Month: January 2007

Mission Service Corps missionaries bring gospel hope to Indian tribes

WHITEWRIGHT?It’s the people, especially the children, who keep drawing Bill and Bettye Roberts to the unforgiving and seemingly inhospitable desert climes of the Southwest and to the citizens of the Navajo tribe.

And it is the Roberts’ love and devotion to those people that earned the North Texas couple the honor of Mission Service Corps Missionaries of the Year during the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention’s annual meeting in November.

What began as yet another mission trip seven years ago has evolved into a ministry drawing from resources that, the Roberts admit, come from God. “It’s just amazing,” Bill Roberts said. “We just sit back and watch God work.”

It’s been more than once that God’s provision has thrilled the couple from Whitewright, an hour north of Dallas. Each mission trip to the Navajo lands of New Mexico, Utah and Arizona gives the Roberts new perspective on the needs of the people there. And with each need God puts on their hearts to provide for the Navajo, they said, God brings someone across their path to meet the need.

That is how their ministry has grown from a one-time trip with 28 volunteers from their own church, First Baptist Church of Howe, to multiple trips a year with support from churches across the South. The Roberts are commissioned through the North American Mission Board and the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, which work together to coordinate the volunteer ministry of MSC missionaries.

“Each year we go we get a blessing,” Bill Roberts said. “It just kind of grows on you.”

With help from their growing list of volunteers and donors, the Roberts have delivered bikes, quilts, Bibles in the Navajo language, food, coats, and all of the hugs and snacks common to Southern Baptist churches’ Vacation Bible Schools.

There are so many people who have so little, Bettye Roberts said. “That’s why we take them Jesus.”

They have taken Jesus these past six years in the form of VBS and school supply drives each summer and Christmas parties each December. This last trip, taken the first week of December, gave those involved one of the most emotional experiences in all their years of ministry, Bettye said.

She told how she recruited the labor of a quilting group in Canyon, Texas, in the Panhandle. The women, she said, make quilts for charity. The women made 150 quilts for distribution among the Navajo.

Bettye said the gifts were to be given to the parents of children who attend the annual Christmas parties. But a young girl, who Bettye estimated to be 11 or 12 years old, asked to exchange her toys for a quilt. Choking back tears as she told the story, Bettye recalled the girl saying, “I get so cold at night.”

That moment brought to the fore the desperate need of many of the people and the blessing of being able to provide for them, even if only one at a time, she said.

Without any fear?

“So very merry Christmas,
And a happy New Year,
Let’s hope it’s a good one,
Without any fear”

This chorus from John Lennon’s “Happy Christmas (War is over)” includes an odd notion. Maybe it was just for the sake of rhyme, and I’ll admit many would echo the desire, but what does he mean when he hopes to banish fear?

I think he believed a world without war or other fears is possible. There’s no reason to hate idealists. Christians should be idealists in many ways. John Lennon very likely thought it was just a matter of wanting peace and being nice to one another. That is not the biblical witness. We, all of us, are sinful and would rather have comfort and advantage than peace. But is the desire for a world without fear even a worthy one?

The song, like our frequent prayers, is not asking for courage in the face of life’s challenges?that we be fearless. It’s asking for freedom from all fearsome things. We don’t know what we’re asking.

In truth, there are monsters in the world. Human predators prey on the weak. Cancer and other diseases drag whole families through disability and slow death. War brings all the horsemen of the apocalypse upon those who in no way caused or fought the battles. We know these monsters are the offspring of sin?the same sin that dogs my footsteps each day. They are objectively fearsome because they are bad. To remove them without removing the sin that spawns them is to create an absurd and truthless world. To desire the end of fear instead of the final and perfect lordship of Christ over the earth is to love the packaging rather than the gift.

Though we usually consider sickness and death the ultimate fear, most fears are actually subtle and most courage is quiet. Those of us who dream of being Martin Luther or Davy Crockett will likely die waiting for our once-in-a-lifetime shot. In the meantime we’ll miss those more frequent tests to our character and courage that accompany our workaday fears of losing or being found out. These tests, these fears, are our chances to be more than we are. We should humbly but firmly turn toward them and lean into the blow that’s coming.

Negotiating these daily challenges becomes the foundation of our ability to rise to our own historic moment. They are the daily pop quizzes that prepare us for the final exam. Because these are fears we can actually do something about we should see these daily skirmishes as the real deal.

A great example of this is recorded in “America, the Last, Best Hope” by William J. Bennett. Dr. Bennett’s book is a survey of American history from the discovery to the Great War. In his section on U.S. Grant’s presidency he described a case of uncommon courage in the face of a common fear. President Grant was, of course, no stranger to the more spectacular dangers of warfare. His military service included two major conflicts. As president, he faced a decision to sign or veto a bill that would have inflated U.S. currency by printing more of it. Farmers in the West were depending on the inflation the bill would cause to help them pay their debts after a period of economic depression.

