Month: April 2020

West Texas crude plummets while churches persevere across the state

On April 20 the price of West Texas Intermediate crude oil plummeted to negative territory—a historic low. The drop to negative $37 a barrel came as oil production outpaced storage capacity. By Thursday the per-barrel-price opened at $14.20. While the industry’s volatility, brought on by global political and pandemic conditions, has observers anxious, two pastors in oil industry-dependent regions hold out hope for their communities.

For Texans living and working along the Gulf Coast and in West Texas the oil market fluctuations only exacerbate existing economic woes brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. The financial uncertainty is disconcerting for many in their communities said Byron McWilliams, pastor of First Baptist Church Odessa, and Jim Turnbo, executive director of the Golden Triangle Baptist Network in Beaumont.

“They’re hanging on. There’s still a positive atmosphere,” Turnbo told the TEXAN.

He has held the executive director post only a year but Turnbo, born and raised in Houston, is no stranger to the vacillating nature of the oil industry. 

Because oil refineries, not wells, fuel the Beaumont region’s economy, the tanking oil price has not yet impacted his communities he said. Pastors who have lived and worked in the area for decades told him their congregations have learned to live with the oil industry’s cyclical nature.

They told him there is no talk of lay-offs from the refineries that are operating with scaled back crews. Engineers who can work from home do. Those whose jobs require they be on-site, go to work each day ever conscience of the need to keep the coronavirus at bay.

“What has changed is all the plants were planning expansions and that has slowed down,” he said. That means some employees have gone from working overtime to normal shifts.

More than the oil price fluctuations, the government stay-at-home orders in response to the coronavirus pandemic have taken their toll on local economies, personal income and tithing Turnbo said. Church offerings have recovered, on average, to about 60 percent of pre-pandemic giving—some churches are on budget and some are struggling he said.

In his 16 years at FBC Odessa, McWilliams has experienced the ebbs and flows of the oil market. But he thinks there are some Odessa churches that might not make it through the current iteration. He said the global pandemic with its weeks-long economic impact and the tanking oil prices “conspire together in the perfect storm.”

“I know there are smaller churches in the area who are getting nailed,” he said. “There are churches in the area who might not make it through this.”

As of April 22, when McWilliams spoke with the TEXAN, there had been no reports of widespread lay-offs due to Monday’s historic low oil price. But his congregation and community have been buffeted by them.

Employees and employers, both experiencing the economic pangs, looked to McWilliams and the church for solace.

One of his members works for an oilfield service company. Dipping oil prices in recent weeks lead to decreased drilling and lower demand for his services. Monday’s plummet was the last straw. He called McWilliams and said, “We’re laying off today. So, pray for me.”

Two weeks earlier a member, a single mom of two, lost her job.

“From a pastor’s perspective we’re asking what can we do for people like that,” McWilliams said.

FBC Odessa has a fund to assist those who need help paying bills, but it does not have the resources to provide aid for a large number of church members or Odessa residents should mass lay-offs begin.

McWilliams explained that while an oil boom is preferable to a bust, the former is not without its drawbacks. A booming oil industry raises the cost of living for all Odessa residents. When he and his family moved to Odessa in 2004 the price of oil was about $35-$38 a barrel and the housing market was depressed. Since then he’s seen oil prices as high as $150 a barrel and rent for a one-bedroom apartment reach $1500 to $1700 a month.

So, compared to what people would need to make ends meet if lay-offs expanded to include oil field workers, what FBC Odessa has to offer is “small potatoes” McWilliams said. The church partners with the Permian Basin Mission Center, which can also provide aid.

McWilliams and Turnbo will keep a watchful eye on the oil market and its impact on their communities. But, for now, they both said what they hear from church members and pastors is frustration.

Churches along the Gulf Coast have not all recovered from damage caused last year by another storm—Tropical Storm Imelda. Churches and homes took on water only a year after enduring Hurricane Harvey.

“These crises, in our minds, have really run together,” said Turnbo. “We’re tired. But we’re persevering. The Lord who has been with us in the past is with us now.”

Being able to meet in person for church will make a world of difference for both communities they said.

But in the meantime, McWilliams encourages his congregation to maintain a different attitude from people whose trust in not in Christ. He said, “What we are experiencing is unprecedented for us. It is not unprecedented in human history … or to God.”

