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LifeWay recognizes churches for baptisms

SAN ANTONIO (BP)–Twelve years ago Marty Souter kept everything he owned in an old box in the park where he lived. One remaining button held his only shirt closed, and ground-in filth covered his only pair of shorts. He didn’t have any pants or shoes, and the loneliness of being estranged from his wife and kids who were living only blocks away was unbearable.

But then he met Jesus.

“I was desperate and had no where to turn,” Souter said. “But someone told me about Set Free Church and it was there that I asked Jesus into my heart. It changed everything.”

Set Free is the name of the Yucaipa, Calif., church and its vision for ministry. Pastor Willie Dalgity started Set Free several years ago with the intention of going to the most destitute people living in the hardest places. As a result, Set Free was recognized June 11 by LifeWay Christian Resources’ pastoral ministries department as one of the Southern Baptist Convention’s leading churches with 728 baptisms in 2006.

“We just try to be obedient to Jesus’ command to go and share Good News,” Dalgity said. “We meet people where they are and minister to their physical needs, but then take them deeper into Scripture. We take seriously the command to disciple as well as evangelize.”

Set Free was one of 200 churches from 25 states recognized at the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting in San Antonio. The churches account for 47,195, or 13 percent, of all SBC baptisms in 2006. The two categories were total baptisms and baptisms by churches under 400 members. Florida led all states, with 39 churches that made one or both lists. Four churches baptized more than 1,000 and two baptized more than 2,000.

“I’m moved knowing that there are thousands of people out there who have recently come to Christ because of all you’ve done to do the work of an evangelist,” said Tom Hellams, LifeWay’s vice president of executive communications and relations.

LifeWay’s president, Thom Rainer, recounted the unique circumstances surrounding the first person he baptized at a small rural church, then noted, “Everybody here has a story of people from the most unexpected opportunities in the most unexpected places. The important thing is a faithfulness to share the Gospel.”

Rainer said that as he looked around the room, he was encouraged by the focus exhibited by the churches represented, considering there were thousands of churches within the SBC that had not baptized anyone last year. Focus was one thing Paul maintained — not being distracted by any particular crisis, Rainer said.

“If we aren’t focused on sharing the Gospel, then everything will fall to the wayside because the following generations will not know Christ,” Rainer said.

Paul also was “other-centered,” Rainer added, speaking from Paul’s letter to Philemon. “Research shows that 75 percent of unchurched people want to hear something about Jesus Christ while at the same time Christians are becoming less interested in sharing the Gospel,” Rainer said. “We are becoming evangelistically apathetic at the very time people are most open to the Gospel. Your commitment to sharing the Gospel is appreciated, and I thank you.”