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First Baptist intent on witness to Bitterroot Valley & beyond

HAMILTON, Mont. (BP)–The lumber mills have shut down but several log-home building firms still operate out of the Bitterroot Valley in southwestern Montana. So do two medical research laboratories.

But snuggled between the Bitterroot and Sapphire mountain ranges, the long, narrow valley straddled by State Highway 93 now thrives mainly because of tourism and the resulting influx of new homeowners — about 11,000 people in the last 10 years.

First Baptist Church in the county seat town of Hamilton (population 4,000) thrives too. In little more than six years — when the congregation at the time called Tom Jones as pastor — it has grown from 25 in attendance in Sunday morning worship to about 250. This is Jones’ first pastorate.

The church is a family, the pastor said, a family connected by Cooperative Program (CP) Missions to all the other Southern Baptist families across the nation.

“Sure there are going to be times we disagree,” the pastor said of the week-in, week-out life of a growing church and its outreach, “but who leaves a family just because of a disagreement? If there’s a problem we don’t backbite and gossip. I will call a meeting and we talk about it. We get it out and get on with God’s business.”

God’s business, Jones said, is reaching the Bitterroot Valley with the message of his love. The church’s overarching vision is to evangelize the sinner, equip the saint and exalt the Savior.

“All we do is tied into these three things,” Jones said. “The simpler the better.

“My heart is in evangelism and reaching and teaching the Word of God,” he continued, noting that God calls pastors to be shepherds and not CEOs. “I believe the Word of God. I believe I feed my sheep by putting food on the table.”

The people respond. First Baptist last year, with 45 baptisms, had more baptisms than any of the other 103 congregations in the Montana Southern Baptist Fellowship.

The Hamilton congregation is at the 70 percent completion point of a new worship center/multipurpose room debt-free, but that hasn’t hindered it from continuing to give about 20 percent of its income to missions, including 12.5 percent to CP Missions, Southern Baptists’ method of supporting global missions.

“We take the idea of cooperation seriously,” Jones said. “Being a good neighbor is important here.”

Jones also noted, “I believe our missionaries have hearts filled with love for Jesus. When you have people who have that passion and that calling, and churches who are committed to supporting those called, when you put those ingredients together, to me that’s the best recipe for getting the work done, for accomplishing the Great Commission.”

“Needing each other” is the essence of CP Missions, the pastor pointed out.

With a budget of about $198,000, the church pays the part-time salary of five people: youth minister, music/education minister, secretary, treasurer and custodian. The pastor is full-time. A three-man elder council and a five-man deacon board also help lead the church.

Like a good neighbor, First Baptist also lives with an open hand that is eager to help, the pastor said. “I think God honors that. He pours it in so we give it back out. There’s so many churches that think they need so many things to be effective. They don’t. They’ve got the Word of God and each other. That’s all they need.”

A strong commitment to the Word of God undergirds everything the church does, Jones reiterated. When the church rewrote its constitution a year ago, it was stipulated that women were not to be in a position of leadership over a man. “Equal value but different in function is what Paul was saying,” the pastor explained.

When he noticed that the Bible referred both to elders and deacons, and gave each different responsibilities, the pastor saw how beneficial for the congregation it would be to have the administrative help of elders, which would leave the deacons free to serve.

“It’s a love relationship,” Jones said. “Nobody’s more special than anybody else in this church. I like to be in the shadows. My heart is training men to be leaders in the community, in the church and in their homes.”

First Baptist interacts with its community in a variety of ways: an annual block party, Vacation Bible School, food distribution to the needy, participation in Right To Life poster-holding rallies on the highway’s edge and ministry at a local nursing home three times a month — once a month just to serve ice cream.

The church’s senior adults connect regularly with other senior adult groups for joint events; the youth do the same with other teens; and all ages participate in First Baptist’s softball team as well as in the region’s active ministerial association, which sponsors such events as quarterly prayer vigils and Christian concerts.

Soon to be in their second year of learning and using the “Share Jesus Without Fear” materials from LifeWay Christian Resources, several church members have become adept at the art of naturally introducing subjects of an eternal nature into ordinary conversation, the pastor said.

The church also is one of Montana’s strongest givers to CP Missions, according to fellowship records. In addition to 12.5 percent to the Cooperative Program — up from 11.5 percent a year ago — an additional 5 percent is given to Glacier Baptist Association.

The Hamilton congregation also helps support three mission pastors in Mexico and one in India. In Montana it contributes each month to the state fellowship, Baptist Collegiate Ministries and support for a Bible teacher.

And the church is generous with the love offerings given when there is a need, such as a new Christian who needed dental work to correct problems resulting from years of drug abuse.

Meeting financial needs is just one of the ways First Baptist serves in its Jerusalem (Hamilton), Judea (Glacier Baptist Association), Samaria (Montana) and to the uttermost parts of the earth.

“We’re trying to win a valley to Jesus Christ and not just our piece of real estate here on Lewis and Cooper,” Jones said. “We don’t have a lot of money or resources, but we work hard. If you’re sick, someone is there to bake you a pie and to pray for you.

“Love just exudes from these people,” the pastor continued. “It’s not about us. It’s all about Jesus. We’re just people who love Jesus and who love other people. I tell my people, ‘God put us here to reach people. Let’s figure out how to do it.'”
(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: VISION FOR THE VALLEY.