SBTC DR crews assist Houston Food Bank Neighborhood Super Sites, serve victims of Onalaska tornado

HOUSTON—Southern Baptists of Texas Convention Disaster Relief volunteers are supporting the Houston Food Bank at its two Neighborhood Super Sites at the Texans Training Bubble near NRG stadium south of downtown and at the Cypress Premium Outlets mall in northwest Houston.

SBTC DR volunteers are preparing hot lunches for food bank volunteers and manning the hospitality tents at each location where thousands of families receive needed food during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Super Site support is just one way SBTC DR volunteers and churches are assisting the Houston Food Bank serve a city in crisis. 

Churches serving as sites for food distribution

SBTC churches such as Spring Baptist and Houston’s First are offering their campuses to function as smaller food bank distribution sites throughout the week.

For Jason Mayfield, associate pastor of Spring Baptist Church, the chance to help the community was an easy decision. Not only did Mayfield and his wife, Fran, serve as SBTC DR hospitality hosts at the food bank’s Texans Training Bubble Super Site on April 18, but Spring Baptist also opened as a smaller food distribution center on April 7, a task Mayfield said the church will continue each Tuesday as long as needed.

Spring Baptist volunteers unload and sort pallets of food delivered to the church on refrigerated trucks, then place food boxes into people’s cars as they drive up and pop their trunks. All recipients either pre-register online with the Houston Food Bank or provide their basic information to church volunteers on site.

Spring Baptist member Jennifer Meehan, a counselor at Spring ISD, connected the church to the food bank. Mayfield said church members were eager to volunteer, adding that women from the church had also begun sewing masks for Houston Food Bank volunteers.

“People are so excited to get out of the house and serve,” Mayfield said, adding that 30-35 from the church help weekly in the distribution effort that saw 186 families receive food on April 14.

Large-scale ministry at the Super Sites

The Houston Food Bank’s Super Site food distribution works similarly but on a larger scale. National Guard troops direct traffic as thousands of vehicles drive into the parking lots where HFB volunteers load boxes into the cars.

Each day’s Super Site undertaking involves 200-plus volunteers, some of whom arrive early to pack boxes while others work loading vehicles. 

Feeding them will be the task of SBTC DR crews through April 25 and longer if requested, said Scottie Stice, SBTC DR director, adding that the connection with the food bank was made by Kyle Sadler, a member of United City Church in Humble, who volunteered with the Mayfields April 18 at the Texans Training Bubble.

That day, the Mayfields joined other SBTC DR volunteers to serve pizza donated by Papa John’s to volunteers, but on April 22, Ronnie and Connie Roark of Salem-Sayers Baptist near San Antonio transported the QRU quick response kitchen, a DR food trailer, to the Cypress Super Site.

The Roarks fixed fajitas for Cypress volunteers, who ate in 10-person shifts, spaced to accommodate social distancing, guidelines followed by all workers including SBTC DR volunteers.

The Roarks cooked with masks on, placing the food in hinged disposable containers, where it was carried to hungry volunteers inside the nearby hospitality tents by SBTC DR volunteers such as Kim Scott from Houston’s Clay Road Baptist. Tomi Sue and Gary Burgess of Spring Baptist were also among Wednesday’s volunteers, which included members of nearby Grace Life Baptist.

SBTC DR volunteers at the hospitality tent are also checking in food bank volunteers, taking their temperatures, and distributing masks and gloves, said Brandon Reed, SBTC DR task force member. Reed, associate pastor of United City Church, is coordinating the Super Site volunteers for SBTC DR.

The Roarks will return to Houston and cook for the group at the Texans Training Bubble on April 25.

“The food bank had so much food and so many people who needed it,” Connie Roark said of the initial experience at Cypress. “It was a great day for us. The food bank expected to serve 5,000 by the evening.”

“DR has changed during the coronavirus,” Scottie Stice said. “It’s a new day in DR. Now we try to do day trips as much as possible.” Should the need arise for overnight stays at churches, policies for social distancing will be followed, he added.

“We will be available to continue as needed assisting the Houston Food Bank unless we are called to another disaster,” Stice confirmed.

