JACKSONVILLE, Texas?Rising beacon-like above the grounds of First Baptist Church of Jacksonville was the ladder of a local fire truck, summoning the residents from the surrounding community to the church for its first Piney Woods Outdoor Expo.
The Oct. 4 event, held in cooperation with the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, drew an estimated 5,000 people who came to look at a collection of antique and classic cars, the ladder truck, and trophy animals staged inside the church building. Children congregated among the five bounce houses, the concessions stand and a portable fish pond. Hank Hough of Kingdom Dog Ministries, gave several presentations throughout the day, sharing the gospel using his chocolate Labrador to draw parallels to Christian discipleship.
FBC Jacksonville’s fellowship hall transformed into a trophy hall with animals from all over the world on display, including a lion, donated by a local state senator, and four trophy deer. The expo?the product of months of planning and prayer?resulted in 291 professions of faith following gospel presentations, a youth event and a men’s evening barbecue dinner, said Vernon Lee, pastor of First Baptist Jacksonville.
FBC Jacksonville began planning the expo a year prior to the event as an evangelistic outreach to men in their community.
“I was talking to Dr. Jim Richards of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention about how to reach out to men when he mentioned these [outdoor expos] as an option.” Consequently, Lee and several of his church members visited an outdoor expo in Corpus Christi to see the ministry firsthand.
“I held what I called a lunch-and-launch after the Sunday service one day,” Lee explained. “We fed the church members and showed a video of the expo in Corpus Christi.” At the end of that lunch meeting, Lee asked those present to commit to a similar event in Jacksonville in a year. “Almost everyone present at that meeting committed to this project,” Lee said.
Lee contacted Joe Simmons and John McKay, SBTC evangelism consultants who have helped several churches host these expos before.
“When we joined the SBTC team, Don Cass, our boss, asked us to help bring evangelism back to Texas,” Simmons explained. “But we found that when we held the historic five-day evangelistic meetings people were not coming every night.”
Finding that troublesome that they could get people to attend meetings only about two days out of five, Simmons and McKay knew they needed another way.
“We were at an event with Jerry Falwell and I mentioned this problem. He told me that it was just the way the world was today and we needed to find a way to reach people in two or three days.”
Simmons and McKay encourage churches to host the expos as a way to attract lost men.
“These expos only run Friday, Saturday, and Sunday,” Simmons explained. “It doesn’t interfere with anyone’s weekly schedule and it isn’t a huge commitment to ask of people.”
The weekend events are anchored by the expo.
“It is like the spokes of a wheel,” Lee said. “The woman’s dinner, the breakfast, the youth event and the men’s rib dinner all focus around the outdoor expo on Saturday.” FBC Jacksonville hosted several meals with evangelistic speakers starting on Friday night. “On Sunday night, we held our youth event at the local school,” Lee said. “All the meetings and the expo encourage everyone to come to the family celebration on Monday.”
“Planning and hosting any one of these events is a challenge,” Lee said. “But together it was a massive undertaking.”
After the lunch and launch last year, FBC Jacksonville started planning the expo.
“We gave everyone a role. I appointed members of the church as the head of a team for each section. They were responsible for that event of the celebration weekend,” Lee explained. As evidence of God’s hand at work, “There were 20 total teams and every leader turned out to be just the right one. People that I had no idea of their talents fit right into their roles,” he said.
The planning for the expo was not easy, but God showed his hand in many ways. When FBC Jacksonville had to set the date for the expo, the Jacksonville High School’s fall football schedule was not yet released. When the schedule was released, the only bye week of the entire season was Oct. 3, the weekend of the expo.
Lee attributed the expo’s success to the work of God and the dedication of church members.
“Our people took a new life in this event,” Lee said. “They took ownership of what they were involved with and told their friends and family about it.”
For example, “This man got up one morning to go to work on a Saturday. He normally goes to work in the afternoon on Saturday, but he wanted to come to our training meeting for the expo so he went in early. An hour after he left for work, his house caught fire. Fortunately, his wife was able to get their children out of the house safe, but they lost the entire house. My wife and I went over to be with the family, and as we were standing there looking at the smoldering ruins of their house, he said to me, ‘Pastor, I have something for you.’
“He went over to his truck and pulled out two checks from the visor. ‘These are for the outdoor expo.’ He was standing looking at his house, knowing that everything was gone and not knowing what insurance would cover and he gave me two checks for the event.”
“We were able to use this expo as a model to show local churches how to work together to reach their community,” Lee added.
Several churches helped FBC Jacksonville host the expo, with First Baptist Church of New Summerfield operating the very popular fish pond for the kids.
“They took that project entirely as their own and ran it so well,” Lee said.
By the end of the day, FBC Jacksonville had estimated 5,000 people had been on the church grounds.
“We had people parking way down the road and we were shuttling them up here from there.”
The event was free, and to encourage people in the community to register, FBC Jacksonville held several give-a-ways on Saturday afternoon.
“We had signs up that said, ‘Would you like to win this? Register at the welcome desk.'” Lee said. “Doing it that way really helped not overwhelm the people at the welcome desk and we got most people to register.” About 300 to 400 people stayed until 3 p.m. to participate in the drawing.
“We didn’t know it when we scheduled the expo, but the Jacksonville Music Festival and a local motorcycle rally were planned for the day of the expo,” Lee said. “But we still had all these people come to experience our outdoors expo.
The outdoor expos are becoming more popular in Texas, Simmons said.
“We have been doing them for about three years and have really been seeing results,” he noted.
Next year the SBTC is helping with similar events at churches in Lubbock, San Angelo and Odessa. Jim Day, assimilation pastor at Paul Ann Baptist Church in San Angelo, and Neil Grant, one of Paul Ann’s elders, attended FBC Jacksonville’s outdoors expo and came away impressed.
“Statistics prove that if you reach the men, you will reach the family,” Day said. “The family goes the way that the man does and if the man is reached, you reach his family.”
While Paul Ann Baptist Church has done other large events in the past, they have never done anything like an outdoors expo. “This is such a great vehicle to reach out to the community,” Grant said.
“An event like this begins in the heart of the pastor and takes off in the heart of the laymen,” Simmons explained.
FBC Jacksonville can attest to that. “This event brought the members of the church together,” Lee said, “People who normally didn’t interact with each other formed teams and worked together.”
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