dollars that immediately come back and support us. It supports the [state convention] staff members who are able to come and train and minister to us. And when we go on short-term missions projects, we’re working alongside a missionary who wouldn’t be there if it weren’t for the Cooperative Program.”

On a personal level, the Eavenson said, the Cooperative Program made it possible for him to study at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.

“We talk about those kinds of things, and that helps people see the personal benefit of giving to the Cooperative Program,” the pastor said. “The Cooperative Program ultimately helps support the work here at Bethel.”

That work is Kingdom-building, Eavenson noted.

“Bethel has always been very strong on wanting to make everybody in the church feel like they are part of what we as Southern Baptists are doing, primarily in North American and international missions,” he said. “We definitely want to be a part of meeting those needs and feel it is important for us to do things outside our four walls.”

Bethel made a hands-on, emotional investment in Katrina-ravaged Mississippi -– three trips so far this year, carrying tools in a 14-foot trailer recently purchased for disaster response and construction ministry in Illinois and across North America. And volunteers from the church have gone on mission trips to far-off places like Antigua -– where they later sent nine cases of books to a Baptist school –- Bulgaria and Kazakhstan; Slovakia is a possibility for next year.

“One of the great challenges I have is keeping up with the mission-mindedness of so many of our church members,” Eavenson said. “Our next challenge is to see Bourbonnais [and surrounding] Kankakee [County and nearby] Bradley with fresh eyes, and in that context to mobilize our members for reaching our communities. And I need to lead by example.”

The pressing needs in Bethel’s Judea (Illinois), its Samaria (Mississippi Gulf Coast at the moment, though at various times including anywhere in North America) and uttermost parts of the world (Eastern Europe at present, Asia in previous years) kept the church’s eyes essentially averted from local needs, the pastor said.

“The Gulf Coast is still reeling; it seems like some areas around Waveland and Bay St. Louis have been forgotten,” Eavenson said. “The area is no longer receiving the mass action of people all over the United States, and yet the need is still huge…. We see it as an opportunity to relate to people -– not just rebuild physically but also emotionally and spiritually.”

Internationally, two men from Bethel and three from other Southern Baptist churches in the Three Rivers association led the association earlier this year to become the “virtual strategy” coordinators for the Eastern Slovaks, a people group who live east of the Tatras Mountains in Slovakia.

“Virtual strategy coordinators extend the work of the International Mission Board where they currently have no people in place,” Bob Dyer, Bethel’s Brotherhood director, explained. “We have missionaries in western Slovakia but no one over the mountains…. Five of us attended [an IMB] ‘key partner’ consultation in April and when they shared about the need in eastern Slovakia, it hit all five of us at the same time. We pursued it and with each step kept getting affirmation and confirmation…. There will be opportunities for mission trips, a number each year, but the focus is to establish a church-planting movement among the Slovak community.”

With needs in Bethel’s other Acts 1:8 ministry fields being addressed, the time is right to bring fresh eyes to the needs in Bourbonnais and Kankakee County, the pastor said. Added to the ongoing Royal Ambassadors and Girls in Action missions programs for youngsters through the sixth grade, AWANA started this fall for the same age group.

The church is working with the local Salvation Army Center as well.

“We have done everything from cleaning to serving meals to rearranging their food pantry to whatever needs done,” Eavenson said. “Our AWANA had a food collection emphasis for them just before Thanksgiving, and church-wide we have the beginnings of a ‘Canning Hunger’ emphasis –- hanging doorknockers that say we’re coming by at a certain time tomorrow collecting food for the Salvation Army.

“When we go around with our wagons or rolling garbage cans to pick up the food, that gives us an opportunity to have a contact with people, build that name recognition,” the pastor said. “This is one of the things we’re doing to expand the Jerusalem component of our Acts 1:8 Challenge.”

The church’s finance committee has included in the budget, to be voted on in mid-December, a 1 percent addition to the church’s mission causes -– local missions -– which would bring the total missions giving to 20 percent.

“This congregation really has a heart and desire to see the change and growth and to move forward to reach people for Jesus,” Eavenson said. “We are seeing people really begin to see Bourbonnais and Kankakee with fresh eyes, and part of that is from going to Mississippi. They’re saying, ‘Hey, if we can do that there, we can do it here.’ The truth is, we’re just getting started.”