Onalaska tornado

Disaster struck Wednesday, April 22, in the small East Texas city of Onalaska, some 85 miles north of Houston in Polk County, claiming at least three lives, destroying 46 homes and damaging 245 others, the Houston Chronicle reported April 23.

An SBTC DR chainsaw crew from First Baptist Bellville led by Mike Phillips deployed to the area the day after the disaster, where they will be joined by the QR truck staffed by crew from Flint Baptist directed by John Robertson. The quick response feeding truck will provide meals for first responders and DR crews and will be housed at Pineywoods Baptist Camp, Stice said.

Sports camp creates gospel connections in Pearland 

EMORY and PEARLAND—Six days before leaving on their spring break mission trip to Houston, volunteers from Emory Baptist Church found themselves scrambling. 

Ronnie Witt had been preparing his youth for a mission project in the fast-growing Houston suburb of Pearland, where they thought they’d be leading backyard Bible clubs in apartment complexes. They had practiced their testimonies, reviewed Bible lessons and prayed for God to go ahead of them. 

But a glitch in their plans came when Witt, Emory’s minister of youth and education, got a call from Nathan Law, a Pearland church planter who is partnering with Emory Baptist.

“We’re going to have to scratch our plans,” Law said.

He explained that another church mission team scheduled to work with the Emory group had to cancel their trip due to unforeseen circumstances. That team’s volunteers were supposed to lead a children’s sports camp set for March 9-11, a strategic project designed to pave the way for a sports league Law’s church-planting team plans to start as an outreach.

Law proposed a solution: Would Emory’s team tackle the sports camp? 

With just a few days to prepare, Witt agreed to try. It was a “fly-by-the-seat-of-your pants experience,” Witt said, but God led every step of the way. 

“Ronnie’s team had never run a sports camp, but they did a fantastic job,” Law said.

“I was impressed by our students’ ability to step up and lead this camp—and their willingness to do whatever was asked of them,” Witt said.

About 50 local children attended the camp in a Pearland ball field, where the 11 youth from Emory taught the basics of football, soccer and baseball. In between the sports lessons, they shared Bible stories and testimonies with the campers.

“We really poured ourselves into those kids,” recalled team member Caleigh Piles, the daughter of Emory Baptist pastor Richard Piles.

The group included children from other cultures, a reflection of Houston’s ethnic diversity.

Caleigh made friends with a 6-year-old Hindu boy from India. Every time she or another teammate talked about Jesus, he boldly spoke his mind. 

“I believe there are thousands of gods,” he said.

Caleigh began to pray for him to come to know the one true God. That didn’t happen during the camp, but she continues to pray for his salvation.

“It was an eye-opening experience for our students to get to know kids from other world religions, kids who are very distant from the gospel,” Witt said.

While the Emory youth made gospel connections with the children, Law, his wife Heather and their church-planting team got acquainted with parents who watched the activities. Later, the Laws’ team built even more relationships with families who attended block parties the Emory volunteers helped to host in a park. 

Emory’s team provided much of the labor for the parties: preparing and serving food, staffing a face-painting station and a bounce house and helping with setup and takedown. 

“We were the boots on the ground, and that allowed Nathan and his team to have multiple, one-on-one conversations with people who attended,” said Emory Baptist deacon John Williams, one of three adult church members who accompanied Witt and the youth on the trip. 

The Emory team also spent several afternoons canvassing and prayer walking in Pearland neighborhoods. Volunteers handed out more than 3,000 flyers promoting the sports camp, block parties and other events sponsored by Renovation City Church, a church plant Law’s team is preparing to launch.

Law hopes all these contacts will create more opportunities to share the gospel, minister to families and involve them in small group Bible studies.

“We’re so excited about the connections we made through the Emory Baptist volunteers,” he said. “We wouldn’t have been able to invite and reach the amount of people we did without their selfless service.”

The project also brought an opportunity for evangelism even before the Emory team left for Pearland. Witt said a young woman who wasn’t going on the trip attended an Emory youth group meeting where his students were writing their testimonies. She soon realized she didn’t have a testimony of her own, so Witt and Caleigh shared the gospel with her. She didn’t accept Christ then, but Emory leaders continue to witness to her.

Hearing that story from Witt “was a really cool blessing for us,” Law said. 

