By Charlie Warren and Tobin Perry
LEAD HILL, Ark. (BP) – No more than a dozen children and youth were part of the church Rodney Fry was called to pastor three years ago. Sunday morning attendance was about 50.
Since then, First Baptist in Lead Hill, Ark., has experienced what could be described as a Great Commission resurgence: The church now averages between 160 and 180 on Sunday mornings – largely through conversions nurtured by missions education for children.
The rural church in northwest Arkansas, just a few miles from the Missouri border, has re-energized itself through Royal Ambassadors (RAs) and Girls in Action (GAs).
“We have added a lot of young families,” Fry said. “We’ve reached out in the three years. We did not have an RAs or GAs ministry. We had a very small youth group at that time.”
First Baptist isn’t alone in using Southern Baptists’ century-old mission education ministries to reach families who don’t go to church. Churches across the country have found RAs and GAs ideal ways to present the Gospel and Southern Baptist missions to a new generation of children in the first through sixth grades.
“I had been told RAs and GAs would not work, that they were dead programs,” Fry said. “We started RAs and GAs and they just flourished overnight. They have continued to grow.”
Charity Garner, Arkansas Baptist State Convention missions support team member, and Bob Fielding, former Arkansas Baptist State Convention missions support team member who is now with the missions ministries team, visited Lead Hill to train potential leaders to start First Baptist’s RAs and GAs ministries.
“Most of those leaders stepped up and are still leaders today,” Fry noted.
“The children have not just studied about missions, but they are doing missions, even at that young age,” Fry added. “We are praying that God will call a missionary out of our church because of these ministries.”
While the curriculum continues to garner national awards (the magazines of both ministries have won Baptist Communicators Association awards in recent years), the key to success at First Baptist seems to be that the RAs and GAs leaders simply love children into the Kingdom.
“The commitment of leaders and the prioritization of mission education by the church are key to creating outreach for the church,” said Jim Burton, mission education team leader for the North American Mission Board in Alpharetta, Ga.
“The outreach component of mission education has been overlooked by many churches in recent years,” Burton said. “However, anytime a church creates a context for investing in the spiritual growth of children, I believe families will respond.”
Many Wednesdays, First Baptist has up to 40 RAs and 40 GAs in attendance. Many come from unchurched families.
“Most of our baptisms have come out of our RAs and GAs ministries,” Fry noted.
Statistics released last year by the North American Mission Board show that nationwide in 2008, Southern Baptist churches with RAs had 26 percent more child baptisms per 100 children, while churches with GAs had 25 percent more.
As RAs and GAs leaders teach missions, a child will ask a question about salvation, Fry recounted. Each group has a leader and an assistant. The assistant will take the child aside to share an explanation of faith in Christ. When a child comes to Christ, leaders pray for and visit their families.
“Within months of picking up children in the bus, their families start to roll in,” Fry said.
“I’ve had phone calls from RAs who have said, ‘I learned this in RA class Wednesday and I want you to tell my momma and daddy about that,’” Fry recounted. “I get the parents on the phone, and they invite me to their home, and they end up accepting Christ right there in their living rooms. It’s just an awesome feeling. If we didn’t have this ministry, I don’t think those doors would be open for us.”
Jim and Angie Sprinkle are key leaders in RAs and GAs at First Baptist.
“It has been an awesome blessing to watch what the Lord is doing in their lives by a simple seed that was planted through us and through God,” Jim Sprinkle said. “Then to see the doors that are opened to the parents is awesome.
“One fellow would just send his children to church,” Sprinkle said. “The next thing I knew, the Lord had worked on him so much he was baptized and has become a member.” During a recent RAs’ prayer time, a young RA said, “Pray that my dad will come to church more often.”
Morgan Baptist Church in Skipperville, Ala., has seen similar results through Royal Ambassadors. The church started RAs in 2007 with six boys. Now more than 20 attend. Most of the growth has come from kids who weren’t previously attending the small rural church of about 60 southeast of Montgomery.
“I think it’s love and attention those boys are looking for,” said Fred Stansell, the church’s RAs director. “We give it to them.”
That kind of love and attention also draws the boys’ parents to church.
“The mom and dad – or just the mom – will bring them, and we tell them, ‘Why don’t you just hang out here while the lesson is going on?’ And some of them have. They’ve stayed and attended our Wednesday night prayer meeting,” Stansell said.
Several of those parents plugged into the church on Sunday morning, he added.
It’s tough to get Stansell to stop talking about how “my boys” are getting other boys to come to church – boys like Cody. Invited to attend by another RA, Cody came to his first meeting bashful. Now, not only has the boy made friends in the group, but he has become a Christian as well.
Morgan Baptist’s RAs ministry has gone so well that they’ve recently added GAs and soon plan to add Challengers – mission education for boys in the seventh to 12th grades.
RAs and GAs aren’t stopping at making decisions for Christ either. They are actively involved in mission and ministry projects that help spread the Gospel in their communities and around the world.
At First Baptist in Lead Hill, for example, RAs and GAs have built benches for the local soccer club, recycled cans and newspapers to raise funds for local disaster relief, painted pavilions at the Baptist Assembly at Siloam Springs, participated in local hunger projects and a food pantry, held a rock-a-thon to raise money for the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for North American Missions and participated in a walk-a-thon for world hunger. They currently are planning a project to visit the Arkansas Baptist Boys Ranch.
The RAs and GAs also participated in evangelistic outreach through NAMB’s GPS (God’s Plan for Sharing) emphasis. Older adults, some too frail to go to doors themselves, used their personal vehicles to drive the youth and children throughout rural areas so they could place GPS door hangers on the doors of about 500 homes.
Door hangers included a Gospel tract and a brochure inviting them to church. The next Sunday, six new families visited First Baptist.
“That was a very blessed day,” Sprinkle said. “It has opened a lot of doors … for the children to invite children and really become ambassadors for Christ.”
The success of RAs and GAs has challenged the church’s women and men to begin Baptist Women and Baptist Men groups, Fry said. The church also has launched a Mission Friends program for preschoolers.
“It has really encompassed the whole church,” Fry said. “We have become a more mission-minded church because of the focus on RAs and GAs.”
It’s not just churches in the Southeast that use RAs and GAs as evangelistic tools. At Immanuel Baptist Church in Highland, Calif., RAs director Joshua Shupe has seen boys from the community come to church through RAs and become Christians.
“Parents will take their kids to dozens of different activities if the kids want to go,” Shupe said. “This isn’t necessarily a good thing, but RAs can use it to the benefit of the Kingdom. If RAs can be something boys desire to participate in, parents will usually be willing to get the boys there. In the long run, this creates a connection between the church, RAs and an unchurched family.”
With Immanuel in just the beginning stages of using RAs for outreach, Shupe believes the need for godly male role models makes RAs a unique ministry of the church. As an example, he points out a couple of boys who recently have been attending from rough home environments. Though they have only learned part of the RAs Pledge and haven’t memorized any related Scripture verses, they show signs of openness.
“I see hope in these boys,” Shupe said. “They may be the generation that is reached for Christ, and they can be the light in their families.”