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Growing church has ongoing CP commitment

DACULA, Ga. (BP)–“People working together are stronger than any individual could be,” says Larry Wynn, pastor for 29 years at Hebron Baptist Church, where about 4,400 adults -– plus their children -– gather for Sunday morning worship.

At its size, Hebron could “adopt” one of the new work states in the Southern Baptist Convention or a Third World nation and make a significant impact, Wynn acknowledged. Instead, Hebron chooses to maintain its Cooperative Program commitment.

“It’s just such a well-rounded ministry,” Wynn said of Southern Baptists’ unified effort to share the Gospel worldwide. “Through the Cooperative Program, we support more than 10,000 missionaries around the world, plus schools, medical programs and so much more. To me, the Cooperative Program is a no-brainer.”

Hebron Baptist Church is among the top 20 churches in the Southern Baptist Convention both for number of people baptized last year and for the amount the church gives through the Cooperative Program.

The Atlanta-area church has grown from “not many” baptisms in 1974 to 406 in 2006. And it has grown from giving a fixed dollar amount to giving a tithe of its undesignated giving for Cooperative Program ministries for advancing God’s Kingdom.

“The main thing is our focus: Connecting people to Jesus Christ and His lifestyle,” Wynn said. “Everything we do we try to relate back to this mission statement. We focus strongly on taking the Gospel to the world, beginning here at home, and through the Cooperative Program, throughout the entire world.

“We teach this,” the pastor continued. “Acts 1:8, that’s our verse. Not everybody can go on a mission trip, but everybody can have a part in a mission trip. That’s what we tell our people: Everybody who gave, everybody who helped … they’re participants in it all.

“For us, we want our people to have a wider vision for the world, as Jesus did,” Wynn said. “Today, ‘church’ if we’re not careful becomes a consumer relationship instead of a servant relationship. We want to be sure that we teach our people that giving, serving and providing ministry to the world is important.”

From the time he was a lad in south Georgia, he’s been taught about the Cooperative Program, Wynn said. His earliest CP memory: Learning about missions as an 8-year-old in Vacation Bible School.

Hebron’s outreach begins with its community -– which once was a rural hamlet but today is growing with an influx of Atlanta commuters -– and as individuals are reached, they reach out in “their world,” the pastor said.

“Wherever our world may be, we’re to take [God] there, whether it’s Bank of America or the ball field. It’s every Christian’s opportunity and responsibility to take God to their world.”

Those reached follow through with baptism for three reasons, the pastor said.

“First, we’re not asking anyone to become a Baptist,” Wynn said. “We teach baptism because that’s what Jesus taught. Baptism is the first way we represent Him in the world. Jesus taught us to be obedient in this area.

“We explain baptism,” the pastor continued. “We make it very visible. We baptize most every service –- Sunday morning, Sunday evening, Wednesday –- so people are constantly seeing the act [of baptism]. And we make it celebrative. People clap as each person is baptized, and periodically we’ll have people who have been baptized give their story on the big screen. That makes a big impact.”

Fifteen years ago, Hebron’s main evangelistic strategy was CWT, Continuing Witness Training.

“It was awesome,” Wynn said. “It taught a lot of people how to share their faith.”

With that background, Hebron’s strategy has grown to involve the Sunday School, servant evangelism, relationship evangelism and “church evangelism,” Wynn said, noting, “We teach it in everything we do. I may be teaching about marriage, or parenting, and I’ll tell them, ‘But the greatest need you have is a relationship with Jesus Christ.'”

Recently the Hebron staff has been talking about how to nurture new Christ-followers. “We’re asking, ‘What is a process we can take this person through, to grow in their faith and reproduce themselves?’ We’re working hard to make that process more intentional.”

Closing the “back door” of the church is a constant challenge, the pastor said.

“Relationship is the key,” Wynn said. “People are looking for relationships. They’re already connected to God through faith in Christ. Our challenge is to get them connected to other people. If you’re going to retain people in church life, you’ve got to create multiple opportunities for relationships.”

Hebron also faces the challenge that the town has changed from a farming community to a culturally diverse community in recent years, Wynn noted.

“Fifteen years ago, if people were not in church they had some connection with church, but today many of the people have no church connection in their history or in their family’s history,” Wynn said. “Our challenge is to develop ministries and strategies to carry the Gospel to a culture that is not as church-connected as previous generations.”

One advantage the church has is that “we are huge in the community, very connected to the community,” the pastor said. A variety of support groups take place at the church, such as Celebrate Recovery (from a wide variety of addictions) and grief support “that provide biblical yet practical means of dealing with struggles,” Wynn explained.

The church opens its 4,000-seat worship center to awards nights for various schools and to various other major events that utilize what is the largest meeting center in the area.

Hebron works through its “Christmas Wish Fund” to help families with needs. The church’s global missions pastor, Ron Brent, recently met with more than 20 counselors from elementary, junior and senior high schools to talk about providing Christmas help to families in need. Last year that involved at least 2,000 youngsters.

In late August, Hebron offered a “movie night on the corner” across the street from the church. No Bible study; no invitation; no cost. Just a movie and refreshments. The outdoor setting after a 103-degree day drew about 2,000 people to see “Charlotte’s Web.”

“People have very little family time,” Wynn said. “Why not provide something for them?”

“Christmas on the corner” is planned for three nights in December, encompassing a live nativity scene, including camels and sheep; strolling carolers; yuletide refreshments; and Christmas concerts by area schools in an oversized tent.

“We’ve done Christmas musicals for years and got to talking,” Wynn said. “‘What can we do to connect with the community?’ It’s going to be a pretty cool deal,” he grinned.

“Our philosophy and our message never changes,” Wynn said. “Our practices and our methods do. The message is the same today as it was here 150 years ago, when the church started under a brush arbor. But the way we do ministry is fluid. It changes.”