The Emory-Pearland partnership began after Witt went on a Reach Houston vision tour last year. Ben Hays, strategist for the SBCT Reach Houston initiative, guides these tours to connect pastors and other leaders of established SBCT churches with the needs of church planters in Houston, the nation’s fourth largest city.

Through the tours, “we hope these leaders will hear and then answer a ‘Macedonian call’ to come over and help us,” Hays said. “That’s exactly what happened” with Emory Baptist.

Trustees of SBTS affirm strategic plan, pledging continued faithfulness in the midst of COVID-19 crisis

LOUISVILLE, Kentucky (SBTS) — Meeting for the first time by digital technology, the board of trustees of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary held its annual spring meeting on April 20 against the background of the COVID-19 pandemic. The board marked complete attendance and conducted its business understanding the historic nature of the meeting, said President R. Albert Mohler Jr. Mohler presented a strategic report to the trustees that highlighted the institution’s responsibility to lead faithfully amidst the COVID-19 crisis and that, in Mohler’s words, underlined the administration’s “absolute determination to continue Southern Seminary’s legacy and mission with excellence and faithfulness long into the future.”

In his report to the trustees, Mohler noted that the seminary has demonstrated leadership and tenacity during times of crisis, from its founding in 1859 until today, through the Civil War, two World Wars, the 1918 pandemic, and the Great Depression. “Since 1859, Southern Baptists have turned to the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary for pastors, missionaries, and other servants of Christ.” It will continue faithfully training church leaders through the crisis presented by the coronavirus, said Mohler. 

The scale of the crisis, Mohler said, compounds the pre-existing issues faced by American higher education. Financial pressures were already forcing big changes in the business models of universities and colleges, and the coronavirus is likely to accelerate the changes considerably. 

The administration presented a budget and a revised business model that was premised on and anticipated those changes. Mohler noted that the business model will unfold over time and that it is focused on efficiency and commitments that will further enhance the seminary’s stewardship of the mission assigned to it by Southern Baptists. 

“We’ll serve the convention better by adopting these new revisions to our structure,” Mohler said, “and we will continue to make our primary investment into our faculty and building that faculty for the future.”

The budget approved by the Board of Trustees for the upcoming year is set for a thirty-percent reduction in both revenue and expenditures. As Mohler explained, Southern Seminary has built a large residential enrollment that has now been disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. As of early March, the Seminary and Boyce College had marked one of the largest on-campus enrollments in the history of theological education. “But, just a few weeks ago, we had to send our on-campus students home,” Mohler recalled. “The fact is that the COVID-19 crisis alters the financial landscape, and this is particularly true for higher education.” It is estimated that the non-profit sector of the U.S. economy will face a significant loss of revenue in the coming months. As Mohler said, the higher education sector will not escape that loss of revenue. In that scenario, the seminary aims to maximize its stewardship by making budgetary decisions now, rather than delaying to a future date.

“Clearly, this new academic structure and the budgetary reduction will include some reduction in staffing and personnel. These are deadly serious times. We are facing a challenge that is without precedent for anyone living. It is taking a toll on our hearts, even as we understand the very same sense of seriousness and gravity that falls upon our churches, our state conventions, and our common work together. We certainly did not choose to experience this challenge, but the Lord has called us to faithfulness, even in the midst of this crisis and to serve Southern Baptists with everything we have and everything we are as we look to the future. Southern Baptists are in this together, and we will be faithful together.”

Chairman of the financial board, Rick Staab added, “The Seminary faces an unprecedented challenge during this Pandemic and economic shutdown. 

“The effort to preserve the institution, whose primary mission is to train pastors to spread the gospel throughout the world, requires quick and decisive action.  Under Dr. Mohler’s leadership the entire administration has taken bold steps to reduce costs, consolidate operations, and revise the annual budget, in an effort to position the institution for whatever the near future may demand.  The financial board is unanimous in its support of Dr. Mohler and his staff, and we affirm the appropriateness and effectiveness of the actions taken to position the Seminary for the future recovery of normal operations.”

Online education will be central to continuing Southern’s mission of theological training going forward. The seminary began its online program 25 years ago and has invested significant capital into developing a robust online experience for the equipping of gospel servants, said Mohler. In light of the current crisis, with on-campus teaching and residential learning suspended, “we now know why that investment was so important,” he said.

