It's not easy to grow a church in the metro Fargo area of North Dakota, but it is easy for pastor John Flowers to lead Living Hope Baptist Church to give through the Cooperative Program.
He's seen it work.
"When I was a new believer, looking for fellowship on my college campus, I walked into the BSU [Baptist Student Union] center, which the Cooperative Program helped fund, as it did my seminary education," Flowers said. "When we were planting a church in Redfield, South Dakota, the downtown portion of that town was destroyed by fire. I was able to pick up the phone to our state convention director and immediately — immediately! — had $5,000 to help people with. That was Cooperative Program money."
As a result, Flowers added, several people made professions of faith in Jesus and were baptized.
"Southern Baptists helped us get this building," Flowers said, referring to Living Hope's purchase in 2003 of a disbanded church on one of West Fargo's main streets. "When I deployed for Hurricane Katrina" — he's a chaplain and lieutenant colonel with the Air National Guard — "the first people on the scene were Southern Baptist Disaster Relief teams. That's the Cooperative Program right there."
The Cooperative Program is Southern Baptists' method of supporting missions and ministries of state conventions and the Southern Baptist Convention.
"Wait. I'm not done," Flowers continued. "Here in the Dakotas, Cooperative Program money provides for leadership training, and some of our state staff are able to help churches in crisis situations and by serving in interims."
Beyond the CP support received by Living Hope, where about seventy-five people meet for Sunday worship, the congregation has pitched in $600,000 for the church's operation, including $100,000 for special offerings for missions in Dakota, North American, and internationally.
"I'm pretty proud of that, because they weren't Southern Baptist and most of them weren't even saved when they started," said Flowers, who has led the church seventeen years. "And now most of them get it. They understand what it means to be a Great Commission Christian."
From the first gathering in the pastor's home, 10 percent of each week's offerings have been given through the Cooperative Program, with additional giving provided to the South Valley Baptist Association as well as the special missions offerings.
"To me, generous involvement in missions is nonnegotiable," Flowers said. "I think if we as a church are financially generous, it demonstrates in a tangible way the generosity of God, and it says we are global-minded Great Commission believers.
"If a church gives a percentage through the Cooperative Program, every believer who puts a dollar in the offering plate is participating financially to the spread of Christ's Kingdom," the pastor continued. "Individual believers need to be tithing or moving toward tithing, and I think the church models that concept if it gives away part of its income to the larger cause of Christ in the world."
Living Hope also models being an Acts 1:8 church, though the church hasn't put that specific title on how its outward focus has evolved.
West Fargo is the fastest-growing city in North Dakota — recording 30 percent growth from 2000 to 2005. Today, about twenty thousand people live in the bedroom community, where Living Hope is the only Southern Baptist church.
John and Debbie Flowers knew moving to far-eastern North Dakota required a lifetime commitment.
"We decided even before we came here that you have to plant yourself here in order to plant a church," John Flowers said. "You have to stick it out. You have to remove the concept of 'back home' from your mind."
With the assistance of native Dakotans Bret and Lorri Ferguson, members of Temple Baptist in Fargo who joined Living Hope at its outset, the church set out to reach people who did not go to church.
One by one as new members have been reached, become discipled and trained, they've added to the church's strength and its outreach ministries. In the early years, community outreach events such as Vacation Bible School and backyard Bible clubs served three purposes: they helped the church become known, alerted members to prospects, and provided on-the-job training as visiting mission teams worked alongside Living Hope's new Christian church workers. Today, church members lead, unassisted, in VBS and backyard Bible clubs; they also spread out across the Dakotas to train others as they were trained.
Bret Ferguson, who, like his wife was reached as a teen by a Southern Baptist church in the Dakotas, had a vision early on for a car clinic community ministry. For the last six years, once a month he and other "backyard mechanics" in the church have changed oil, done minor repairs, and offered their vehicle knowledge to people in the community who didn't have the financial resources to have the work done. If possible, the people pay for parts. If not, the men gather the money themselves to do the work.
And every year since 2001, the Saturday before Daylight Savings Time ends, church members distribute about five hundred smoke detector batteries to people across the small city. "We've had several people visit our church because of that," Flowers said.
The batteries are supplied by First Baptist Church in Sun City West, Arizona, which is a regular partner in outreach. That's just another example of Southern Baptist cooperation, Flowers said.
"We've about maxed out our space," the pastor said, "and are thinking of adding a second service, but it's kind of tough to think of going back to [a smaller service]. You don't generate in a service of thirty people the excitement that you can in a larger service."
So, another option is starting a new work.
"We're waiting for God's direction," Flowers said. "We've been praying about it ever since we moved in our new building. … Life goes on. I think people need to understand there are times of harvest, but there are also times of cultivating, sowing, and even times of rest and waiting. You want to wait for the Lord at the same time you're busy doing what you are sure He wants you to do.
"When you start with a lost, unchurched person, how long does it take to mature them to be a tither when they've never heard of the concept? They have student loans, home loans, credit card debt, and they have a thoroughly materialistic worldview," the pastor continued. "They have no one in their life who has ever modeled biblical stewardship. It can take years for them to mature to the point of tithing. We're developing givers now, and while we're trying to figure out what the next step of growth is for Southern Baptist work in West Fargo, we're also discipling people and developing leaders here at Living Hope."
West Fargo's growth has brought in more than an influx of people, Flowers said.
"Having been here seventeen years, I get the sense it's not as closed and resistant a community as it used to be," the pastor said. "Some of the barriers to church growth seem to be coming down, and at the same time we have a very strong, healthy congregation. A lot of leaders are being developed; we just have a lot of potential for growth."