News Articles

Southern Baptists follow torch through Idaho

IDAHO FALLS, Idaho (BP)–Southern Baptist excitement flared across the southern part of this state as the Olympic torch raced through the region on its roundabout way from Atlanta to Salt Lake City.

Torch rallies in cities along the route were designed to promote the 2002 Winter Olympics, which start Feb. 8 in Utah. The torch rallies were a rare opportunity in this Mormon-saturated culture to share the gospel community-wide, Idaho church leaders said.

Southern Baptist churches worked together in three associations for evangelistic outreach at torch rallies that took place in Boise, Twin Falls, Pocatello and Idaho Falls. Balloon art, face painting, street witnessing using Olympics-related tools, and even a 1965 delivery truck repainted with the Southern Baptist “More Than Gold” Olympic witnessing theme added welcomed visibility to the Southern Baptist presence in southern Idaho.

It also brought members of sister churches together for an adrenalin-filled two-hour event, plus a half-day training session and the planning that took place over a six-month time frame. At the rallies, Southern Baptists passed out thousands of cups of hot chocolate, Olympic pins, souvenir booklets, golden “John 3:16” coins, hospitality bags and more.

The SBC through the North American Mission Board had its Global Outreach team in place to help in the training; Global Outreach had informed churches along the Olympic Torch’s route of the opportunity for an evangelistic outreach. The southern Idaho leg is noteworthy for the excitement generated by people sharing their faith, for the associational cooperation, and for the receptivity to the message by people in an area previously thought to be resistant to a gospel witness, leaders said.

Idaho Southern Baptists used an interactive pocket guide — an SBC-produced souvenir booklet with Olympic trivia, athlete testimonies, gold medal winners of 1998 and a place to put in the 2002 winners — as they talked with people in each city’s olympic-size crowd about what it is that’s worth More Than Gold. The pocket guide also included a clear presentation of the gospel using the Olympic colors in an SBC-designed More Than Gold star flake — blue for hope; purple, darkness; red, Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross; gold, eternal life; and green, growth.

“People nervous about witnessing became very bold,” said Chris Costa, pastor of University Baptist Church in Boise. “The excitement that mounted was nothing short of the spirit of God descending on that place.”

That place was the lawn and street in front of University Boise on Jan. 25. Though no one in the church or association knew it, the city had determined the Olympic torch’s route would take it past University Baptist. One hand-off between runners would take place directly in front of the church.

“This was all a God thing,” Costa said. “It was way too big for us. This was God. But this would never have happened if the churches in Treasure Valley Baptist Association hadn’t gotten together and said, ‘Let’s do something big for God.’ And that’s the wonder of it all.”

Paul Thompson, pastor of Eastside Baptist Church in Twin Falls, led the church to repaint a donated delivery van used for youth outings, and to lend it to the Southern Baptist Olympic outreach. It was used as a mobile hospitality station in Twin Falls and in Boise; it will be used as a supplies transportation vehicle in Salt Lake during the Olympics.

“We’re looking here at Eastside for opportunities to be a friendly face, any opportunity that’s available to minister to people,” Thompson said. “It’s part of what we feel is our call.

“My personal call from God is to be in the marketplace, to be where the people are,” the pastor continued. “The church has the same passion to see lost and hurting people come to know Christ and be touched by the spirit of God.”

In Magic Valley Baptist Association, which developed the torch rallies in Twin Falls, relationships were solidified that will result in future joint ministry projects and new churches, said associational director of missions Larry Maxwell.

“All our people who participated in the torch rally outreach were very excited,” said Maxwell, an Idaho native. “People were swarming, asking for more and more and more of what we had to offer. I had never seen that in Idaho before.”

One side benefit of the torch rally outreach is that Magic Valley Baptist Association has a new energy now about evangelistic outreaches, Maxwell said.

“This torch rally was a shot in the arm for our resort ministry at Sun Valley,” he said. “Our people came back with an exuberance for the witnessing opportunities they saw would be possible in resort ministries.”

Eastern Idaho Baptist Association organized the torch rally evangelistic outreaches in Pocatello and Idaho Falls. Ginger Walcker was one of several leaders from at least six churches in the sprawling association to participate. She has been director of Baptist Collegiate Ministries at Idaho State University since 1986.

“Any trouble we went through was well worth it,” Walcker said. “We felt like it was a wonderful way to reach out to our community, to show Jesus to them.

“We feel like it’s important to serve our community, to represent Christ to people we live around and with, and sometimes acts of kindness are the best way of doing that,” she added.

In addition to all the “goodies” received by grown-ups, youngsters at the torch rallies received an Olympic coloring book designed by Mary McFarling of Idaho Falls that essentially was a children’s version of the souvenir pocket guide.

“This outreach had a very positive impact on behalf of Southern Baptists in a community largely influenced by LDS,” McFarling said. “Our Southern Baptist churches were the only ones that did anything religious. It was exhilarating to be a part of something with so much potential for eternal impact.”

Numbers weren’t a big concern to Idaho Southern Baptists, several explained. The focus was on getting out and getting connected with the community. Nonetheless, the Global Outreach office already had received 25 response cards from across the nation as this article was printed.

“The purpose was to touch people with the love of Christ and to have the opportunity to share the love of Christ,” said Pastor Costa of Boise. “How do you know the impact? God says His word never comes back void. We know He’s going to use all the outreaches the churches did to touch peoples lives.”
(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: SIGNING UP.