Mr. Grant believed implementation of the bill would cause great harm and wanted to veto it but was convinced by Republican officials that the veto would be a disaster for his party. As he worked on his remarks to deliver at the bill’s signing he decided that even he didn’t believe what he was saying. He vetoed the bill and his party lost 87 seats and control of the House during the next election because of it. U.S. Grant has no reputation as a skilled politician. He does have a reputation as an honest and courageous man. As I read this story I found it more impressive than those of the many times he faced physical danger in the Mexican-American War and during our own War Between the States. General Grant was physically brave in battle because he was morally brave in the long spans between battles.

We will never be free of genuinely fearsome things whether they threaten our lives or something worse. What we do about them is the intersection of courage, cowardice, and fretfulness. It’s a choice we must make several times each day. It always matters because our response both reflects and affects our character.

Never stop sharing the Good News

Personal evangelism is something that comes natural to a new believer. Remembering back almost 37 years, I told my mom, school friends and others the day after trusting Christ what I had done. What I can’t remember is when I started thinking how difficult it is to share my faith with unbelievers.

When I first surrendered to preach, I thought I was supposed to be a vocational evangelist. During my college years I preached a number of youth-led revivals. For some reason it has been over 20 years since I have been asked to preach one of those.

Evangelism was always the priority of the church where I pastored. Some churches were more enthusiastic than others. Virtually every week I went into the community to present the gospel. I wanted the church to follow my example and know my heart. Direct, confrontational evangelism was my most used and effective method.

Annually, evangelists would come into the church to lead in a series of worship times designed to present the gospel to the lost. Most of the churches I served were small and medium size, but God gave us souls. It was always glorious to see people come to Christ.

As a director of missions and now a state convention employee, I have little connection with community. My wife and I have witnessed to just about everyone in a two-block area around our home. I have to work at being a witness, though.

Just this week I was able to share Jesus with a seeker. He did not pray to receive Christ. I wish I could give you a success story. More often than not, the people I share with don’t pray to receive Christ. It is not for me to produce results. I am only to be faithful.

You know, it really isn’t difficult to share the gospel with unbelievers. We make it difficult out of timidity, fear, excuses, and not wanting to be inconvenienced when we have more “important” things to do. I am not a great soul-winner, but I don’t want to ever stop trying in the power of the Holy Spirit to lead someone else to Jesus.

Plan to be at the Empower Evangelism Conference, Feb. 5-7. You will be encouraged, convicted, enlightened and challenged to share Jesus as Lord and Savior.

Yours for souls,

Jim Richards

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Ministry to prisoners, expatriates creates training ground for gospel expansion into difficult countries

Captive audiences in the Pacific Rim are finding freedom in Christ and taking that newfound freedom worldwide through a prison ministry led by Texans Roy and Doris Burson.

Roy Burson, a retired police officer, said, “Even if you had told me 10 years ago that I’d be working in a prison, I would have laughed at you. No way was I going to work in prisons … I used to put people in prisons!”

The Lord had different plans for Burson, however. Using correspondence courses with prisoners, personal visits and discipleship classes, the International Mission Board missionary couple has shared the gospel with people from more than 37 countries and from six continents.

The first time the Bursons went into a prison it was just to visit, and “even as a former police officer I felt a little uncomfortable going into a [Pacific Rim] prison,” Roy Burson admitted in an interview with the Southern Baptist TEXAN while visiting Texas over the Christmas holiday.

Although they interact daily with convicted thieves, murderers, drug traffickers and kidnappers, they have “never felt threatened or endangered,” Doris Burson said. “You just look at them like other people; you don’t look at them like prisoners.”

“You develop a relationship with them. They’re not any worse than any other person, they’ve just made some worse choices … and are paying the consequences of that,” Roy Burson said.

Retired IMB missionary Jack Martin started the prison ministry 35 years ago and it grew larger every year, Roy Burson said. “When we started we were allowed into one prison. As doors opened we’d go into another prison. Now they are able to go into nearly 70 prisons,” Martin said.

When the Bursons met the Martins they were primarily doing “English work, but started getting involved in prison ministry and [eventually] took over the correspondence courses,” Martin said.

“The Bursons [are] always ready and willing to further the kingdom work, no matter the method. They are multi-talented people who will lead or happily follow another’s leadership. Their hearts are to serve the [people in the Pacific Rim], expatriates and their fellow missionaries,” said Deidre Cotton, IMB associate missionary to the Pacific Rim.

Every week the Bursons visit at least two prisons and spend countless hours writing letters, preparing lessons and sermons.

