With discipline instilled in him by his parents and the U.S. Navy, Michael C. Ellis Sr. is pastoring an inner-city church in an economically-depressed area that is committed to missions through the Cooperative Program.
Impact Baptist Church in Memphis last year gave more to missions through the Cooperative Program than any other church in Tennessee that worships in an African-American context, according to statistics compiled by the Tennessee Baptist Convention. It was also the state's African-American leader in baptisms in 2009.
"We understand the biblical principle and significance of giving to the Cooperative Program as outlined in Acts 2," said Ellis about the church he started. "The Cooperative Program is about obeying God. It is a biblical principle with importance, which should inspired and influence by every pastor."
Impact Baptist Church is located in the Frayser section of Memphis, which once was home to blue-collar workers at nearby manufacturing plants such as International Harvester, which employed six thousand people before it closed in 1985. Unemployment checks gave way to poverty, and today Frayser is known for its crime statistics.
Impact Baptist Church is known for bringing God's love back to Frayser.
"One of the things I learned from my dad, who is a pastor, is that if you're consistent with people, people respect that," Ellis said. "We are consistent in the way we love people. It doesn't matter if you're homeless or live in a $5 million dollar house, you're going to be treated the same.
"We are very disciplined in what we do, we're consistent in that, and we're consistent in our giving to missions through the Cooperative Program," the pastor continued. "The Cooperative Program helps us share the Gospel of Jesus Christ around the world, and allows the Holy Spirit to give the increase.
"The Cooperative Program is also like giving to yourself," Ellis said. "When churches give to CP, resources are made available for missions and ministry. For example, we are preparing to attend a Tennessee Baptist Convention-sponsored African-American Ministers and Wives Retreat. This retreat would not have become a reality if it had not been for resources made available through the Cooperative Program."
An example even easier for his congregation to see is that it was the Cooperative Program that enabled the start of Impact Baptist Church, the pastor said. Funding from the Mid-South Baptist Association and Cooperative Program dollars from the Tennessee Baptist Convention, coupled with the sponsorship of Bellevue Baptist Church, gave birth to the church and continue to strengthen it to this day.
"When we come together we can do so much more when we break down racial barriers that sometimes go back generations," Ellis said. "Working alongside and with Bellevue, a megachurch, and our association, state convention, and Southern Baptist Convention has made all the difference. We would not have been able to do what God has called us to do if it had not been for these partnerships and relationships that God has established."
Impact Baptist started in the pastor's home in April 2006 with twenty members. Today, more than six hundred people participate in Sunday morning worship at the church, which now meets in what once was Georgian Hills Baptist Church.
Its name reflects its connection with Impact Ministries, an outreach of Bellevue Baptist Church, where Steve Gaines is lead pastor and Phil Weatherwax is community missions minister.
Weatherwax started Impact Ministries in 2000. Today, Bellevue Baptist and Impact Baptist members minister through Impact Ministries to meet the physical and spiritual needs of the community with a variety of children's ministries, plus GED classes, computer classes, job training, thrift store, and benevolence help, in addition to food — a weekly supply of groceries.
From the beginning the plan was to establish a church to spiritually minister to the people reached by meeting physical needs, Weatherwax said. Because of Michael Ellis' leadership, though, Impact Baptist Church has exceeded all expectations, the community missions minister said.
"Michael is a gifted man," Weatherwax said. "God does the great work, but He does it through people who put themselves out there. … Michael has the discipline to work out what God has worked in.
"He has great people skills; I think he excels in leadership development," Weatherwax continued. "Part of the problem in the African-American community is the absence of a man in the home. … Michael develops men who are leaders and people gravitate to that kind of man, and gravitate to a church with men who are upfront and living well."
Ellis also excels in the pulpit, the community missions minister said. "People forgive a pastor for just about anything except boring them in the pulpit."
Ellis learned his expository preaching skills from his father, Willie Ellis — who today pastors at Weeping Willow Baptist Church in Tyler, Alabama, and Central Missionary Baptist Church in Selma, Alabama — and from the many pastors he heard during twenty-one years in the Navy. The Navy also was where Ellis developed people skills. He worked in personnel management and retired in 2001 as a Navy Chief.
