By Karen L. Willoughby
WEST PLAINS (BP) – When it comes to fulfilling the Great Commission, First Baptist Church in West Plains is committed to the path that leads to the greatest impact.
“There may be other approaches that have been successful, but I haven’t heard of another system that’s ever impressed me more than CP,” Pastor Spencer Ray said.
“We may not be winning the whole world all by ourselves – by working together as the Southern Baptist Convention – but I don’t know that anyone else is doing any more with their approach. I remain very satisfied with how CP helps the local church impact the world.”
Newt Brill, a local attorney and chairman of the church’s finance committee, is well-versed in the benefits of cooperation.
“People competed for mission dollars before we got into the Cooperative Program,” Brill said. “This is just a better system, the way we allocate things – [for] seminaries, children’s homes, homes for the elderly – as well as our missionaries overseas. It would be very difficult for every one of those to compete. The Cooperative Program just works better.”
Brill added, “We probably would have a real battle on our hands if we tried to decrease our Cooperative Program giving – not that we want to.”
The Cooperative Program is Southern Baptists’ method of combining the efforts and resources of local churches to support the missions and ministries of state conventions and the SBC.
First Baptist reflects Ray’s and Brill’s outlook by giving 15 percent of undesignated offerings to missions through the Cooperative Program.
The Missouri congregation is too busy discipling members, growing new Christians and reaching out into the community to waste unproductive time, said Ray, pastor at this church since last spring, who has been in the ministry since he was 19.
In becoming First Baptist’s pastor, Ray now is about 30 miles from where he grew up, recalling the excitement of going to McDonald’s and Wal-Mart at West Plains as a youngster. The 12,000-population town “feels like home,” he said.
He said he also can feel vestiges of the area’s – and the church’s – spiritual awakening in the late 1960s.
“A lot of the churches in this region were experiencing in-depth prayer and repentance, [and that led to] bars closing down,” Ray said. “Now they’re seniors here, but in the 1960s they were young professionals. To be coming on the team with them and be in prayer with them about the next 40 years is very exciting to me.”
About 750 people attend First Baptist’s three worship services, one of which is a contemporary service that meets offsite in what is referred to as “The Grove.” West Plains is in the Ozark Mountains of south-central Missouri, a bit north of the Arkansas/Missouri state line.
Sunday School classes remain small, to foster relationship-building and in-depth Bible study, the pastor said. Discipleship takes place at varied times throughout the week, depending on the makeup of the group.
At least 50 First Baptist members have gone out visiting one night a week over the last two months, including about 20 teens who mostly visit other teens. But “last week they just went out knocking on doors,” the pastor said. “They’ve discovered they can knock on doors without being afraid,” he added, including adults as well as teens in that statement.
Sunday School attendance has grown by about 50 since church members started visiting, the pastor said.
Wednesday evening activities include AWANA for younger children; fourth- through sixth-graders participate in “2911,” a program developed by the children’s minister based on Jeremiah 29:11. The youth meet for discipleship-based Bible study. Some adults practice with the choir. Bible study, prayer and training for a new mentoring ministry also take place on Wednesdays.
Ray envisions a goal of developing 20 mentors, “to hook them up with new believers in one-on-one and couple-to-couple basic discipleship,” using materials developed by a Kansas City church that he first utilized during a previous pastorate. “It was very successful in bringing new believers to the point where they were leading classes, serving on committees. Our goal here is within five years to have 100 people involved in this – 50 mentors and 50 new believers,” Ray said.
“Right now I’m giving [the mentors] a crash course, an introduction, so we can literally see and moderate the method of their meeting [with the new believer],” the pastor continued. “I’m showing them how to weave life experience with Scripture and the lesson, to show how this [spiritual truth] benefitted them in their life.”
First Baptist sent 40 teens and adults on a two-week mission trip this summer to Cincinnati to help a small church visit in its community, host a Vacation Bible School and gut/renovate its flood-ravaged basement.
“Since then, the church members there are continuing to knock on doors and meet their neighbors,” Ray said. “The ministry we did among them was very reviving for that church.”
First Baptist’s activity in the local community continually stokes the church’s revival fires. The church recently gave out 500 backpacks stuffed with school supplies to needy youngsters in an annual project organized by several Sunday School classes. The same weekend, the church’s Woman’s Missionary Union has sponsored a clothing giveaway that also draws participation by several other churches.
“Our gym was full of clothing and underwear,” the pastor said. About 100 families reached with this ministry said they were not connected to a church, so First Baptist maintained contact with them. The church invited them to a cookout and swim at the local civic center, and 30 families attended.
The church also has converted a former bus depot into a food pantry. Staffed with volunteers, it’s open twice a week.
Three years ago, First Baptist’s deacons “began to aggressively encourage the church to increase their benevolence budget” to help area residents with emergency relief, Ray said. It grew from $10,000 to $47,000, and because of it and the food pantry, First Baptist has become known as a church that helps people. Twice a week several deacons meet at the church to meet with people who need help with utility bills and other emergency financial needs.
“It’s very well-organized,” Ray said. “They have little by little and step by step built ways to reach out to the community.
“The economy is affecting us. We’re having to cut the budget like everyone else, but this church is very solid,” the pastor said. “We have a strong base of median-aged young adults. A strong example has been set for them by the people who were part of the spiritual awakening in the 1960s … . That example has made it seem like the cool thing for people to volunteer so much time in the church.
“The word I’m hearing is that so many of the country churches today are drying up,” the pastor commented in a stream of thoughts linking discipling new believers with volunteering and people’s needs in that part of the state.
“I hope we might bring back the old program of lay preachers. This is kind of the next step in my emphasis on discipleship,” Ray said. “I would like to see the fire of our church spread out by … supplying lay preachers who contagiously carry that spiritual fire out there.”