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South Carolina church grows by teaching that ‘everyone can’

SPARTANBURG, S.C. (BP)–Pastor Donald Wilton’s team-based approach to ministry has energized First Baptist Church to reach Spartanburg for Christ. By involving as many laypeople as possible in ministry, Wilton has set an attitude not only that everyone can but that everyone must do their part to reach the lost.

The South Carolina church is Stop. No. 4 on SBC President Bobby Welch’s bus tour of Southern Baptist churches across the nation.

It’s a church that works four ways, the pastor said: pastor-led, deacon-served, team-organized and body-approved.

“We do not believe that my wife and I decided to come to this church and we do not believe this church called me to come to the church,” said Wilton, pastor for the last dozen years at First Baptist. “This church, my wife and I agreed with God that He wanted us to come to this church. There’s great joy and great security in that.

“Under the leadership of the responsible minister, the teams of people are the ones who consider what God would have for that [team’s] ministry for that year and bring those recommendations to the table,” Wilton continued. “This values each and every member of the church and gives ownership in the functional ministries of the church to people across the board.

“And we are body-approved, which means that every member is given equal opportunity to place their blessing on all that the church is involved in,” the pastor continued. “Our sole mandate is to determine whether or not God is instructing us to do what is brought to the table. If we believe He is, we bless that in the name of the Lord and we get on and do it.”

First Spartanburg has baptized more than 100 people this church year, including three in August who are in their 70s, the pastor said. For the last thousand days, he added, the church has added, on average, 1.2 members each day to its roll.

“Now, that’s numerical church growth,” Wilton said.

But he emphasizes that growth in numbers is only one indicator of the spiritual growth his congregation has experienced.

Among the plethora of First Spartanburg ministries are a Helping Ministries Center providing food and clothing, inner-city ministries, after-school programs, as well as significant participation in scores of city mission endeavors.

“We are extremely involved in the building of churches in Brazil and Moldova; our church just built a chapel for the South African Baptist Theological Seminary; we sent teams this year to Turkey, Croatia, Russia; we have our own missionaries — several fulltime families serving all around the world, including Morocco and South America, and I could go on and on,” Wilton said. “We give 12 percent to the Cooperative Program, and 100 percent to the intent, purpose and mission of the Southern Baptist Convention.

“We are proud of our heritage and totally supportive of the work God has called us all to do collectively,” the pastor said. “I believe the hallmark of the Southern Baptist Convention lies in the caption, ‘Unity is Strength.’ What we can do together is very significant, rather than trying to operate individually. Missions and evangelism lie at the heart of everything we do as Southern Baptists.”

Wilton’s “everyone can” approach also extends to leadership. He strives to model biblical principles in forming a “wonderful ministry team,” the pastor said. The 149 active deacons serve three years on and two off as under-shepherds to a set number of families in the church.

“We take the Book of Acts seriously,” Wilton said. “The number of serving deacons corresponds to the size of the congregation. Each deacon can reasonably handle only a certain number of families in addition to all their other church and secular responsibilities.”

One of the keys to leading during significant growth is to create ministry connections for members, Wilton said. He sees small-group interaction as critical to fostering ownership for the ministry among members, and said that growth comes with its own challenges.

“The larger the church, the more significant the gathering of God’s people in small discipleship groups,” Wilton said. “The worship service provides community; the Sunday School provides intimacy with people. Right now we are saturated. Our biggest problems are related to space, both for classrooms and worship.”

The church just completed a $14 million building project that provides for preschool, children and parking, and a youth center called the Hangar that seats 900 students.

But, Wilton emphasized, leadership and management and building campaigns are secondary to simply being responsive to God’s will for the church’s place and the member’s role in His Kingdom plan.

“The great challenges we have are to keep up from a human perspective with the massive vision we believe God is putting at our doorstep,” the pastor said. “Our human weaknesses place a limitation on our willingness to abandon our own basic self-presuppositions and do what God is telling us to do.

“It’s hard for people to lay aside their own dispositions and fears and move on with boldness and conviction,” Wilton continued. “But with God’s help we will do it.”