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Missionary taps customized approach to help churches fulfill God’s plan

TOPEKA, Kan. (BP)–A blending of old and new methods provides Randy Cowling with the tools he needs to direct missions at Kaw Valley Baptist Association in northeastern Kansas. Meeting pastors over a cup of coffee is still the most personal way of remaining aware of the needs of churches, Cowling said. And yet, interacting with them online offers a new dimension of keeping churches informed of ministry opportunities.

It’s all a part of the association’s Acts 1:8 goal of “helping churches discover and fulfill God’s purposes.”

“Churches want more customized help for where they’re at instead of one big Sunday school meeting to attend,” Cowling said. “One church’s situation with 25 people is different than another with 150.”

Cowling and his wife, Doris, are featured missionaries during the 2001 Week of Prayer for North American Missions, March 4-11.

Debbie Carter and Richard Taylor serve as associate directors of mission and team up with Cowling to form a partnership with 41 churches. The 12-county area encompasses the cities of Topeka and Lawrence. Instead of being consultants with limited expertise, each one is assigned to 15 of the churches within the association; by focusing on building a relationship with each church, the associational minister becomes a resource in every aspect of ministry.

With the majority of churches having a single staff person and many of those serving bivocationally, the varied needs demand a customized approach. “Now we can be hands-on facilitators,” Cowling said of the new approach.

Since coming to Kansas five years ago, Cowling has encouraged the association to retool for greater effectiveness. Instead of 27 committees meeting occasionally, a streamlined association focuses on the broader categories of administration, missions and outreach, support, and enrichment. Quarterly board meetings with sparse attendance have given way to biannual worship and business sessions that draw five times the number of people. A core administrative team meets every other month to supervise the work of the association.

“For the past four or five years we have pushed, pulled, prodded and promoted the need for new churches and ministries across northeast Kansas,” Cowling said. In spite of the energy, time and resources expended, he said there was limited return.

Drawing from the apostle Paul’s encouragement for Timothy to “fan the flame,” Cowling said his staff refocused on helping churches discover and fulfill God’s purposes. “We’ve discovered that ministry is popping up all over northeast Kansas, and we’ve got to just get out of the way and let God work,” Cowling said, referring to the advice of Henry Blackaby in the widely utilized “Experiencing God” discipleship course.

“Ministries and churches begin from the grassroots,” Cowling said. And with the changing perspective has come exciting results. One church is developing Bible study for Hispanics as a result of providing food to area residents. Pastors of three additional churches identified similar needs and began meeting regularly to determine how to more effectively reach people for Christ. Multihousing communities provide the setting for social ministries that reach particular ethnic populations.

A cookie-cutter approach is inadequate, Cowling and his staff said. By getting to know each church’s strengths and weaknesses, one of the associational ministers can determine which ones have similar needs that require particular resources. “We’re taking partnership to a whole different level,” Cowling said. “By building a team approach, the churches have seen that we’re here to serve them.”

In addition to discovering God’s purposes in individual congregations, churches are cooperating to fulfill his goal for the region through missions. Sharing the gospel with Native Americans is a key part of the association’s ministry, ministering to three reservations with Potawatomi, Sac & Fox and Kickapoo tribes.

Haskell University in Lawrence, Kan., draws students from federally recognized tribes to the only four-year institution designed for Native Americans. Through the association’s student ministry, Southern Baptists share the gospel in an increasingly New Age climate. The future leaders of Native American tribes will emerge from the school to go back to the reservations.

Student ministry extends to Kansas University with more than 25,000 students to what Cowling calls “an Ivy League school of the Midwest” — the commuter campus of Washburn University, where 50 students gather each week for campus ministry.

Discovering God’s purpose for Kaw Valley Baptist Association has allowed the 41 churches to cooperate in starting three new congregations, including a Native American work, a home church and a more traditional start.

Cowling draws on previous experience in diverse settings to challenge northeastern Kansas Southern Baptists to discover opportunities for mission action. As a missionary associate serving as director of Atlantic City Ministries in New Jersey, Cowling organized ministries to casinos, resorts and college campuses. He has also led educational and youth ministries for local churches in Kansas and Missouri.

In order to develop leaders within the association to meet the demands of ministry, Cowling is drawing on technology to improve communication via the Internet. Churches exchange prayer needs across the association. And increased communication helps the association overcome the isolation of the many rural churches, Cowling said. “We’re all in this together.”

Cowling has begun to ask himself and others who is in charge of mission efforts. “Not a state convention and not the local Baptist association,” he answered. “One might even say, not the local church. It’s not you or me, but it is our Creator whose masterful design is before us.” He urges Southern Baptists throughout the Kaw Valley association, “Let’s keep our ears open, our eyes peeled and our hearts willing to follow where the Lord leads.”

(For more information on Randy and Doris Cowling, and other missionaries featured in the Week of Prayer for North American Missions, visit the www.anniearmstrong.com Web site.)
(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: ONE-ON-ONE PLANNING, CO-WORKERS and CHATTING.

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  • Tammi Reed Ledbetter