NEW ORLEANS (BP)–Answering 200 phone calls in a year isn’t hard to imagine. But for Michael Procella, an undergraduate student at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary’s Leavell College, each call came with an eternal significance.
Many of them had just heard a Billy Graham sermon or watched an evangelistic television program. When the toll-free number was given at the end of the program, they stepped out on faith to call, and Procella was waiting.
What connected Procella to those callers? That’s where the Evangelism Response Center (ERC), a ministry of the North American Mission Board, comes in.
Procella has been a telephone encourager with ERC since January 2007. The ERC partners with Christian ministries in order to make telephone encouragers available around the clock to viewers or listeners who want to respond to a message or invitation.
“Phone numbers come from various ministries,” said N SRK Ravi, director of the response center. “We have a partnership with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. We get about 20 percent of their calls.”
Ravi said ERC also partners with local campaigns or short-term ministry work. In one evangelistic outreach to Mormons by evangelical churches in Utah, the ERC received 4,100 calls. “We had 32 decisions from Mormons,” Ravi said.
ERC also has aided Oklahoma Baptists in a statewide radio and television campaign and the Operation NOAH Rebuild project in New Orleans, an ongoing Baptist ministry to aid in recovery and rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina.
Blake Newsom, another New Orleans Seminary student intern with ERC, has been specifically worked with calls from New Orleans residents stemming from Operation NOAH.
“We have maybe 6,000 people [in the New Orleans area] who are seeking some kind of spiritual help,” Ravi said.
Both on the local level and nationally, ERC needs more volunteers.
Anyone can volunteer to be a counselor — either a telephone encourager or Internet encourager. ERC simply requires that volunteers undergo a two-hour training course, which is provided by the organization.
Bill Day, professor of evangelism and church growth at New Orleans Seminary, said he plans to allow students to participate in ERC as part of their evangelism class work.
In our evangelism courses, we require students to actually do so much evangelism during the semester,” Day said. “One of the ways this can be used is for students to not only complete that part of the course requirement but also to become familiar in how to use technology as another means for presenting the Gospel.”
Once the volunteer receives training and is certified, he or she is asked to make a 30-hour commitment for a year.
“That is about two and a half hours a month,” Ravi said. “They can choose their own timing, whether that’s after midnight, during the daytime, in the morning or when it’s raining outside.”
Volunteers receive a password upon completion of their training. When volunteers are ready to receive phone calls, they simply dial the ERC phone number, input the password and type in the phone number where they can be reached. ERC then forwards calls to that phone. When volunteers answer, a voice identifies which program the call is coming from so that the telephone encourager can know how best to greet the caller.
So far this year, Procella has led seven callers to profess faith in Christ. The first such call came from a single mother in Minnesota in February.
“She told me that she’d had a dream,” Procella said. “She said she felt led to call the number and to ask more questions about Christ and about the Gospel.”
Procella explained the Gospel to her. When he asked if she believed and wanted to give her life to Christ, she responded, “Yes, that’s what I want to do.”
ERC’s ministry to the woman in Minnesota and to other callers doesn’t end with the phone call. Volunteers are asked to report decisions made by callers to the organization, and ERC forwards that contact information to a church in the caller’s area. “Covenant Churches,” as they’re called, are then asked to follow up anywhere from three hours to three days after the call.
“We send a person from that local church to follow up,” Ravi said. “It’s not only witnessing but also sending follow-up material and bringing them into the church.”
Since ERC was established in mid-2006, the center has fielded more than 41,000 calls that resulted in 8,000 decisions. Of those 8,000 decisions, 900 involved first-time decisions for Christ. A team of about 200 counselors received all of those calls.
Ravi said ERC has an ultimate goal of 8,000 volunteers in order to adequately meet the needs of callers.
For more information, visit www.erconline.net. Michael McCormack is a writer for New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.