LA PUENTE, Calif. (BP)–The congregation learns more than respect, discipline and spiritual truth at St. Stephen Missionary Baptist Church in La Puente, Calif. They learn to be on-mission Christians who work in partnership with God, each other and the Southern Baptist Convention.
“Missions has helped our church to grow,” pastor E.W. McCall Sr. said. “People of God need to feel they are making a difference in their faith. From the little people to the older adults, we find a way for them to do missions.
“The Cooperative Program is a way God gave Southern Baptists to respond to the world’s needs like Jesus,” the pastor continued. “When we give we can be sure that our dollar will do the greatest good for the greatest number of people.”
St. Stephen gives more to global missions through the SBC’s Cooperative Program than any other church in California that has roots in an African culture, according to state convention records. The church gives more than 10 percent of its undesignated offerings to Cooperative Program (CP) Missions globally and through local missions endeavors.
It all starts with Sunday School, the pastor said.
“Sunday School makes church folks Christians,” said McCall, who has served as pastor since 1970. During his tenure the congregation has grown from about 35 people meeting in a small house to more than 2,300 meeting in three worship services in a sprawling church about 35 miles east of Los Angeles.
“We feel Sunday School is a priority in terms of developing ministries and the people God sent our way,” said McCall, who currently is second vice president of the Southern Baptist Convention. “We also really do a lot of work in terms of Discipleship Training. It is high priority in our church because of the in-depth specific training in order for our members to grow in certain areas of ministry.”
Attendance in the church’s 60-plus Sunday School classes and myriad of Discipleship Training opportunities is not the goal but the starting point for linking hands with God in service to others, the pastor said.
Worship is a natural response to the learning, McCall continued. One or more of St. Stephen’s seven choirs lead in congregational worship in the early morning contemporary service, mid-morning traditional service or late-morning blended service.
The music is exultant; the preaching: thoughtful, practical, insightful — and delivered with the intensity that typifies the style of many preachers from an African American culture.
At each service, specially trained women — most often dressed all in white — are assigned various sections of the St. Stephen worship center to keep order, by their presence and demeanor, so all minds can stay fixed on worship.
Men known to be trustworthy receive special training for the offering as the plates pass through the multi-generational, multicultural congregation and are ceremonially carried from the worship center to a secure, undisclosed location.
The education of St. Stephen members equips them with the skills and caring hearts to reach out in their community, in their region, across the state and nation, and in short- and long-term global missions assignments, the pastor said.
An infant/preschool daycare center provides for nearly 100 area youngsters a week, and for those called to a ministry of working with young children.
A 14-station computer training center provides equipment for students who don’t have home computers, tutoring in all school subjects and, again, a place of service for those called to minister to students in elementary through high school.
A late-October college fair brings representatives from about 30 colleges and universities from across the nation to St. Stephen, where they interact with college-bound students and their parents from the church and greater East L.A. area. This will be the 14th year for the fair. St. Stephen also provides scholarship help for its members.
The adult members of the congregation receive training not only through the church’s extensive adult Christian education program but also through active participation in associational and state convention events. St. Stephen’s full-size bus and five vans transport members even to Glorieta Conference Center in New Mexico several times each year for national training from LifeWay Christian Resources.
Training its 4,000 members enables St. Stephen to operate with just two fulltime vocational staff: McCall and Anthony Dockery, who serves as minister of education. With the support of a two-person secretarial staff, volunteers do all the rest, including managing St. Stephen’s acclaimed seven choirs.
“That’s one of the greatest distinctives of a church of our size,” McCall said. “We have been able to train our people and get them involved in the ministry of the church. In this way we’re able to get qualified people to manage ministries and help make sure the work of the church is the way it ought to be.”
Another distinctive of St. Stephen is that about 30 families in the church have become foster parents.
“We ask people with room in their homes and in their hearts to take in foster children,” McCall said. “If they don’t go on to college, at least we’ve made a valiant effort to give them the opportunity.”
Perhaps 40 youngsters have been cared for and loved by St. Stephen members since the foster care emphasis began about 15 years ago.
St. Stephen members, equipped and emboldened by their church-sponsored training, provide a hot meal and worship service each Thursday evening in downtown Los Angeles for perhaps 400 homeless people.
This and a church-based feed the hungry program are done in cooperation with local grocers who have been contacted by St. Stephen members for donations that supplement the church’s contributions.
St. Stephen members trained in community ministries also provide clothing and on occasion even emergency housing for those in need.
Perhaps 175 people from the community participate on Friday evenings in two well-established and highly successful life-skills programs: Courage to Change 12-step program for family members of those in the Free at Last drug and alcohol recovery program.
Trained St. Stephen members minister in their homes to family members and to the foster children they take in. They minister in their church through its myriad of programs and ministries that reach out to their community. They minister throughout the greater Los Angeles community by providing food, clothing, shelter and “a listening ear linked to a caring heart,” Williams said.
St. Stephen members also minister globally.
About 30 members go on church-sponsored, short-term international mission trips each summer. Teams are sent usually to four locations. McCall usually goes on one to lead in pastor training conferences.
The church recently sponsored the two-year missionary nurse assignment of a member.
And career missionaries on stateside assignment — the SBC has 40 missionaries of African descent — often make reports of their work in Sunday morning services.
“I have learned to do so much more than I ever even thought I’d want to do,” said Brenda Williams, a St. Stephen member since 1978. “St. Stephen has taught me to see people the way God sees them.”