Mohler pointed to the strength and size of Southern Seminary and Boyce College online programs, underlining the fact that the seminary’s programs of study are already available online and with years of institutional experience. “The same faculty that draws students to the campus, draws students online,” Mohler said. “Southern Seminary’s strength in online education is such that we are in a strong position to offer the same academic excellence online as on-campus, with all of our major degree programs and over 100 courses available online.”

In addition, Boyce College has added five new online degree options, including three joint baccalaureate and Master of Divinity programs, beginning fall 2020. The seminary already offers both the Master of Divinity and the Master of Arts in Theological Studies degrees online. This summer, students can take up to 75 classes online, including several live online courses.

The board of trustees authorized its financial board to approve adjusting the budget either upwards or downwards, given financial realities the seminary may face. One primary concern will be the question of when and how students can return to residence and instruction on college, university, and seminary campuses. Though the times require online learning, the seminary remains committed to in-person on-campus theological education. While the decision to reconvene on-campus study is in the hands of government authorities, Mohler made clear that Southern Seminary and Boyce College are “just as committed to on-campus theological education and worldview education as ever.” 

In his report to the trustees, Mohler noted his confidence in the future of the Southern Baptist Convention and his confidence in the enduring generosity of Southern Baptists and the Convention’s on-going vision for missions, evangelism, church planting and theological education, while acknowledging that every area of Baptist life is under stress and will continue to be so for some time. “We want to reduce that stress and not add to it,” Mohler said. 

Responding to that stress, the trustees approved a fee structure for student costs that will significantly lower the cost of a student’s education. “Given financial realities,” Mohler said, “it has become clear that we will serve Southern Baptists best by lowering the costs for students with the goal not only to enable them to continue their theological education, but to do so understanding the changed circumstances many students, families, and churches will find themselves. 

“We are lowering the cost to make the theological education that is trusted for truth even more accessible.” 

During its meeting the board also elected Clint Pressley as the chairman of the board. Pressley is the senior pastor of Hickory Grove Baptist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, and he previously served as the first vice chairman of the board. John Montgomery, dean of spiritual life at California Baptist University in Riverside, California, and former second vice chairman, was elected the first vice chairman of the board. Nick Floyd, who serves as the senior pastor of Cross Church in Northwest Arkansas and who has been a trustee since 2012, was elected as second vice chairman. Louisville businessman Rick Staab will serve as the chairman of the financial board. Keith Daniels, businessman from Dallas, Texas, was re-elected as the board’s secretary. Trustees also adopted provisions to meet digitally, if required for future trustee board and executive committee meetings.

Focus on the Family, others, offer free streaming options during pandemic

Families stuck at home during the pandemic have plenty of free kid-friendly options thanks to the generosity of several companies, including Focus on the Family. 

Focus on the Family launched its own streaming platform, Focus@Home, in early April. It includes the animated series Adventures in Odyssey and McGee and Me, and video series and feature films such as Last Chance Detectives and Mully. It is free. Visit FocusOntheFamily.com/streaming.

Minno, a Christian streaming platform for children, is offering free “Church at Home” resources for parents. This includes kid-friendly videos, Bible lessons, activities and a sampling of Minno’s platform. Visit GoMinno.com and click on “Church at Home” on the top-right.

The Christian History Institute and Vision Video launched RedeemTV — a treasure trove for fans of documentaries and historical drama. It includes the Torchlighters series, The Pilgrim’s Progress animated film, the Bonhoeffer: Agent of Grace live-action film, and many other titles. It is free. Visit RedeemTV.com.

Finally, VidAngel—the most popular streaming option of these four—is free through the end of April. The service allows parents to skip objectionable content in Netflix and Amazon Prime titles. (A subscription to one of those is needed.) Filtering can be customized. VidAngel also has original content, including The Chosen, a series about the life of Christ. Visit VidAngel.com.

—Press releases

Member-donated billboards lead to church growth, salvations in Lavon

LAVON  When Brad Patterson became the pastor of First Baptist Church of Lavon three and a half years ago, he inherited a stable, healthy church that had benefitted from the tenure of a pastor who had served faithfully for 30 years.

FBC Lavon has seen tremendous growth under Patterson’s leadership, and as a result their new worship center—only a year old—is already approaching capacity. The church is considering adding a second service to accommodate the growing number of new members and visitors.

