ORLANDO, Fla. (BP)–Worship attendance averaged less than 200 and baptisms averaged five per year when, in 1976, Charles Roesel became pastor of the church dating back more than 100 years.
Today, First Baptist Church in Leesburg, Fla., claims more than 7,000 members and baptizes, on average, at least 200 new Christians each year -– a string unbroken for the past two decades.
Yet while the church has consistently ranked in the top 1 percent of Southern Baptist churches in evangelism and missions giving, Roesel still preaches in the same 1,200-seat sanctuary that was erected in 1962.
“We’re using God’s resources over and over,” said Roesel, who leads three Sunday morning worship services each week. “Use God’s resources over, and over, and over, and you can give more to ministry and to missions.”
Today, a multi-million-dollar “ministry village” on the church campus stands as a testament to a town of 15,000 people of what God can do when His people put the physical and spiritual needs of others before themselves.
The church theme defines its strategy for growth and evangelism: “Meeting Needs -– Sharing Christ.”
“As far as I’m concerned, the most effective, consistent way to reach people for Jesus Christ is ministry-based, servant, intentional evangelism,”
Roesel said during Connection 2004, a recent leadership conference sponsored by the North American Mission Board.
“Because of ministry-based evangelism, we’ve been able to consistently, day by day and week by week reach people for Jesus Christ.”
The church opened its first rescue mission in 1982 and has since expanded its campus through 31 real estate acquisitions near the church from purchases and donations.
Walk across the church campus and you will find a medical clinic, pregnancy care center, benevolence center, as well as homes for children, teens, women and men in crises –- all owned and operated by the church. And just minutes from the church campus, a congregation is meeting — in the largest federal prison in the country.
“If a person gets excited about a vision and what can happen, it’s amazing what they will give,” Roesel said. “There are millions and millions out there that people want to give away and the money goes not to the greatest needs, unfortunately, but to the best-written grants.”
Roesel said most churches, regardless of size or resources, could do more to meet the needs of people in their communities in an effort to build relational bridges to share the Gospel.
“I’ve never seen a time when we had more opulent buildings,” he said. “I’ve never seen a time when we had more money than we have today and I’ve never seen a time in my 51 years as a Southern Baptist pastor when we are less effective than we are in America today. If we continue at the present rate in America, by 2020 there will be more Muslims in America than Christians.”
Roesel suggested two reasons many churches do little ministry evangelism in their communities: fear of liability-driven lawsuits and racism.
“It’s going to be a sad commentary when the last word of history is written on America that the churches were the last bulwark of segregation,” he said.”
Roesel said the church has never faced a lawsuit related to the church’s ministry village during his 28-year pastorate.
“We … have a medical clinic on our property, birth control and abortion are non-negotiable, and we will present Jesus Christ without any hindrance to everybody who comes in, and that’s in the contract.”
Meanwhile, a Florida healthcare foundation donates a $250,000 each year and 30 doctors donate their time to serve several hundred patients each month at the medical clinic, which opened in 1996.
In 1987, the church pioneered crisis pregnancy ministries among Southern Baptists by opening a pregnancy care center with the help of a $5,000 donation from a church member.
Roesel said the donor told him, “You preach against abortion, but talk is cheap, we need to do more.” Today the church’s pregnancy care center ministers to 125 women and teens each month.
“In America, it’s now statistically safer to be on death row than it is to be in a mother’s womb, and we need more than talk,” Roesel said.
The church also operates a drug rehabilitation program in a 30-bed facility for men. Residents spend a minimum of four months in the center participating in seven hours of intensive Bible study five days each week.
“We are seeing lives transformed,” Roesel said.
And the church is reaching the world for Christ as well. Over the past 10 years, church members have helped build about 70 chapels, children’s homes and medical centers in Brazil, Romania and Africa. The church also is involved in mission partnerships in Canada and Haiti.
Roesel encouraged pastors and ministry leaders to be consistent and patient when leading their churches to reach their communities through ministry evangelism.
“The most important thing I can do is to model it,” he said. “I should not expect them to be evangelistic if I’m not…. It took five years of preaching, teaching and praying before the church moved from a maintenance mentality to ministry.”
Roesel, who serves as a ministry evangelism consultant with the North American Mission Board, said NAMB’s Ministry Evangelism Toolkit is an excellent resource for helping churches reach their communities for Christ.
The toolkit includes detailed action plans for a variety of proven ministries from conventional food pantries and benevolence ministries to literacy missions, after-school tutoring, transportation ministries and pregnancy care centers.
“As long as a church ministers to hurting people, it will never lack an audience,” Roesel said. “The impact you make is unbelievable because they look on you as truly a godly, loving, caring church that cares about people more than programs, that cares about people more than buildings, that cares about people as Christ cares about people.”
“His Heart Our Hands: A Ministry Evangelism Toolkit” is available through NAMB at 1-866-407-6262. For more information about the toolkit, visit www.namb.net/catalog.