“It would be hard for me to do what they do. God definitely called them to do it and they love doing it,” said Bill Hawes, friend of the Bursons and CEO and founder of Puppet Productions. “We have a lot of missionaries who are very effective, but Roy and Doris are the stars over there,” Hawes said.
It is heartening, he added, to see prisoners who are hungry for Scripture.

There are as many as 700 actively taking the correspondence classes, although “some share the lessons with each other, which makes it hard to say exactly how many are taking the classes,” Doris Burson said.

Class participants are sent Bible lessons, a Bible and stamped envelopes to send back to the Bursons.

“Isaiah 55:11 is a verse that we depend on,” Doris Burson said.

“Most are hopeless and have no hope. The Bible gives them hope,” Roy Burson added.

“Some spend incredible time in Scripture—they can quote entire books,” Doris Burson said.

In 10 of the prisons they visit, Roy Burson teaches one-on-one discipleship classes with as many as 25 students a year.

“We pick out the mature students, the ones who are getting out in two to three years, and train them how to start churches when they return home” Roy Burson explained. Students learn to prepare sermons, baptize and administer the Lord’s Supper.

To be a member of the discipleship class Burson asks his students to commit three things. First, they commit to read through the Bible in one year.

“We give them a plan and read through the same time they do,” Roy Burson said. Second, they commit to pray every day.

“We encourage them to pray for their family, themselves, the church in the prison they’re in, five men who don’t know the Lord—pray that they come to know the Lord—and for two names of people whom they’ll teach what I teach them,” Roy Burson explained.

He also teaches the prisoners to pray for the prison guards, The final commitment is to attend church and to complete their lessons.

The Bursons do their best, they said, to keep in touch with released prisoners. A male prisoner wants to do prison ministry when he returns home, another a former Muslim, returned home boldly proclaiming his faith in Christ, knowing that his boldness may result in his death, Roy Burson said.

“They are able to go back into countries we cannot get into,” he said.

He recalled a time when a male prisoner told him that he was the first person in his village to become a Christian, and that he planned to go back and tell them about Jesus. “We work with some of the giants of the faith … [Their willingness] to sacrifice [their faith] could cost them their life and their cultural identity,” Roy Burson said.

A website is being developed where former prisoners will have access to materials that will encourage them and help them minister in their home country.

“We are grateful for the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering, and the Cooperative Program that help support us. We appreciate the sacrificial giving,” the Bursons said.

They asked for people to pray for continued opportunities to enter the prisons and share the gospel.

They are only allowed to enter a prison if a warden allows them to visit. Much of their time is spent traveling through the country visiting prisons; the farthest city is a 10-hour trip from their home.

“When people pray we see things happen that have no explanation other than God answered prayers,” Roy Burson said.

There are many opportunities for groups or individuals to help minister in the Pacific Rim.

“Although their emphasis [the Bursons] is prison ministry and ours [the Cottons] is primarily medical, we enjoy stepping out of our daily roles to assist in each others’ ministries as we have time,” Cotton said. “Although the Pacific Rim believers are talented, willing workers, finding enough ministry helpers in a country with only one half of 1 percent of the population Christian is not always easy,” Cotton said.

Short-term teams may prayer-walk, distribute gospel tracts, encourage prisoners during visitation and teach English classes.

“We would love to have teams go over there, especially singing groups,” Martin said.

Churches or individuals interested in being a prayer partner or going on a mission trip to the Pacific Rim may contact the Bursons at

