DILLWYN, Va. (BP)–Outreach and missions evidently were important when Bethlehem Baptist Church was organized in 1881 under a brush arbor in rural central Virginia: Jordan Taylor, who gave the land for the then-new church, was 99 when he was baptized in the waters of the nearby Troublesome Creek.
Records are missing from Bethlehem’s early years, but the church has a definite outward focus today — including a growing commitment to reaching people through the Cooperative Program, Southern Baptists’ method of supporting missions and ministries of state conventions and the Southern Baptist Convention.
“As far as I can tell, the church had been giving a steady $5,000 to the Cooperative Program before I came,” said pastor Grady Johnston, who has since educated the congregation about CP and the benefit of joining with the Southern Baptist Conservatives of Virginia state convention.
“I am grateful that from the day Bethlehem joined the SBCV, which is faithful to spend CP dollars wisely, we have set on a course to raise what had long been a stagnant level of giving to a minimum 10 percent of our annual budget,” Johnston said. “The Cooperative Program benefits Bethlehem by allowing us, a small rural church, to be involved in reaching the entire world for Jesus Christ.”
Since Johnston, 25, was called as pastor in October 2007, the church has increased its participation in CP by 34 percent.
“Bethlehem alone would not have the people or financial resources to be involved in mission efforts on such a global scale, but through the CP, we are able to partner with some 40,000 other Southern Baptist churches to see Jesus proclaimed to all peoples,” the pastor said.
But the church does what it can.
“We regularly go out and serve people in the name of Jesus,” Johnston said. “Bethlehem has done this through community servant evangelism, food ministry, construction and even yard work for the lost and impoverished in our community. We seek to put ourselves directly in action and, as we serve, we intentionally share Jesus with those we come into contact with.”
For the last two years, 25 to 35 members of the Dillwyn, Va., congregation have gone on short-term mission trips to a remote area of West Virginia to minister in a variety of ways, yet centered on “sharing the saving news of Jesus Christ,” Johnston said.
Bethlehem also has had an ongoing missions presence in Haiti for the last several years. Two members, Dan and Sharon Beardsley, are nurses who have made regular mission trips to Bombard, Haiti, often with other Bethlehem members who have developed “a heart for the Haitian people,” Johnston said. “Haiti is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere and we often remind our people of that. Buckingham County is poor, but we have more than enough and we feel responsible to help those who are in great need both physically and spiritually.”
Buckingham County has seen busier times, the pastor acknowledged. Central Virginia once boomed with textile jobs, but those have been gone for decades. A state highway was displaced by an exit-controlled interstate highway, which limited the number of visitors through the town. Government, school and public utilities are the major employers; many people commute to other states during the week for their jobs.
“As a result, we do not see many new families move into the area that do not already have a family connection here, and those who do are often retired, looking for a quiet place to settle down,” Johnston said.
Even so, the church on the outskirts of town, where about 110 people gathered for worship when Johnston was called as pastor, has gone to two Sunday morning services in Bethlehem’s original building, a red brick structure with a white steeple that was remodeled within the last 10 years.
“I would not want to mislead anyone,” Johnston said, giving Jeff Mims, the former pastor, credit during his five years at the church for the increase in attendance from about 35 to a peak of 150. “Jeff spent a great deal of time moving the church out of the idea of spectatorship and to a point they were becoming open to church-wide ministry … baptizing at least in the double digits each year,” Johnston said.
The church where more than half were in their 50s and older continued to grow with Johnston as pastor.
“Over the course of 2008, Bethlehem baptized 16 people, established a new missions committee charged with keeping local mission efforts at the forefront of what we do, and saw the development of a prayer ministry with a focus of seeking God, not hospital lists,” Johnston said.
The second service was added at “a point last summer when families were literally going home because we did not have enough seats for them in the worship service,” the pastor continued. About 180 people now worship at Bethlehem each Sunday.
One of the greatest areas of growth has been in young families with children and youth, with Johnston noting, “The church really has become multi-generational.”
In addition to Sunday School, Bethlehem has a Monday Night C.A.R.E. ministry, which involves visitation, cards, prayer, as well as doing some needed things around the church with a different team each week of the month — the “C” team, “A” team, “R” team, except that the “E” team does construction-based ministry aimed at widows and those less fortunate who might need for a handicap ramp, for example, or painting, a new roof, flooring or firewood chopped and delivered.
