COLUMBIA, Ill. (BP) — Discipleship is the priority at First Baptist Church in Columbia, Ill., and discipleship fuels the church’s passion for cooperative world missions and giving through the Southern Baptist Convention’s Cooperative Program.
“Our passion is to make disciples for Jesus Christ,” said Jonathan Peters, the church’s pastor since 1998. “Our need is to fulfill the Great Commission. God commands us to and, as a denomination, the Cooperative Program is the means by which we do this collectively.
New members are taught they are expected to be true disciples, not just church attenders.
“I tell them, ‘You’re not coming here to sit and soak,'” Peters said. “We are commanded by God to reach the nations for His glory.”
“Reaching the nations” starts locally for the church, which serves in a bedroom community 15 minutes from downtown St. Louis. Columbia is an affluent community with strong German Lutheran and Catholic roots, a community both heavily churched and scarcely evangelized.
“The majority of people we reach are through friendship,” Peters said. “It’s very difficult to communicate with someone about their real eternal need for God when all their daily wants are met.
“I think two things have been used of God to help His Kingdom move forward in our fellowship,” Peters continued. “One is that we genuinely seek to love people. The other is that we tell it like it is; we boldly proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ. We believe God needs to convert lost sinners. … I think our passion to be on mission with God has gained us a lot of credibility in our community.”
Local initiatives include using part of the church’s future location in the heart of town for newly arrived refugees to grow vegetables. St. Louis is among the nation’s largest receiving points for refugees entering the United States.
A 25-member quilting ministry “cranks out blankets they send all over the world, to soldiers, to orphanages in East Asia, to the homeless in St. Louis,” Peters said. “They put a Gospel tract in each one that says, ‘God wants to wrap His arms around you.'”
First Baptist also presents the spiritually based “Judgment House” each fall, an annual community outreach that results in dozens of decisions for Christ.
And just up the highway? Metropolitan St. Louis, where about 3 million people live in 16 counties, eight each in Missouri and in Illinois.
“We live just a matter of miles from very urban, impoverished, broken communities,” Peters said. “Lots of pride in them, but very much hurting. … We’re going to try to be part of the solution.”
Among initiatives in poverty-stricken East St. Louis and nearby communities: monthly outreach events that include feeding the hungry, providing assistance with basic life needs and sharing Christ through worship services.
A PASSION FOR DISCIPLESHIP
Ministries in Columbia and in St. Louis as well as throughout Metro East Baptist Association, the Illinois State Baptist Association, North America and internationally, are led by First Baptist members who have grown in their faith as they have been discipled.
“My passion is to see people become disciples of Christ,” said Peters, who serves as vice president of the Illinois State Baptist Association and, in the past, as pastor’s conference president and on the boards of the state Baptist foundation and children’s home. “I very much dedicate myself to discipling men, usually in one-on-one weekly discipleship. I’ll also take a group of 10 to 12 men each year and pour into them and seek to build them as followers of Christ.
“We have to recognize that discipleship is a commitment,” the pastor said. “Doing life together and helping someone grow in their faith in Christ is a process. In my experience, it takes two hours a week over the course of a year of personal investment being poured into a new believer to help them start well in the Christian life. Discipleship is God’s work but it takes time.
“I did not realize it, but that’s what happened to me,” said Peters, who was reared in Chicago in a secular home with a Jewish mom and Greek dad. “Heritage was huge, but not faith-walk,” he added. He went to Southern Illinois University in Carbondale where, because of overcrowded conditions, found a bed in the Baptist Student Center.
