First Baptist Arnold takes Acts 1:8 seriously
By Allen Palmeri
August 26, 2003
ARNOLD – When it comes to following the Acts 1:8 model of doing missions, Missouri Baptist Convention (MBC) churches can follow the example of First Baptist Church, Arnold — a congregation that wants to be a part of something bigger than itself.
“Right now there seems to be a missionary movement that seems to be catching fire all over our nation right now," said Pastor Gerald Davidson, who has been shepherding the church since 1976.
Jesus taught this just before His ascension, saying, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth."
Davidson leads by example. He leaves for Iraq Aug. 28 to be part of the first MBC/Focus on Missions team going in to distribute food and share the Gospel. In September, he plans to go to Romania to be a part of a strategic Missouri Baptist-Romania Baptist pastors’ conference.
First Arnold, located on St. Louis’ south side, averages about 1,800 on any given Sunday. When Davidson first came, attendance hovered around 400.
“Some churches get big and become a big business," Davidson said. “They don’t have that family closeness. First Baptist, Arnold, is altogether different. We’re a big, warm, happy family. You have to work at creating that environment.
“Pastors talk about having a six-month honeymoon, but it’s not been that way here. I’ve been here for 27 years and I’ve had a 27-year honeymoon."
Reaching out through sports
Ron Lowry strives to be the warm-hearted church member, typical of First Arnold. Lowry left his job as a heavy equipment mechanic to become director of the Family Life Center, a 77,000-square-foot facility that the church uses to connect with the community through sports.
“I simply love our church," Lowry said. “I got saved in 1994. They just sort of loved me into the fellowship."
Five years later he was directing the Family Life Center, which caters to the community. In fact about 80 percent of the center’s usage can be traced to those who are not church members.
“God built this Family Life Center just for me (to serve)," he said. “I believe God is that good. I’ve been in the job of my dreams now for five years."
The center looks like a YMCA in that it has a gymnasium encircled by an elevated track. A product of the vision and wise labor of church leaders from 1992 and 1998, the Family Life Center welcomes athletes from Arnold and nearby Imperial at no charge.
“We’re out there delivering the message of Christ with everything we do," Lowry said.
A historical perspective
Dale Eiceman remembers when First Arnold held church in an old, white wooden building affectionately called “The White House." The faithful sat on metal chairs back then. There was no air conditioning.
Eiceman joined the church in 1961. He was chairman of the deacons in 1974, and two years later he was chairman of the search committee that called Davidson.
“People trusted him to lead out with the vision that God gave him," Eiceman recalled. “We never really questioned that leadership. He always had a vision for outreach, primarily."
Back then it was tough to get 600 people in church, Eiceman said. Then one day attendance hit a record high of 614. That became the mark for a couple of years, he said, until it all of a sudden it shot up to 1,000.
One of the things that Eiceman admires about Davidson is his ability to make things right. For the most part, the church has been a stranger to controversy for the last 27 years; nothing that would even resemble a church split has come to pass.
“He takes any kind of problem that comes up and just hits it head on," Eiceman said. “He just will not allow things to stew and fester."
A man of integrity
When Davidson was being considered for the pastorate on Memorial Day weekend, 1976, Bob Lane was as close as any layman could be to the process. Eiceman and Lane functioned as the church’s two eyes, doing their duty as they scrutinized the man who was to become their pastor.
Lane is deceased, but his daughter, Debbie Graham, serves as a full-time music associate on the church staff.
“I know my dad was very much a follower of Brother Gerald," Graham said. “He was always supportive of him. He never called him Brother Gerald. He always called him his pastor.
“Brother Gerald is true to preaching the Gospel. He doesn’t waver on that and he doesn’t make excuses for it. He does not compromise that. He is a man of great integrity. He’s not perfect. None of us are. But he’s not wavered on his integrity in terms of doing what’s right."
Doing what is right in 2003 means that the pastor, 67, is planning to go to both Iraq and Romania, leading by example in the area of missions as the church stays focused on the beauty and the power of Acts 1:8. As a church, First Arnold has spent untold dollars and sent a plethora of its members on mission trips each year to far-flung destinations, ranging from Taiwan to Texas.
An army of volunteers
In the comfort of his office, Davidson is looking for a few good adjectives. He wants to give The Pathway readers an accurate picture of the sheep he shepherds.
“We have a strong, committed, Bible-centered, Bible-believing, dedicated congregation," he said. “We’ve got literally hundreds of people who are volunteers. They work, labor, give of their time and their energies. It’s a big, warm, happy family."
Ed Callahan served on staff within that family from 1991 to 2003, when he left to become associate pastor/worship ministries with Sheridan Hills Baptist Church, Hollywood, Fla., in April. He concurs with what Davidson said about the people of First, Arnold.
“The work ethic of the congregation is phenomenal," Callahan said.
Jim Nicolls, mission coordinator for the church, has seen the church work through several challenges since he became a member in the mid-1980s. It was really quite simple what attracted him to the church.
“The reason I joined was because of their evangelistic attitude, their desire to reach people," Nicolls said.
In so doing, as the multiplication power of Acts 1:8 keeps reverberating from the center of Davidson’s vision, one constant remains.
“I’ve reminded Brother Gerald over the years that the thing that frustrates me the most about him is also the thing I admire the most – his ability to wait on God," Nicolls said.