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Former seminary president Coppenger planting church in suburban Chicago

ELGIN, Ill. (BP)–For years as a denominational leader, Mark Coppenger proclaimed the need for more church planters to foster the spread of the gospel throughout the Midwest. He now has taken his own advice to heart by moving to the northern Chicago suburbs to start Evanston Baptist Church — the only Southern Baptist congregation in the affluent North Shore area.

“I’ve been lifting up the cause of church planting and encouraging people to do it for years, and have the strong sense the Lord is saying, ‘OK, it’s your time,'” said Coppenger, who led several teams of Baptist volunteers in door-to-door surveys as part of the July 8 SearchLight evangelism emphasis.

Coppenger until last year was president of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Mo. Previously he served as vice president for convention relations with the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee and as executive director for the State Convention of Baptists in Indiana.

“In a sense we’ve envied the guys going out as church planters,” Coppenger said. “There’s something very basic and ‘Book of Acts’ about it, to be knocking on doors in a town where there’s not much of any evangelical work and sharing the gospel. There’s nothing like it,” he said.

Coppenger said that at one time he thought he would spend his career in ministry in the Chicago area, where he taught at Wheaton College for six years before attending seminary. Instead, he wound up as pastor of a church in the South.

He was invited to return as a church planter as part of the Strategic Focus Cities effort by Chicago Metropolitan Baptist Association director of missions Jim Queen. The Evanston area was one of two fields he was asked to consider. Evanston was familiar, Coppenger said, because he had frequented a bookstore there as a college professor.

“We’re the first work up there,” he said, noting that it is an affluent area — the home of Northwestern University — with very little Christian witness. “We hope to spawn missions all up the North Shore [on Lake Michigan].”

Coppenger’s strategy thus far, including Saturday’s visits, has been what he calls the “Evanston 150” — visiting each home on the 150 miles of streets in Evanston. So far, he said, they have covered about 1,200 homes on eight miles of those streets.

The survey he uses asks people about their understanding of the gospel, and the answers he has received have said much about the level of understanding of Christianity.

“It’s very rare that they will say something distinctly Christian about it,” he said. “It’s usually very generic.” And unlike in many parts of the South and Midwest where individuals will often cite a denominational background even if they do not attend church, many of the people he meets do not hesitate to say that they have no religious background at all.

He also said he has already made extensive use of Southern Baptist materials, including downloading language versions of the popular “Eternal Life” tract from the Internet site of the North American Mission Board to give to the many internationals living in the area.

Coppenger also is continuing to write about Christianity and the culture, with columns posted on the Internet at comeletusreason.com and listten.com.

Coppenger said he hopes to begin services for Evanston Baptist Church in the fall.

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  • James Dotson