Healthy church plants require multiple partners, strategists say

The Southern Baptist TEXAN interviewed SBTC Missions Director Robby Partain and Senior Church Planting Associate Terry Coy in December. Partain and Coy answered questions about the SBTC’s church planting process and strategy.
TEXAN: First of all, what is the priority of planting churches in Texas? Why is it such an emphasis here in the Bible Belt, where churches abound?
PARTAIN: It’s crucial because we’re increasingly lost here in Texas. We are increasingly lost among what people perceive as traditional Texas communities–African American, white, Hispanic. But also increasingly, we have an international mission field here in Texas. The world is coming to us. We must create new works to reach them.
TEXAN: In broad terms, what can SBTC churches do?
PARTAIN: Three things: I think first of all, we need conventional church plants where there’s a founding pastor planting a new church. This is not necessarily a traditional church; it is conventional because it has a founding pastor and is attempting to reach an established community. Increasingly, more of these conventional plants need to be Hispanic in focus. Secondly, we need to deploy missionaries to unreached people groups in Texas that are not going to be reached through traditional strategies. These include Muslims, Buddhists, multi-housing communities and others too numerous to mention. The ethnic diversity in our urban areas is astounding. Thirdly, we have to develop planting partners so that more and more of the process is guided and energized at the local and associational level.
TEXAN: One of the questions people have about church planting is the percentage of congregations that survive. What is the survival rate of SBTC church plants?
COY: The last time we studied that it was around 72 percent of churches planted, at least in part, with SBTC funding. The numbers may be a bit lower than that in reality. Probably somewhere between 60 and 70 percent would be the long-term survival rate. As a state convention we are structured to know what’s going on with our funded plants. It’s beyond the funding cycle that it becomes more difficult to track their long-term success, but we have initiated an evaluation of all our churches that have moved beyond funding. Are they still around? Are they still cooperating with us? We want to determine with optimal accuracy what our survival rate is. Also, we want to assess the church planter selection process and the church planting process itself and measure the effectiveness of what we’ve done so far.
PARTAIN: It should be noted that the funding cycle in the overwhelming majority of cases is three years. So these are churches the SBTC has played a part in planting that survive beyond our funding cycle. A rule of thumb is that if a church plant reaches its fifth birthday, it’s going to make it. Nationally, half or more of them don’t. We’re committed to not just reporting the number of starts but also the number of church plant closures and to learning why they did not survive, and then adapting our ministry to what we learn from that.
TEXAN: What are some of the safeguards that help ensure the church plants the convention assists are healthy and vibrant?
COY: I’m becoming more convinced that the more local involvement there is through local churches, associations, and church planting networks, the better the process works and the greater chance there is for survival. It appears to me, at least anecdotally, that our strongest churches are those with the strongest local involvement. Simply the geographical size of the state makes it very difficult for a state convention to go it alone in planting churches. One of our overall emphases is and will be in the future to work more closely with associations and local networks in helping them to develop a good church planting process. I think we’re going to see a better working relationship with many associations. That’s where the strength is.
TEXAN: What is the SBTC doing to safeguard the integrity of funding new works?
COY: There are three streams of church plant funding. One, the great majority of our church planting budget goes to conventional church plants such as Robby mentioned—the kind of planting most people think of with a pastor, a geographic location, etc. There is always a sponsor church and in most cases an association and in some cases multiple sponsors. The funding level is based on viability, potential for growth, the ability of the church to become autonomous.
The dollar amount in funding is a partner decision between sponsors, associations and the state convention. Right now, these plants are reviewed at least every six months and we are moving toward evaluating them every four months.
A second developing stream of church plant funding is what we’re calling non-conventional church planting. Multi-housing, ministry-based efforts, house church networks, and missionary planters fall under this umbrella.
A third stream of church planting funding, which is a smaller percentage of our budget, is partnerships we have with associations or churches to assist them in developing specific church planting strategies.
TEXAN: In the non-conventional plants, do the planters get additional funds per house church or cell group they develop?

COY: No. Many state conventions and associations are trying to figure out how multi-housing and house churches should work. I think what all have learned is that funding can and should be only for a catalytic network leader or missionary, if you will.
PARTAIN: This is the biggest strategy mistake made in house church strategies. You don’t fund individual house churches nor do you pay someone incrementally more for planting new works in a house church strategy. Such funding corrupts the process and presents huge accountability problems.
TEXAN: How does the non-conventional process work then?
COY: We have learned that the funding is better spent helping to fund a catalytic strategist or ethnic missionary who wins and develops spiritual leaders and leads out in planting multiple house churches or simple churches. Each new unit—whether a Bible study, home group or apartment preaching point—is not funded. They are layman led and volunteer led. Only the catalyst or missionary is funded and that is generally at a bi-vocational rate. Further funding is considered only when another proven catalytic leader starts another network in a separate community or town.
A new track is our missionary planter track. In this case there is a person or couple that is focused on winning an ethnolinguistic people group much like an IMB strategy coordinator would. Like all non-conventional strategists, they are not planting a church per se but they are facilitating a movement of house church planting, evangelism and discipleship among various people groups within Texas.
PARTAIN: Stream two is necessary because stream one doesn’t reach everybody. How do you reach Asian and Indian college students? You have to have a strategy that differs from conventional church planting. Stream three is necessary because we can’t do everything within the state of Texas. We must have other partners. Conventional church planting is necessary, but alone it will not suffice to reach our assigned mission field.
COY: Church planting will not be effective without strong local church and associational involvement. We need more sponsor churches that will not just sign on the dotted line but also be actively involved in mentoring and helping local church plants. The most important element in planting healthy, effective churches is a team approach involving the state convention, associations and local churches.
TEXAN: What are some of the lessons you have learned about church planting and funding over the last few years?
PARTAIN: Well, certainly the state convention must be clear internally and externally about its strategy. Then enforce the process, listen to concerns and take them seriously when they arise. Also, take a hard count annually concerning the survival rates of previously funded plants. The existence of a church plant or any other funded ministry should be verified by the planter and other credible parties such as associations, churches or other local pastors. As Terry has emphasized, a good associational planting and accountability process, combined with active involvement of local partner churches, will make it much more difficult for a perpetrator of fraud to get away with it for long. A strong local process, in partnership with the state convention, benefits all parties.