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CP Missions strengthens young church aiming for relevancy & changed lives

GRESHAM, Ore. (BP)–A commitment to cooperation has grown Greater Gresham Baptist Church into the largest Southern Baptist church in Oregon.

Started in 1989 by four families as an experiment in finding culturally effective ways to live out a heartbeat for missions and community involvement, Greater Gresham has evolved to a missions-focused congregation where nearly 600 people worship in three weekly services, including one on Saturday night.

“We believe we have the responsibility and privilege to be involved in world missions,” said Keith Evans, senior pastor since 1995. “Through the Cooperative Program we can be a part of touching the world for Christ in thousands of culturally relevant ways.

“As a young church we directly benefited from CP giving,” Evans said. “We now have the opportunity to give back. Through the Cooperative Program and people available to the Lord, we believe God can use us to make a significant impact for Christ in our community and around the world.”

From its inception, members have given at least 10 percent of their undesignated offerings to CP Missions through the Cooperative Program and Interstate Baptist Association. This year it’s 11.75 percent.

CP missions provides support for more than 10,000 Southern Baptist missionaries who serve in more than 120 nations — about 5,400 overseas and 5,000 in the United States.

In addition to its global missions involvement, Greater Gresham — located in the Portland, Ore., metroplex — cooperates with local churches and agencies for community ministry, and with churches across the Northwest Baptist Convention for regional ministry.

Two ministries started by Greater Gresham members have become major avenues of outreach:

— Impact Northwest in this its sixth season involved about 140 on-mission teens from 13 churches in local construction assignments at two houses and four apartment complexes requested by Human Solutions, a community services agency in Multnomah County for the cities of Gresham and Portland, and grounds maintenance for Centennial School District in Gresham.

That’s considerable growth from its first year, 1997, when Impact Northwest — the local adaptation of the highly successful World Changers ministry sponsored by the SBC’s North American Mission Board — involved about 40 teens from six local churches who did housing renovation and repair work at the request of Human Solutions.

“The term ‘impact’ is critical,” youth ministry pastor John Richardson said. “It’s not only a chance for Christian teenagers to have an impact on the community, but God has a major impact on the teens. Several, at least a couple dozen, have been called to fulltime Christian service as a direct result of these six days.

“They’re all challenged in their Christian walk,” Richardson continued. “Impact Northwest changes them. You can see it from day one to day six. It moves them beyond what they hear in Sunday School. When their faith goes into action, it becomes real.”

Not just a missions event for youth, Impact Northwest involves at least 50 adult members of Greater Gresham. They serve in meal preparation, equipment and supplies go-fers and as worship leaders for the nightly services that move youth from celebration to personal reflection — and closer to God, Richardson said.

— Another 50 or so members assist in Camp Hope, which also takes place during the summer months.

Camp Hope in this its sixth season involved 31 children of prison inmates in a weeklong summer camp experience designed to instill a sense of self-worth and spiritual foundation in the youngsters.

More than 180 youngsters over the years have participated in the camps. In the last three years, at least 25 professions of faith were recorded and countless other life-changing decisions were made by young people who learned during Camp Hope the benefits of choosing God’s way of doing things, leaders said.

The longtime vision of Elmer Whiten, who worked for 31 years in prison ministry, Camp Hope came to fruition after Whiten and his wife, Quilla, joined Greater Gresham.

“The kids’ parents or caregivers tell us Camp Hope is a good experience in their lives,” said Quilla Whiten in the absence of her husband, who died in 2001. “The kids come home with a different attitude, their families say; a more positive attitude toward life or in their life.”

At least a dozen churches in the Northwest Baptist Convention now provide funding and volunteers for Camp Hope.

Greater Gresham members also fan out around the world in response to continual preaching on the responsibility and privilege of reaching out.

A missions team earlier this summer participated in field work for a projected church start in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, which resulted in 80 people who expressed interest in a Southern Baptist church starting there.

This mission trip was in addition to six years of evangelistic outreach in suburbs and small towns in southern and central Brazil.

Several other church members have gone on short-term mission trips in various geographical regions of the world. Four international missionary families list Greater Gresham as their home church; several members have indicated God’s call to fulltime international missions.

“Our church is just 13 years old,” Pastor Evans said. “We believe we are just at the beginning of what God wants us to do.”

“We’re no super church, but we’ve seen God do some exciting things,” said Joe Flegal, who was one of two men to move from Missouri in 1989 to start a culturally relevant church in an urban area east of downtown Portland. Flegal is the administrative and adult ministry pastor at Greater Gresham.

“We don’t have it figured out by far,” Flegal said. “We’re fellow strugglers trying to move to the next level and be more effective in reaching the unchurched and dechurched.”

When Jeff Iorg, who after six years as pastor of Greater Gresham was called as executive director of the Northwest Baptist Convention, and Joe Flegal brought their families from Missouri to work together in a church start, they began by going to large churches of other denominations in metro Portland to see what was working, a practice continued by the church’s present leadership.

“So we’ve seen that it can be done,” Flegal said. “It’s hard work but if we’re going to reach the Northwest we’re going to have to do things that grow more rapidly.”

Greater Gresham’s early plans were to worship indefinitely in area schools, which seemed to be a nonthreatening environment for people not used to going to church.

“But God seemed to have other plans,” Flegal said. When the remaining 30 members of Mt. Hood Baptist Church in 1997 joined with Greater Gresham, then running about 200 in morning worship, they brought with them four acres of prime real estate. The owner of an adjoining two acres donated it to Greater Gresham. People began giving money for a building fund before there formally was a building fund.

A three-year capital campaign brought in $2 million. It was used to renovate two older buildings on the original property and to build a 17,000-square-foot multipurpose building.

About 300 people were attending Sunday morning worship at Greater Gresham during 18 months of construction. The number significantly increased in the months after construction was complete.

“In the years we were meeting in schools and Seventh-day Adventist buildings, we’d have people ask, ‘When are you going to be a real church?'” Flegal said. “They watched this building go up. It communicated that we had some permanence, that this was no mom-and-pop deal, but that this was a substantial church.”

Greater Gresham is eight months into a second capital campaign, with $1 million pledged so far; this time the focus is a 20,000-square-foot two-story educational building.

“Our goal never has been to have a building,” Flegal added. “It’s a tool to help us minister more effectively in the community.”

A two-dimensional globe sculpture 12 feet high hangs in the foyer at Greater Gresham. The words beneath it: “Go Tell The World The Good News About Jesus.” Also in the foyer are a half dozen or more framed portraits of people from around the world taken by photographers with the SBC’s International Mission Board.

“Part of what we’re trying to communicate to people is that we’re about missions,” Flegal said. “The message is, It’s not about us. It’s about those who have never heard. That’s what a church should be about.”

Greater Gresham started a second worship service and Bible study in September 2000. When one group was in worship, the other was in Bible study. Last March it started a third service, at 5:30 p.m. on Saturdays followed by Bible study, which attracts people who work on Sunday, those who make non-church plans for Sunday, and those who serve in ministry on Sunday.

“The Saturday service has been a big deal,” Flegal said. “It’s given an option to people who needed one.

“We might never have as many people Saturday as we do Sunday but we’re committed to doing every legitimate thing we can to reach people. It’s sort of like throwing more fishhooks in the water. You’ll catch more with more options.”

The cooperation of people focused outward in local, regional and global missions and ministry, Pastors Evans said, has provided the support system that brought growth and an ever-expanding outreach to the young church.
(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: PUMPKINS & INVITATIONS and NAILING DOWN A WITNESS.