BONIFAY, Fla. (BP) — Four years before Send North America was launched by the North American Mission Board to mobilize churches and local associations to plant and support new churches in underserved parts of the United States, Todd Unzicker was down in the Florida panhandle doing it.
In 2007, Unzicker, 31 at the time, came to Bonifay, Fla. — located just off I-10 about 50 miles north of Panama City — as one of the youngest directors of missions in the Southern Baptist Convention.
Bonifay is the county seat for Holmes County, one of Florida’s most rural and poorest counties. Only some 19,000 residents live in the county. At the time, the Holmes Baptist Association consisted of just 29 churches, and 25 of those had bivocational pastors.
“Our largest church was First Baptist in Bonifay, running about 400 on Sundays,” Unzicker said. “There are four or five churches in the 75- to 100-person range and most of the other churches probably average under 50. Several churches run less than 25 people.”
Unzicker is walking, talking proof that churches of all sizes — even those in an area like Holmes County — can plant churches if they are willing to cooperate and combine resources.
God radically changed Unzicker’s life in September 2004. He had spent the previous 12 years as a sports reporter in Athens, Ga., home of the University of Georgia Bulldogs, where he loved covering Southeastern Conference football.
A member of Prince Avenue Baptist Church in Athens, Unzicker went on a mission trip to Honduras and then felt called to become a missionary. “I just got the overwhelming feeling that God was saying, ‘I’ve got something else in store for you.'” He later would serve as a missionary for two years in Honduras, where he planted churches and met his wife-to-be, Ashley.
Returning to the U.S., Unzicker chose ministry over renewing a career in sports journalism. Through a pastor in Bonifay, he was interviewed and chosen for the Holmes Baptist Association DOM (director of missions) job.
“I was totally unqualified to be the DOM for the Holmes Baptist Association. They had to literally change the bylaws to bring me in,” he recounted with a laugh. “But what they did want was a county missionary to make Christ known locally and to bring churches together to do things they couldn’t do on their own.”
For the past four years, Unzicker and Holmes County’s 29 SBC churches have succeeded on three fronts.
“First, our churches are on mission. Locally, we do specific ‘Love Loud’ projects in the county to meet the needs of people,” Unzicker said.
“Second, we’ve partnered with NAMB church planters and pastors to connect with local churches in New Hampshire and inner-city Baltimore.
“Third, with the help of IMB [International Mission Board], we have adopted an unreached people group, the Ayacucho Quechhuas people in the mountains of Peru, and we send seven to 10 teams there every summer.”
For three years straight (2008-10), Unzicker mobilized 60-90 Holmes County Baptist volunteers each July and led caravans of vehicles on a 23-hour, 1,400-mile trek to Nashua, N.H., on mission trips to support 12 local church plants.
“We worked all over Nashua and Concord,” Unzicker said. “Working with the church planters up there, we would do church awareness projects like car washes, gasoline buy-downs, park cleanup, construction, Vacation Bible Schools, Backyard Bible Clubs, door-to-door evangelism, block parties, sports camps and even arts camps. Anything to support the local church planters.”
“Todd brought the resources, the mission volunteers, incredible passion and energy,” said Sam Taylor, pastor of Nashua Baptist Church, the church which served as the New Hampshire base of operations for Unzicker and his teams from Florida.
“We are the established church in Nashua,” said Taylor of the congregation he has led the last four years, where about 400 people attend each Sunday. “But we still have limited resources to support these embryonic churches. We linked Todd and his teams up with the new church plants. Each year, the mission work of Todd and his volunteers from Holmes County was the highlight of the year for these churches up here. And this could be the model for other areas across the country. It would work anywhere.”
Nashua Baptist Church housed and fed dozens of the Florida volunteers, who fanned out across southern New Hampshire to share the Gospel and raise the community profiles of the 12 church plants.
“People do come to know Jesus up here,” said Taylor, a Virginia native and former IMB missionary in the Ukraine. “The Gospel is the power of God unto salvation anywhere. But up here you have to be more patient. It takes a long-term commitment to working with people, building relationships and planting seeds. It just takes time.”
This past summer, Unzicker and his association teams also worked in Baltimore for the first time, doing the same kinds of projects for seven new church plants there.
It would be easier, Unzicker acknowledged, to go to Miami or Atlanta or Birmingham each summer rather than make a trip to the Northeast.
“It would be easier and more cost-effective,” he said. “But we believe God wants us to go to the unreached areas of North America. We want to get out of our comfort zone to serve. We want to go where there are not a lot of Christians and Southern Baptist churches. That’s why we’ve gone to New Hampshire and Baltimore.”
Mickey Noah writes for the North American Mission Board. Unzicker recently completed his bachelor’s degree and resigned his DOM post with Florida’s Holmes Baptist Association to enroll at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C.