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Missions-minded church emerges from not-so-distant past

EDITORS’ NOTE: The following two stories are part of an ongoing series initiated by Baptist Press to explore and describe how individuals, churches, associations and conventions exhibit a passion for Christ and His Kingdom.

MORGANTON, N.C. (BP)–Four years ago, if 15 people showed up Hopewell Baptist Church on a Wednesday, it was considered a good night. Sunday services drew 150, tops.

The rural western North Carolina church, founded in 1870, had never sent its own team overseas to the mission field. With church rolls dwindling since the 1960s, it could barely meet its budget.

Indeed, the hospitable hubbub that greets visitors today is a stark contrast to the not-so-distant past, a refreshing juxtaposition to the serene historic cemetery situated in front of the bustling church.

“This church was 130 years old and dead as a doornail,” said Eugene Cole, Hopewell’s director of education. “It’s come back to life, and nobody would have expected it.”

Today, Sunday School classes are full-to-bursting. In less than four years, nearly half the church has participated in a steady stream of missions to places as distant as Mozambique, Vietnam, Turkey and Jamaica. The direct missions budget is tenfold what it was four years ago.

A new $450,000 debt-free fellowship hall stands adjacent to the church, with plans for a new education building in the works. More than 240 new members since 2000 have brought the rolls to nearly 600 today, and the annual budget has more than doubled.

Cole was the church’s music director for 15 years before his retirement in 2001 from a 45-year fulltime career. He said the dynamic, leadership of the Homer Murdock, who became pastor in 2000, is how God revitalized the old church. The pastor’s lively blend of passion and compassion, driven by a constant seeking of God’s will, is the example many want to follow, Cole said.

“It was a pretty dead and dry place before he came,” said Warren Norman, a longtime church member, echoing what various others had said.

Murdock — a disarming hybrid of affable southern charm and ceaseless motion — has never met a stranger, said his wife of 42 years, Barbara. The North Carolina native does get uncomfortable – perturbed even – when folks credit him for the church’s phenomenal growth.

“God just seems to put me into to churches He is about to bless. Without God, I am capable of absolutely nothing,” Murdock said. With a subtle, if military efficiency, the pastor constantly reminds listeners that everything they do must be to expand God’s Kingdom.

Undeniably, the changes at Hopewell are remarkable.

“Our mission work is just astounding,” said Wilton Daves, a member since 1955.

For decades, the church participated in Southern Baptist work nationally and internationally through the Cooperative Program and even helped to support two missionaries. Now, it has expanded its (CP) Missions giving and the number of missionaries it assists to nine. It took Murdock to inspire the church to know how huge its heart was for missions and his superior organizational skills to get them going, Daves said.

“He is the most organized man I know. His total being is about doing God’s work. It’s not playing golf or doing other activities. His pleasure, his will, is being totally involved in God’s work,” Daves said. “And he can just bring a message.”

Daves and Norman were on the pulpit committee which selected Murdock after their former pastor left unexpectedly.

The committee took an unorthodox approach, visiting churches anonymously, traveling thousands of western North Carolina roadways each Sunday and Wednesday for months. Once Daves and Norman heard Murdock give a message, they knew they had found the man they prayed God would bring them.

“A few of us decided we had had enough of cookie-cutter pastors,” Norman said. “We started to think outside the box. We wanted the Lord to lead us. We prayed him here.”

Only six months before, Murdock told his wife that he felt his work was done at their beloved tiny South Forks Baptist Church in remote Todd, N.C. Barbara knew from experience that when God spoke, her husband yielded.

So, at age 56, shortly before Norman and Daves came calling, he began taking seminary courses long distance and will graduate this year, at age 61, with a degree in Christian education and pulpit communications.

“I think the reason the church has grown is because people feel welcomed when they come, and they can hear great expository preaching,” Norman said. “I’ve heard great preaching like that, but not in the local pulpit.”

On a recent Sunday, after Murdock gave an inspiring sermon from 1 Peter about suffering, he asked if anyone needed to come forward to share a moment of prayer.

After hugging and praying with several men and women individually who responded tearfully to the invitation and whispered their sorrows to him, he blotted his own eyes.

“I love you people,” he told the congregation. “Some of you, what you’re dealing with, I just don’t know how you do it. I admire you so much.”

And they respond in kind, waiting companionably in line at the end of a service for a handshake or a hug from the personable preacher, loving him right back.
Andrea Higgins is a freelance writer in Raleigh, N.C.

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