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Military service meets Great Commission

NORFOLK, Va. (BP)–Their lives center on missions, operations and training; strict time schedules; days and, often, months spent away from family; and a pressure to perform that can mean life or death. They live in a world that can be cold, devoid of light and empty of love — figuratively and sometimes literally.

This is the reality of America’s soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines; each has a unique role in global defense, yet they are connected in knowing what it means to serve, to execute orders, to be ready to give one’s life for freedom and democracy.

There is something about this environment, the trials, the tribulations, both in the job itself and in the relationship strains caused by it, that brings military personnel closer to the Lord and their fellow comrades in Christ.

And it is within this environment that a number of organizations, some nonprofit, some church-based, have come alongside military personnel to encourage, to answer needs of support and to inspire Christ-centered devotion. This intentional ministry, combined with the special fellowship inherent among those who serve, allow for a rich spiritual experience. In all this, service members find unique opportunities to engage in the Kingdom-building process, both to fellow military men and women and as missionary-like ambassadors fulfilling the Great Commission around the world.

For Gary C. Sanders, founder and president of the Military Mission Network and military pastor at First Baptist Church in Norfolk, Va., the aim of churches and para-church groups that work with military personnel is not only to provide spiritual support but also train and equip them for ministry as they travel the globe. Sanders has penned a small handbook titled “The Fourth Journey” based on a study of Acts 21-28 of how God directly and indirectly used the Apostle Paul’s association with the Roman military to advance the Gospel in the first-century world.

Churches in military communities often do well in sharing God’s love with members of the military and their families, Sanders said. “But what I have found in working with different types of military community churches from a variety of places is that only a small percentage of these churches seem to embrace the transient nature of the military lifestyle as an actual benefit. The fact that military come and go is actually strategic in terms of the church’s ability to get the Gospel out not only in the community but to the whole world,” Sanders said.

“This is why it is so crucial for the military community church to have a deliberate strategy to train and equip believers in the military for victorious living and effectiveness in ministry.”

Through his work with the Military Missions Network, Sanders encourages pastors and leaders from military community churches to be active in understanding the military culture and lifestyle, akin to the cultural orientation necessary for military personnel who serve in other lands or for volunteers who do humanitarian work overseas.

In this way, First Baptist Church of Norfolk has created a military ministry that utilizes a variety of strategies to reach out to the military personnel of Hampton Roads, where the Navy’s largest fleet concentration is centered around Norfolk Naval Base, encompassing more than 300,000 service members and their families. Recent initiatives of FCBN have included adopting ships, assisting a Navy chaplain with the base chapel’s Vacation Bible School and hosting and providing child care for monthly Family Readiness Group (support group) meetings.

“We want first and foremost to show the military of our community that we truly care about them and their families,” Sanders said. “The bottom line is that there are no strings attached — we are here to serve them.”

Other Norfolk-area churches have followed First Baptist’s lead. Tabernacle Church of Norfolk and Virginia Beach Community Chapel, for example, have designated elders responsible for coordination of ministry to the military.

Sanders said social networks are a key facet of this outreach, in which various faith-based organizations unite to disciple and care for the military through small group study and other avenues of spiritual growth and fellowships.

Among the organizations working outside the military structure yet inside the lives of military personnel are The Navigators, Campus Crusade for Christ’s military ministry and Officer Christian Fellowship.

Jim Gassaway, a full-time military ministry staff member with The Navigators, has spent much of his life both as someone in the military in need of ministry and as a minister to the military.

It was during his freshmen year at the Naval Academy in 1973 that Gassaway, a self-professed backslidden believer, attended a Bible study, then ended up rooming with the leader of that study during his sophomore year. The Bible study leader’s personal example and discipleship helped Gassaway’s walk with God grow exponentially. “It was the first time in my life that I saw someone my age actually living a life of faith that was practical,” Gassaway recounted. “He could naturally and comfortably talk with people about his faith because it was a part of his life.”

Gassaway began to meet other midshipmen who likewise were committed to growing in Christ, sharing in prayer, Bible study and discipling others. Through the influence of The Navigators military staff, Gassaway’s passion for leading others to Christ grew as well. The Navigators, in their 75th anniversary year, are dedicated to discipling people in all walks of life, engaging them in one-to-one relationships and inspiring them to teach others. The discipleship efforts utilize a Scripture memorization technique to impart key verses of God’s plan of salvation into the hearts of believers, akin to the words of 2 Timothy 2:2: “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others.”

And that is what Gassaway set out to do as a result of the mentorship and discipleship he received early in his military career. He and his wife Cindy were hired as full-time missionaries for The Navigators in June 1984 when he entered the Naval Reserves. The Gassaways then became Navigator missionaries to Naval Academy midshipmen in 1990, where they served for 10 years before eventually coming back to Norfolk in 2000.

“[Investing] our lives in the service men and women and their spouses for His Kingdom … [has] got to be one of the best jobs in the world,” Gassaway said.

A diverse segment of officers and enlisted personnel are on the same journey as Gassaway, among them Daniel J. Walker, 25, a 2008 graduate of the Naval Academy. He was a second class petty officer in the field of cryptology when he was accepted to the academy and, by “God’s grace,” he discovered Christ. Through Protestant Midshipman Club gatherings to study the Bible and through the Officer Christian Fellowship, he began to let Christ work in him.

Walker, now stationed on a Norfolk-based destroyer, attends OCF weekly when his ship is in port. “It’s good to connect spiritually and professionally,” Walker says of OCF –- “to get deep in the Word and see how we can be better servants of Christ as leaders in the military.”

A typical OCF Tuesday night gathering starts off with a dinner, then the Word. The group that meets in Norfolk has been studying Joshua chapter by chapter. As the group closes for prayer, the six officers in the living room bow their heads and, in a round-robin style, share their hearts, hurts and yearnings with the Lord. They pray for each other, for deployed friends and those PCSing (moving to a new duty station). Their invitation to God to work in all of it is central to the heartbeat of military ministry.
Adam R. Cole is a naval officer stationed aboard the Norfolk, Va.-based cruiser USS Normandy and a member of First Baptist Church in Norfolk. He has served with the Navy four years, first as an enlisted journalist and now as a surface warfare officer.

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  • Adam R. Cole