Among many awards Ellis earned during his military career was the coveted U.S. Navy Shore Sailor of the Year in 1996, when he was stationed at Point Mugu, California. He competed with sailors from 363 other shore commands across the world.
Sailors of the Year exhibit in an exemplary way the Navy's three core values: honor — "I will bear true faith and allegiance;" courage — "I will support and defend;" and commitment — "I will obey the orders."
His application of those values to Impact Baptist Church has helped strengthen the church and its members, Ellis said. Obedience is a key principle for people who haven't lived with structure or support for much of their lives.
"Obedience is not a legalistic thing; it's more a love thing," Ellis said. "It's saying to God, 'Lord, I just want to thank You for all You've done for me, and the way I show my gratitude to You and my appreciation is by doing what You've asked me to do.'"
It is by teaching obedience-because-of-love that sixty-six people found themselves to be obedient to follow Jesus' example of baptism at Impact Baptist in 2009. In 2008, seventy-four people submitted to baptismal waters.
"We've been baptizing husbands, wives, and children at the same time," Ellis said. "That's a God thing. He is building relationships; He's changing lives. When I have a couple who've been living together for seventeen years and not married, and have six children, and the husband had never been a part of a church, and now he's a deacon and they're married, is that major or what? The wife told me, 'I used to try my best to get him to come to church and he wouldn't come. Now he beats me to church!'"
Ellis said many lives have been changed through the ministry of Impact Baptist Church.
"I personally disciple a group of fourteen men," the pastor said. "It's important that men take a lead role in the church when it comes to biblical values and principles that will be established in the family, which will help strengthen the church."
He and his wife Angela are rearing their six children to be disciplined and have a strong moral character, which illustrates to the congregation what a strong family looks like, Ellis added.
"You can't have a strong church without strong families," Ellis explained, adding that women want strong Christian husbands. "As a pastor I have a biblical responsibility to disciple men. Jesus discipled men. I believe every pastor ought to have a passion for discipling men."
Among challenges in the Frayser community: It has been ranked as having the highest infant mortality rate in the nation, according to state and national statistics. This is related to smoking, abuse of drugs and alcohol, violence in the home as well as in the community, teenage pregnancy, lack of prenatal care, and other issues, Ellis said.
"But the primary reason for infant mortality is the lack of knowledge," the pastor said. "The Bible says in Hosea 4:6, 'because of a lack of knowledge the people perish.' These women are not obtaining the knowledge they need to have healthy births."
Memphis city leaders have asked Impact to be the hub for infant mortality resources in Shelby County, where the infant mortality rate is 65 percent higher than the rest of Tennessee, according to a 2006 report by the Tennessee Department of Health. The national rate is 6.6 infant deaths per 1,000 live births. In Tennessee, it's 8.6 percent overall, or 17.4 deaths per 1,000 African-American live births and 6.4 deaths per 1,000 live Caucasian births.
"They [city leaders] approached us," Ellis said. "They want a one-stop shop, with doctors and nurses doing prenatal care, nutrition, exercise, health education, transportation, and even child care."
Plans are being made for a fund-raising Infant Mortality Awareness concert to take place in the fall. Several artists have already committed to perform, Ellis said.
Each social ill provides entry points for the church to do ministry, Ellis said. Church members are being discipled so they can become part of the solution, so they can become disciple-makers who multiply the church's ministries so they stretch to wherever people are hurting.
"God has positioned our church through Bellevue Baptist Church to make an Impact on Frayser and Memphis," Ellis said. "He has allowed us to build relationships with schools, community activists, city officials, county officials, law enforcement officials, and other churches and ministries. They all know that our purpose is reaching the lost and teaching the saved — Reaching Out, Finding Out, and Helping Out is what we're about.
"One of the many strengths of the SBC is churches working together with a goal of obeying the Great Commission, Matthew 28:19-20," the pastor continued. "That's what we're doing with Bellevue, Mid-South Baptist Association, and the Tennessee Baptist Convention. The SBC experience is also one filled with Acts 2:42-47. That's what we're doing at Impact Baptist Church."