“I didn’t know what a Baptist was,” Peters said. “I figured it was a cult, [but by staying there] I was introduced to the most genuine people I’d ever met. Within 18 months, these guys just became my friends and over time asked me to begin reading the Bible with them. I was introduced for the first time to Jesus Christ and was overwhelmed at who Christ is, and His power, His ability to transform people’s lives, and the way He talked to all people — women as well as men — with dignity. That’s something I hadn’t seen before. …
“The campus minister began to invite me to play racquetball; I didn’t know [the conversations we had] was called discipleship,” Peters said. “Later I had an associate pastor [at the church he attended after making a profession of faith] who said, ‘Hey, let’s meet for breakfast,’ when we talked about the Book of Proverbs. I didn’t know that was discipleship. …
“How does someone become a devoted follower of Christ? Someone’s got to become their friend,” Peters said. “Little by little, you walk together [with someone who is not yet a believer], and God in time convicts his heart. … He’s worth it. God says he’s worth it. These kids who don’t have homes in [East Asia]? They’re worth it. The refugees farming our ground? They’re worth it. … We want to reach as many people for Christ as possible. If we do that, God takes care of the rest of it.”
DISCIPLESHIP IN GIVING
About 500 people participate in Sunday morning worship at First Baptist. The congregation has doubled in size since Peters was called there — his first pastorate — in 1998.
The church, which was saddled with debt when Peters arrived, now is debt-free and has begun saving money for a planned relocation from their land-locked facility. The new property already has been paid for — 47.5 acres of “the most beautiful, desirable place in the entire county,” Peters said. An existing house on the property is being renovated for use in youth ministry.
New members are taught their first few weeks about the Cooperative Program, the Southern Baptist way of supporting thousands of missionaries overseas and throughout North America as well as the work of state/regional Baptist conventions in the United States.
“New and existing members are constantly challenged to be missionaries — and giving to missions is one part of that,” Peters said. “I’m a nuts and bolts guy. I believe in tithing. God commands His people to tithe, to demonstrate His lordship over their lives. So we tithe as a church. We gratefully give 10 percent to the Cooperative Program and for us it’s not an option.”
In addition to the 10 percent of its undesignated offerings given through the Cooperative Program, First Baptist gives another 10 percent in various other Great Commission causes such as its 10-year partnership with The Sanctuary Church in Toronto, Canada.
Sacrificial missions giving has not compromised First Baptist’s missions going. When Peters first was called as pastor, church members already were participating in World Changers, Southern Baptists’ national home renovation missions opportunity for high school students.
Peters expanded the church’s vision to include the entire world. “The church is God’s missionary,” he said. “This is our DNA. Absolutely God is raising up people to reach the nations.”
And the “nations” aren’t necessarily overseas. First Baptist finds cross-cultural opportunities locally, in the association and in Chicago, where church members go for a “family mission trip” each year.
“There is vast lostness in Illinois, the majority in ‘Chicagoland,'” Peters said. “Our state must reach our cities, Chicago being first and foremost, in my opinion.
“We partner with Chicago-area churches,” the pastor continued. “We assist the churches in their expressed areas of need, whether it be through construction projects, community outreach events or worship and prayer opportunities — whatever needs to be done ….”
About 60 First Baptist members served Chicago-area churches this year.
“Whatever it takes,” Peters said. “Cook a meal, play with kids, paint a house, do a block party, etc. … Folks get missions in their DNA, and they soon know they’re expected to go overseas.”
First Baptist has sent members on 30 international mission trips over the last 10 years to 18 nations in East Asia, Central America, Africa, South America, Eastern Europe and Canada.
“You go and serve God on mission, and it’s life-changing,” Peters said. “When you fall in love with God and His Gospel, it changes you. You can’t be the same when you dedicate your life to sharing God’s love with a lost and broken world.”
“Our need is for the people of God to daily surrender themselves to the lordship of Jesus Christ,” Peters said. “When we’re abiding in Christ, He’s going to come out and people will be drawn to Him.
“I think we’re living in an ever-changing society, and whether people believe it or not, they are incredibly vulnerable,” the pastor continued. “As our church loves people and does life with them, we will have the opportunity to present Christ to them. I just believe God is in the business of bringing people to His Son.”
Karen L. Willoughby is managing editor of the Louisiana Baptist Message, Dakota Baptist Connections and The Montana Baptist, newsjournals for those state conventions.