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Missionary uses outdoors for outreach

MESICK, Mich. (BP)–Evangelistic deer hunts. Christian fish fries. Wild game dinners at church. North American missionary Ken Wilson has a lot of tools in his Gospel-sharing tool box to win people to Christ amid the thick woods and crystal-clear lakes of northern Michigan.

“Well, our motto is whatever it takes, we get ’em anyway we can,” Wilson said. While he actually was referring to deer as he stealthily walked through the woods with his bow — dressed head-to-toe in camouflage gear — he uses the same strategy for winning souls for Jesus.

As an associational missionary for the Northwest Baptist Association also supported by the North American Mission Board, Wilson knows he lives in a hunting and fishing paradise.

“I don’t think God could have called me to a better place than northern Michigan,” he said, “because outdoor sports are huge up here. We have hunting ministries. The opening day of deer season is a local holiday.”

Wilson said he loves to hunt and fish with locals and the many tourists who visit the area because it gives him an opportunity to talk to them in their own language and then minister to them.

“We’ll have dozens of fish fries going on throughout the summer and fall, with several hundred people attending,” Wilson said. “We take these and make them evangelistic events. We have wild game dinners with speakers -– myself or outsiders –- sharing the Gospel with hundreds more.

“We even do evangelistic deer hunts. But we invite at least one lost person to go on every hunt, and every evening during the hunt we have devotions, share the Gospel and pray that lost hunters come to know Jesus.”

But even a hunting and fishing paradise has its dark side, said Wilson, who came to Mesick from southern Illinois in 2003. Less than half of 1 percent of the northern Michigan population are Southern Baptists. Fifty towns of 3,000 or more in the region are without a single Southern Baptist church. Many northern Michigan towns have a staggering “lost” population of 70-80 percent, Wilson said.

Within the Northwest Baptist Association that Wilson leads, there are only 15 churches and missions, and these congregations have an average weekly attendance of some 30 people each Sunday.

In Illinois, he had been a successful pastor for more than 18 years. Wilson had earned master of theology and Ph.D. degrees in seminary. He had served as pastor in a mission-minded, church-planting congregation.

“I had pastored the same church for eight years. We were very happy where we were. We owned our own home. Everything was secure and settled.” He wanted to continue to plant and re-start churches, but without leaving Illinois.

“I was hoping and praying that I could do that from my church there in southern Illinois. But God assured me that I needed to be involved in church planting at a different level.” Wilson also had to convince his 16-year-old son that the move to northern Michigan was God’s Will -– especially since his son had to leave his girlfriend behind in Illinois.

Wilson and his wife Cindy are among the 5,300-plus missionaries in the United States, Canada and their territories supported by the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for North American Missions. He’s one of eight Southern Baptist missionaries highlighted as part of the annual Week of Prayer, March 4-11. The 2007 Annie Armstrong Easter Offering’s goal is $57 million, 100 percent of which is used for missionaries like the Wilsons.

With the Northwest Baptist Association based in Mesick, Wilson today serves 10 counties in northern Michigan. Traditionally rural, the 10-county area is growing by 15 percent annually. Leelanau County and Leelanau Peninsula are growing at a rate of 35 percent each year -– the fastest-growing area of the association.

“But we have some counties with no Southern Baptist Convention churches,” he said. “We have fast-growing areas like Harbor Springs in the Petoskey area with not a single Baptist church.

“We have many church-planting needs,” Wilson said. “We need some partner churches to come up here and help us.”

Wilson said Mackinac (pronounced “Mackinaw”) City -– where tourism thrives in the summer -– needs a church plant badly. In the summer, Mackinac grows to 10,000 people or more, but during the winter it reverts to a ghost town.

“It’s a beautiful area and there are several things we could do in Mackinac City because of the tourism. But first, we need to reach the indigenous people of Mackinac, those who live there year-round.

“If we could plant a church in Mackinac, we would have a world-impacting church, because many of the tourists who come to Mackinac Island and Mackinac City are from foreign countries.”

Wilson believes it’s important to recruit “locals” as pastors and church workers because they know the area’s culture better than anyone else and how to relate to the people in the area.

“It gets really lonely up here and really cold by Feb. 15, when the snow’s 36 inches deep, and you’re looking for someplace to go and there’s no place to go. It can get lonely and depressing. So it’s a calling to be here. The indigenous people are here -– although they may complain about it -– because they love northern Michigan.”

With so few Southern Baptists in northern Michigan, Wilson needs all the help he can muster. He gets that assistance from the many Baptist mission teams who come to northern Michigan from locations around the United States.

“The mission teams are very important to us and help us reach the people,” Wilson said. “It’s also a real shot in the arm to our local churches and pastors.

“When the teams come in, we really utilize them. They help us in so many ways -– with sports camps, block parties, door-to-door surveys and Vacation Bible Schools. They even do construction projects from time to time.” In return, the members of the mission teams get to enjoy the outdoor sports and scenery of northern Michigan -– plus the reward of knowing their efforts make a real difference. One mission group, for example, came up from the First Baptist Church in Fenton, Mo., and conducted the first Vacation Bible School one local congregation, Greenlake Church, had attempted in seven years.

As a church planter at heart, Wilson loves to talk about The Orchard, a new church start in Traverse City, the largest city (pop. 15,000) in northwest Michigan –- known for its resorts and cherries.

“When I came up here in 2003, I prayed for someone to start a new church in Traverse City. God answered that prayer by sending us Rich Ratts, who today is The Orchard’s pastor.”

Ratts felt led to leave as pastor of Grace Church in Jackson, Mich., a successful church with about 1,200 members, and move to Traverse City. In 2004, they formed The Orchard with 120 members. Average attendance his climbed to 175-200 each Sunday and the church has baptized more than 70 since its inception.

How important is the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering to the ministries of Wilson and Ratts?

“We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the Cooperative Program and the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering,” Wilson said. “For every dollar we give to the Annie Armstrong offering, we receive back 195 percent. We couldn’t do missions in northern Michigan if it wasn’t for the Annie Armstrong offering.”

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  • Mickey Noah