LEXINGTON, S.C. (BP)–Three young pastors have different fresh ideas about “being the church” — in a growing community in South Carolina, a coal mining town in Pennsylvania and in rural northeastern Alabama — but they share an appreciation for the Cooperative Program and for being part of the Southern Baptist Convention.
The Cooperative Program (CP) is “big picture” and yet “tight focus,” the pastors say of how CP extends their churches’ witness globally and, at the same time, needs every church to do its part for maximum effectiveness.
ROBERT TIMS, LEXINGTON, S.C. — Lake Murray Baptist Church was launched 27 years ago with the help of the Cooperative Program and several local churches in a growing area a few miles outside of Lexington, S.C. The town has since grown out to the church and past it, and the church has grown with it.
“The Cooperative Program was there at the start of this church, and it’s a gift we’re paying forward,” said Robert Tims, who leads the church as pastor for preaching and leadership.
During the 15 years in student ministry preceding his call to the pastorate and during his preparation for the ministry at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Beeson Divinity School, Tims saw firsthand the fruit of the Cooperative Program.
He saw churches, church-planting pastors and ministries empowered by Cooperative Program gifts. He saw the limitations when CP support was not available. He saw students able to take low- or no-pay ministry positions while in seminary because their expenses were kept low because Southern Baptists churches were committed to theological education through the Cooperative Program. He saw students graduating without major educational debt because of the assistance they received from the Cooperative Program — students equipped for ministry anywhere in the world where God might call them.
“What makes Southern Baptists different or distinct from other Baptists? Southern Baptists cooperate with other Southern Baptist churches in evangelism — telling others the Good News of Jesus Christ — and in missions — making disciples of all nations of the world,” Tims wrote on the church’s website, www.lakemurraybaptist.org. Lake Murray, together with other Southern Baptist churches, supports nearly 5,600 missionaries internationally and more than 5,500 missionaries on the North American continent. “Through our method called the Cooperative Program,” Tims explained, “we add a percentage of our undesignated receipts to the percentage given by other Southern Baptist churches to begin new churches, to win others to Christ, and to make committed followers of Jesus Christ.”
The Cooperative Program helps correct the “disconnect” between many churchgoers and their gifts to missions, Tims said. “The more missionaries we host and allow to share, the better, and the more trips we take, the better. If we make the connections between our giving and how it is spent, giving to missions through the Cooperative Program helps our congregation understand the importance of Lake Murray Baptist Church to God’s global plan.”
The church has a home for missionaries returning for stateside assignments and actively pursues opportunities for church planters and international missionaries to speak to various groups within the church. And, so far this year, church members have participated in short-term mission trips in Alaska, Haiti, Jamaica, Peru, Thailand, Nova Scotia (twice) and Cherokee, N.C. In 2010, missions plans include Peru, Seattle and San Diego.
While Lake Murray Baptist provides a full complement of Bible and discipleship studies, Tims noted, “More and more we are trying to equip our people to depend less on church programs and more on themselves to enter into the community with the Gospel,” resonating with missional ideas challenging churches to serve locally, plant churches nationally and adopt a people group globally.
“Therefore, our focus at this time is to fall in love all over again with Jesus, not the church or its programs,” Tims said. “We want to make much of Christ in worship and discipleship, and see that overflow into evangelism and missions and ministry, circling back again to worship.”
This shift in focus for the church has led Lake Murray Baptist to reconsider the impact some programs have, while reinforcing the significant impact of others. Open arms to the community include a preschool, weekday kindergarten, Upward Basketball, Upward Cheerleading, AWANAs and an annual Christmas drama, “This Man Called Jesus.” The Women on Mission group also is involved in several local ministries, while middle and high school students serve in regional mission organizations on a monthly basis.
Lake Murray’s 33-acre campus includes a multi-purpose building that seats 650 for worship but also can be used for recreation, fellowship and conferences; a building designed for 200 children up to age 11; an adult education facility, with room for about 275 people; and, the newest, a 33,000-square-foot building that houses the youth ministry.
“Going forward, we know that the CP will play a significant role in calling our people to be missional,” Tims said. “We’re prayerful and excited for the future of ministry through the people of Lake Murray Baptist Church.”
MICHAEL NERGER, HAZLETON, PA. — For Michael Nerger, it’s comforting to know that he’s not alone as he plants a church in northeast Pennsylvania.
The Cooperative Program is a key reason “why I call myself Southern Baptist,” the 34-year-old pastor of Hazleton Community Church said. “Not only is it a wonderful concept of churches throughout the world pulling our resources together to make a greater impact for Christ, but it is an opportunity for our church in northeast Pennsylvania to help reach people throughout the entire world for Christ.
“The Cooperative Program has helped us in a variety of ways,” the pastor continued. “First, it has helped us with pastoral support so that the church was not drained financially because of my salary, but they could use more money to provide ministry opportunities to build relationships with people.”
Southern Baptists’ Cooperative Program gifts also helped fix the building they’re in, to make it more energy-efficient so more of the church’s tithes and offerings could be used for ministry rather than utilities, Nerger said. Because of the spirit of cooperation that goes with being a part of the Cooperative Program, mission groups from several Southern Baptist churches have helped Hazleton minister in the community, start a second church and prepare for a third, the pastor added.
“The Cooperative Program has helped our people be a part of something bigger than them,” Nerger said. “And they can see God use all different types of people to help accomplish a God-sized task of sharing the Gospel to the world.” Since its inception in 2006, Hazleton Community Church has committed 10 percent of its undesignated offerings to missions through the Cooperative Program and its local association.