Other Bethlehem programs include Wednesday night Bible study, a youth group and children’s ministry.
“VBS is heavily emphasized and is a week where our church really gets excited and involved in ministering to children and their families,” Johnston said. Bethlehem children also usually perform in a Christmas production.
“I strive to not push for lots of programs for several reasons,” the pastor said. “First, I do not want to take families away from home more than is necessary, because I know our church will not be strong if our families are not, and keeping them away from each other several nights a week is not going to help.”
“Second, although we are growing, our laborers are few and we have to be selective about what we can effectively accomplish, because we know we will do better to do a few things with excellence than to just have ‘lots of stuff’ going on,” Johnson continued. “Instead, I push relationships. I do this through intentional discipleship with men in our church as I meet with them regularly to encourage them and discuss their walk with the Lord, and I encourage other key leaders to do the same.”
With Bethlehem growing as people are getting saved and discipled, Johnston noted, “This is the only true growth in the Kingdom, and we are most excited about the Gospel being received into the hearts of those God is calling.”
Bethlehem also is growing “as a result of many who made decisions long ago being awakened and called back to an intimate relationship with their Savior and them finding an environment welcoming them at Bethlehem,” Johnston said. Another area of growth is that “many families desire to join and move their memberships to a healthy church with conservative biblical doctrine where the Word of God is being exegetically preached, and we welcome them as they come.”
“However, we also go out of our way to discourage anyone from changing churches unless absolutely necessary as we maintain our goal of growing God’s Kingdom through evangelism and lifelong discipleship, not just a goal of growing Bethlehem Baptist Church,” the pastor added.
It was his conservative theology that led Johnston to look to the Southern Baptist Conservatives of Virginia.
The church had removed itself from its previous association when Johnston invited Bethlehem leaders to hear from an SBCV representative about the state convention and how it uses Cooperative Program gifts. The church leaders requested the information be delivered to the entire congregation who affirmed their desire “to align themselves with other like-minded churches who affirm the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture,” Johnston said.
“But what was overwhelmingly heard was how the people of Bethlehem did not want the money they gave through the Cooperative Program to be wasted, support liberal organizations or spent on bureaucracy,” the pastor continued. “As a result, the meeting concluded with a resounding, ‘When can we vote to join the SBCV?'”
Two weeks later, the vote was unanimous, and today the church is eager to follow the pastor’s call to increase its CP giving, even as they trim the budget for ongoing church needs.
“Missions is taught as a part of who we are, without compartmentalizing,” Johnston said, describing missions as “the intentional efforts of evangelism and discipleship at home and abroad. I reiterate that to our people and incorporate the goal of evangelization and full discipleship into almost everything we do.”
The church’s growth in their stewardship of the money God has given them is one aspect of discipleship, the pastor said.
“I truly desire to see the people of Bethlehem Baptist Church engaged in lifelong discipleship. I do not promote campaigns, but rather life change. I push to see people training themselves in the faith like an Olympic athlete trains for his sport,” Johnston said. “The folks at Bethlehem hear me quote 1 Timothy 4:7 often: ‘Discipline yourself unto godliness.’ They know I do not speak of legalism, but of a life radically sold out to a living and resurrected Jesus Christ.”
Among the pastor’s challenges: getting people to labor in prayer and getting people to grasp hold of the concept that each Christian is called to ministry.
“Tradition has established that church is something you attend or do, rather than who you are,” Johnston said. “I pray that pastors across the nation will choose to make disciples rather than further establish generations rooted in traditions of playing church.”
“I am so grateful to say that I can directly point out people at Bethlehem who are growing and truly understand that Jesus came that we might have life,” Johnston said. “At the same time, can I say everyone is embracing this approach? No, there are certainly some who have pulled back or withdrawn because I do not approach Christianity casually. However, I have counted the cost and the church cannot afford to forget the last half of the Great Commission, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you ….”
Karen L. Willoughby is managing editor of the Baptist Message (www.baptistmessage.com), newsjournal for the Louisiana Baptist Convention.