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CP anchors church’s readiness for Embrace

BOGALUSA, La. (BP) — Since its start in 1957, Memorial Baptist Church in Bogalusa, La., has embraced the Cooperative Program. This year the church voted also to embrace an unengaged, unreached people group.

Memorial Baptist always has given at least 10 percent of its undesignated income to missions though the Cooperative Program, Southern Baptists’ method for supporting national and international missions and ministries.

“We gradually increased our giving, and for a long time it was 17 percent,” Jackie Martin, a charter member, said. “We’ve been giving 20 percent for at least the last 10 years. We just believe if we support missions, the Lord will take care of the finances, and He has. We’re still here, and we’re debt-free.”

The church where about 200 people gather for Sunday morning worship has never faltered in its giving, said pastor Field Thigpen, who is a part-time student at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.

“The Cooperative Program is the Southern Baptist strategy for ministry partnership — all of us working together toward the common goal of making disciples in all nations,” Thigpen said. “CP is a tremendous tool for us to accomplish that….

“I’ve personally benefitted from it as a student,” the 28-year-old pastor said. “I often hear young ministers are not very fond of the Cooperative Program, but I have not encountered much pessimism about the CP. It is a topic of conversation at the seminary, even a priority. What is more influential, though, is that students see many of its benefits firsthand: Graduates serving across North America and around the world, supported by the Cooperative Program.”

Thigpen was baptized, trained and called to preach at Memorial Baptist and returned to the church as pastor in March after five years of youth ministry at a nearby church and four years as a pastor in Amite, La.

Memorial Baptist considers its Cooperative Program percentage giving every year when the next year’s budget is discussed, said Schirley Russell, a member for 16 years.

“We have always been blessed and we want to return the blessing,” Russell said. “We discuss the Cooperative Program every year. It [20 percent] is just what we do. Nobody has ever suggested lowering it, even though things get rough sometimes.”

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina was one of those times. The forests of pine trees that initially protected the paper mill town of Bogalusa became a liability as the trees crashed onto the houses they surrounded.

Memorial Baptist was relatively undamaged because it was situated on cleared land, enabling it to serve as a Red Cross shelter for six weeks. The shelter was manned by church members and Southern Baptist Disaster Relief volunteers.

One result of Katrina was the development of Memorial Baptist’s disaster relief chainsaw unit, complete with a fully stocked trailer. The unit has been called out several times over the last six years, such as last spring’s tornados in Alabama and Mississippi.

The church also participates twice a year in the Washington Baptist Association’s “Be the Church Week,” which involves acts of kindness in each church’s community. Service projects include building wheelchair ramps, installing insulation and painting for those who can’t in order to show the love of Christ through serving, Thigpen said.

A mainstay of Memorial Baptist’s presence in the community is a fall festival with a chili cook off, a cake walk and a hayride in addition to Trunk or Treat for the children.

Over the years, Memorial Baptist depended on its Cooperative Program giving as its way of being involved in the Great Commission internationally. Now, though, the church also plans to take the Gospel directly to the Caribbean island of Martinique.

“I did not go to the Southern Baptist Convention this summer in Phoenix, but I watched it on live streaming,” Thigpen said. “I knew even before watching Dr. [Tom] Eliff [president of the Southern Baptist International Mission Board] online that God was calling me to be a missional pastor in a missional church, and upon hearing his challenge I realized this is the direction we need to head in as Southern Baptists and particularly as our local body of believers here at Memorial Baptist Church.”

Thigpen looked at the 3,800 orange dots on the IMB’s “Embrace” map of the world representing the people groups that aren’t yet the focus of a Gospel strategy, and he chose 30 from across the globe. His selections represented as many variables as possible, such as easy to get to, compared to remote and rural versus urban.

The IMB had information on its website about each of the 3,800 people groups. Thigpen printed a profile page for each of the 30 and put them into folders — one for each individual in the church. He asked them to pray over each, one a day for a month. That was August.

Church members voted for the top three in September, and from those, after another month of prayer, they selected the Beke White Creoles in Martinique, descendants of the first white settlers. One week later, the church family gathered to dedicate themselves to God in taking the Gospel to a people who have never heard.

“The Lord didn’t call a select few to missions; He called all of us,” Thigpen said. “Our church wants to rise up and answer the call and not just support missions but be missionaries.

“Our goal is to reach the Beke Creoles of Martinique with the Gospel, lead some to Christ, establish a church and train leadership until there is a sustainable Christian ministry there,” the pastor said. “We really have no clue how long it will take. If it takes 18 months, great; if it takes 18 years, so be it.”

Memorial Baptist did not consider the cost of taking on an unengaged, unreached people group.

“We are biblically convinced that this is what the Lord is calling us to do, and we trust for His provision along the way,” Thigpen said. “We do very much believe in ‘counting the cost,’ but we are committed to pay whatever the cost as we have faith in His calling and provision. We trust in the Lord’s will and follow in His direction.

“We need to be wise stewards of what God has blessed us with, but ultimately He owns the cattle on a thousand hills and there is nothing in this world that is not His,” Thigpen said. “He can and will supply.”

Several members have indicated they want to be a part of Memorial Baptist’s hands-on effort; others will do what they can while remaining in Bogalusa. Royce Keaton, a member for about 10 years and a registered nurse, is one of those who plan to go to Martinique.

“I was very excited when we chose the Beke White Creole people of Martinique,” Keaton said. “I can speak in French over there about God. Mon dieu. Il est grande, and throw in the plan of salvation.” He said he learned French in high school.

Brian Baughman, a member for 14 years, echoed the words of several Memorial Baptist members.

“We look forward to reaching that community,” Baughman said. “Everybody needs to know the Lord. It’s the commission Jesus gave us.”
Karen L. Willoughby is managing editor of the Louisiana Baptist Message, newsjournal for churches in the Louisiana Baptist Convention. Information about Southern Baptists’ Cooperative Program, go to www.cpmissions.net; for information about the IMB’s Embrace initiative for unengaged, unreached people groups, go to call2embrace.org.