In its third church start, Hazleton members are looking toward McAdoo, an old coal-mining town that has 15 other small towns within a five-mile radius — none of them with a Gospel witness.
“Our culture is not conducive to a very large or mega-church where people will drive far to come,” Nerger said. He should know. He’s a Hazleton native. He helped build the church when he was 15 that set dormant for several years, until he returned to start a new church that in time was able to move into the building.
“It takes a good six to eight months to develop a relationship with an individual and be able to explain and live out what it means to have a relationship with Jesus,” the pastor said. “One of our goals is to encourage them to read the Bible and find out what it really says about Jesus. Usually after that amount of time they actually ask us to come over to share with them how to finally have a relationship with Jesus. We have found that when that happens, they invite their family members to witness what they are about to do. So you are sitting there leading someone to Christ and being able to share the Gospel with their lost family and friends.”
Hazleton ministers in its community with “Clothe it Forward,” in which up to 10 items of gently used children’s clothing and shoes can be exchanged for an equal number of other items. A Thanksgiving dinner is to be delivered by church members to people who are working Thanksgiving Day. Christmas and Easter also are times when the church makes special efforts to reach out to the Hazleton area. Local “mission trips” have resulted in water-sealing a basement, new bathroom, new kitchen floor and “a lot of painting” for several area residents in need, Nerger said.
“We try to be true to our name and make a difference in the community,” the pastor said.
This includes asking town leaders what tasks they would like done beyond their budget, and the church coordinating Baptist volunteer teams to accomplish the task, such as a group from Virginia who helped paint the local little league ball field bleachers and dugouts. Mission teams also help with Bible clubs that take place in city parks — perhaps 10 in a summer — leaving Hazleton members free to talk with the parents of the children who attend the clubs.
“We try to meet people where they live and bring Jesus to them,” Nerger said. “We also provide opportunities for people to take what they have learned and apply it to their everyday lives. We are constantly trying to find the right balance of equipping our members and sending them out into the community to use what they’ve been taught.”
Hazleton Community Church is on the Web at www.hazletonchurch.org.
ZACH RICHARDS, CROSSVILLE, ALA. — “I am totally sold on the Cooperative Program,” says Zach Richards, 30, pastor of Union Grove Baptist Church. “Some may think the Cooperative Program has run its course, but for our church, there is no way we could be involved in as much Kingdom work as we are without it.”
About 120 people participate in Sunday morning worship at the Crossville, Ala., congregation –- about a 50 percent increase over what it was when Richards was called as pastor two years ago.
“For a church our size, we could to a small degree contribute to the salary of one missionary, and maybe help a seminary student make it until graduation,” Richards said. “But through the efforts of thousands of churches from small to large, we have sent out thousands of missionaries, helped countless seminary students fulfill their call, provided disaster relief all over the world, equipped churches with the tools they need to reach the lost in their community, provided chaplains to our military, made it possible for people to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ in their own language, and the list could go on.
“The Cooperative Program has helped us to see that even as a small church in northeast Alabama, we can impact the world,” the pastor said. “But it has helped us here in Crossville as well.
“In Alabama, we have a great group of state missionaries who are here to help us reach our community,” Richards explained. “If we need Gospel tracts to send with a group of teens who are going door-to-door, we can contact our State Board of Missions and they will send me the tracts we need. If we have Sunday School teachers who need training, our State Board of Missions can provide it. If we need materials to teach people how to share the Gospel, the State Board of Missions will send it to us. If we need to find out how to better develop the potential leaders in our churches, we can count on the State Board of Missions to help.
“In short, our state convention is a ministry partner to our church,” Richards said. “If it were not for them, we could not do as much and if it were not for the Cooperative Program, they could not be there for the churches in our state. So, through the Cooperative Program, we have invested in reaching the lost from Crossville, Ala., to the ends of the earth with the Good News of Jesus Christ.”
About 120 people — mostly young families — worship each Sunday in Union Grove’s traditional red brick church in a rural part of northeastern Alabama. Bible study, discipleship, local ministries and local-to-global missions all are important to the congregation.
Local ministries — in addition to the pastor serving 24/7 as a fire department chaplain — include a weekday preschool for the pre-K set, Bible classes for elementary students and a Wednesday night supper delivery service for seniors who can’t get out for small group studies.
In addition to events throughout the year designed for evangelistic impact or developing contacts, “our other approach is simply to make our members personal evangelists, with a heart for seeing people come to know Jesus and growing in their relationship with Him,” Richards said. “It is not uncommon to greet a visitor on Sunday morning who will tell me of the persistent efforts of one of our members in getting this person to visit our church.”
In addition to the 10 percent it commits to putting love in action through the Cooperative Program and its association, Union Grove looks for hands-on missions opportunities, such as the church in south Mississippi that needed construction help earlier this year and disaster relief work in a town north of Crossville that was hit by a tornado.
“Prior to my coming to the church, little emphasis was placed on CP giving or any other involvement in the SBC or state convention,” Richards reflected. “Since then the church has increased its involvement at both the state and national level and is now committed to increasing our contributions to CP as we have done once again for this upcoming church year.
“However, our desire to increase our contributions to CP is not based on any ‘unwritten standard,'” the pastor said, “but instead it is based on a desire to further our involvement in reaching the whole world with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Union Grove Baptist Church is on the Web at www.uniongrovebaptist.org.
Karen L. Willoughby is managing editor of the Baptist Message, official newsjournal for the Louisiana Baptist Convention.