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Textbooks, homework & even tests challenge this church’s members

ORLANDO, Fla. (BP)–Solo Christo, Sola Scriptura, Sola Gratia, Sola Fide, Soli Deo Gloria. An eye-catching sign at the entrance to this Florida church’s campus boldly displays these five “foundational stones” of its doctrine.

Pastor Bill Haynes of the Orlando-area First Baptist Church of Sweetwater not only wants members to know the meaning of the Latin phrases — “by Christ alone,” “by Scripture alone,” “by grace alone,” “by faith alone” and “to God alone be the glory” — he also wants them to have a rock-solid knowledge of doctrine as well.

Toward that end, he’s led the church in establishing the Academy of Christian Equipping (ACE), offering courses that challenge members beyond the level of the typical Sunday school or discipleship curriculum.

Haynes sees ACE, launched just over a year ago, as a “lay seminary” to train church members in doctrine, ethics and practical ministry. Classes meet Sunday and Wednesday evenings. There are textbooks and the teachers give homework assignments.

“I’m the only one, but I actually give exams at the end of the term,” Haynes added, explaining that the test serves as a learning and recall tool.

Courses are offered along two tracks: a three-year certificate of church leadership and a two-year certificate of biblical studies.

Participation in the leadership track is required of all church-elected leaders.

The three-year leadership track consists of 12 core courses — including Old and New Testament, biblical interpretation, systematic theology, church history, evangelism and other topics — and three electives. The two-year track requires completion of six core courses and three electives.

Among elective courses currently offered is one titled, “Hebrew for Believers: The Old Testament as You’ve Never Seen It.” The course introduces the student to the Hebrew language and to interpretive principles needed to understand Old Testament narrative and poetry.

Courses also are offered for youth. Among current offerings is one titled, “Beautiful Girlhood.” For girls in grades seven through 12 and their mothers, it’s designed to cultivate inward beauty through God’s Word. A course titled, “Meateaters 101,” introduces teens to “knowing and studying God’s Word on your own.”

The ACE classes are open to participants from other churches, but Haynes emphasized that “we don’t try to draw them away from their church.” He noted a youth director from a sister church recently took the ACE course in Baptist history so he could teach the material to the youth group at his own church.

Haynes believes ACE is offering members a challenge they want and need. “I think … we’ve let church become too shallow and too unchallenging,” he said.

Despite the demanding nature of the coursework, ACE has been “very popular,” he observed, with 250-300 people signed up for the courses.

“I think the emphasis on doctrine strengthens our hands-on ministry,” Haynes said, pointing to the church’s strong emphasis on missions. In just two Sundays recently, the church received $50,245 in gifts to assist a church in Turkey. Almost $10,000 has been given for ministry in Kosovo. Last year’s Lottie Moon Offering for international missions came to $52,668. The Sweetwater congregation also has taken a mission team to Jamaica and a team to New York at Thanksgiving and is planning to take a building team to Wyoming next summer.

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  • Shari Schubert