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East Asia, world in reach of small-town church

PONCHATOULA, La. (BP) — First Baptist Church of Ponchatoula, La., pastor David Cranford considers South Korea “at the crossroads of Lostness Boulevard and Receptivity Avenue,” and leads his church in this small town to “do missions work where those streets intersect.”

The church pursues the goal at home and in the East Asian nation, hosting each summer about 50 Korean youth and leaders in the cultural immersion program Camp USA, and spreading the Gospel through an evangelistic mission trip to South Korea each autumn.

“We continue to focus on South Korea because there are still lost people in Korea, and our evangelistic strategy continues to be effective,” said Cranford, who leads a church that attracts about 500 for Sunday worship. “Korean people respond to the Gospel. In addition, we look forward to the day when our evangelistic efforts can spread to North Korea.”

But Cranford, pastor of the congregation since 2008 and in his second term as president of the Louisiana Baptist Convention’s executive board, sets his evangelistic goals beyond Eastern Asia to encompass the more than 7 billion people globally, he said.

The Cooperative Program (CP) — the way Southern Baptists work together to support missions and ministry –- allows Cranford to effectively expand the church’s outreach.

“We certainly can do more together than we can separately,” Cranford said. “And there is a certain amount of synergy in the Cooperative Program. It’s not one plus one equals two, but three.

“The Cooperative Program demonstrates Southern Baptists’ unity to the world as well,” Cranford said. “Jesus was very concerned we be unified and show unity to the world.”

First Ponchatoula, founded in 1915, has always been a generous church, Cranford said. It has given 10 percent or more of undesignated offerings to missions through the CP each year since at least 1980.

“The Cooperative Program gives [the congregation] ownership of the Great Commission and the opportunity we have to reach the nations for Christ,” Cranford said. “It gives them ‘skin in the game,’ if you will. They know they are supporting the effort even though they aren’t on the mission field as they pray and give and some go. Everybody can do something.”

The church also financially supports the Northshore Baptist Association and a variety of local ministries, including the food bank, homeless shelter and crisis pregnancy center. Nationally, the church partners in ministry outreaches to New Orleans and Brooklyn, N.Y., and through the North American Mission Board supports ministry in poverty-stricken areas of the Mississippi Delta and Appalachia.

First Ponchatoula youth returned to Haiti this year to help an orphanage of about 50 youngsters, and plan to do the same at a Guatemalan orphanage in 2017.

“We believe if we can get our students on a mission trip before they graduate from high school, we will have made a missionary for life,” Cranford said. “Camp USA (for Koreans between the ages of 8 and 15) is a part of that. It’s missions coming to us.”

“The Land of Morning Calm,” a common descriptor of Korea, could also describe this usually quiet town halfway between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, where the early-morning sun filters through the Spanish moss that gave the town its name from Choctaw words for “hanging hair.”

Each April, Ponchatoula explodes in population because of its annual Strawberry Festival, the largest community event in the state except for Mardi Gras. During the Strawberry Festival, the church hands out free sunscreen and hand sanitizer, provides a baby changing and care tent, and distributes church information and Gospel tracts at the church’s festival booth.

In mid-June, Southern Baptist World Changers descend on the area. First Ponchatoula hosted the event this year, as in years past, with more than 150 teens performing 16 construction projects. The youth repaired and painted the exterior of three houses, repaired four homes that had been flooded, and built nine wheelchair ramps.

As the first steps toward fostering a lifetime interest in missions, First Ponchatoula offers on Wednesdays the Southern Baptist programs Girls in Action (GA) and Royal Ambassadors (RA) for youngsters. Both groups provide several local missions and ministry projects throughout the year.

“The idea is to teach them what missions is, and to have that outward focus,” Cranford said. “We’ve been doing them (GA and RA groups) forever. This church is very strong in that.

“Our purpose is to lead people to trust Jesus, thrive in their faith and transform the world,” Cranford said. “We have little stations set up throughout the church that offer tracts for children, youth and adults. People can pick them up and use them to lead others to Jesus.”

The church offers copies of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association’s tract “Steps to Peace with God” in English, Korean and Spanish. Tracts are also available to Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous groups that meet at the church, Cranford said. The church evangelizes through letters, phone calls, social media, Sunday “Discover First” lunches and the distribution of the evangelistic TrueLife.org cards and website information.

“In our parish (county), 61 percent of the residents don’t go to anyone’s church on Sunday, and this particular geographic area is growing once again,” Cranford said. “The potential to reach people with the Gospel is here as never before.”

Many in society are questioning the existence of God, Cranford said, but are ripe for the Gospel.

“They’re still spiritually hungry,” he said. “We just have to find a way to meet them where they are and point them to the truth.”

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  • Karen Willoughby