But starting last year, many of these new visitors reported that it wasn’t a friend or family member who had recommended the church to them. Rather, they had been drawn by the church’s billboards that lined the major highways in and around Lavon.

“One Saturday morning I got a text message from a church member asking when we had put these billboards up and I had no idea what they were talking about,” Patterson said. “Later that morning I started getting multiple text messages asking questions about how much we spent on these billboards and whether the church approved them.” 

He was out of town at the time, so he asked his youth pastor to take a picture and send it to him.

“Within a week or two, multiple billboards started popping up through the city and we started trying to figure out exactly who was putting them up,” he said. 

But Patterson said he had an idea of who may have been behind the billboards, so he asked John Smith* to lunch to ask what he thought about them.

“He just started smiling,” Patterson said.

Naturally, Patterson asked what his purpose was in creating the billboards.

“He said he was praying, trying to figure out how he could share the gospel with people and celebrate what the Lord was doing in his life and get people to come to church,” he said. “I told him about the first person who gave their life to Christ as a result of the billboards, and he just started weeping there at breakfast.”

Smith recalled keeping the project secret at first.

“The first several I did, I didn’t even tell Brad,” he said, laughing. “I took a good picture of [the church logo] with my phone after one Sunday service and then sent it to my billboard folks that I use for my business and said hey, can you duplicate this.

“I just thought it would be great for the church,” he said.

Smith, a businessman who describes himself as a new Christian, said the idea started from his desire to do something that would have an eternal impact and his belief in Patterson’s vision for the church. He said that for him, it was a matter of stewardship.

“You know what, this is all God’s anyways. You’re here just for a short time, and it’s really not yours,” he said.

Smith said he started with three or four billboards and didn’t tell anyone what he was doing. Now there are 10 in and around Lavon, an area where the population is projected to continue growing in the next few years. He has already put contracts on other billboards farther away from the church.

“In the very near future, my thought is those billboards are going to be hard to get because of the growth out here,” he said.

“God has definitely gifted him with the gift of generosity,” Patterson said of Smith. “John has that. God has gifted him in business, and he truly wants to see people come to faith in Christ and grow the kingdom.”

“It’s just the possibility of making an eternal difference in someone’s life,” Smith said. “What if it just saves one person?”

According to Patterson, it already has. Shawn Anderson and Natalie Garcia started attending FBC Lavon in the spring of 2019, and for them, the billboards have made all the difference in the world.

“They had moved to town, bought a house together and were living together. She had just moved here from California when they started having relationship struggles, didn’t know what to do, didn’t know where to turn,” Patterson said. “And they saw a billboard.”

The engaged couple said they wanted to find a church but didn’t know where to start looking around their new home.

“Once we got into the house we were just kind of driving around, getting the lay of the land out here and ran across a billboard,” Anderson said.

And while the billboard is what drew them for the first time, they said it was the people at FBC Lavon that convinced them to come back.

“Once we got to the church, I think the first day that we got there, it’s like they immediately recognized that we were new,” Garcia said. “The vibe we got from the time we walked in was just, we felt so welcomed. Almost like we had been coming there for a long time.

“We didn’t even bother going to any of the other churches in the area,” she added.

From Patterson’s perspective, the story with Anderson and Garcia started when he met them and they asked why the church observed the Lord’s Supper every week.

“So we told them about it, because they’d never seen that before,” he said. 

When Patterson asked if they’d taken it, they said they hadn’t because they weren’t ready. Both Anderson and Garcia had been raised around church, but neither had ever committed their life to Christ.

“On Easter, they came down and got the elements and took them back to their seats,” Patterson said, which prompted him to schedule a meeting with Anderson to follow up. “I said, ‘Hey, you took the Lord’s Supper. … Why did you take it?’ And he said, ‘Because we believe this! This is true!’”

Anderson and Garcia followed through with believer’s baptism in December, and Patterson will soon perform their wedding. He referred to it as the “next step in their discipleship process,” which began with a drive around the neighborhood.

“They decided to go because they saw a billboard. They came, ended up coming to faith in Christ, taking the Lord’s Supper and being baptized,” he said. “Because of billboards.”

Patterson said he never would have imagined that something like a billboard yield the type of results they are seeing. 

“But it’s absolutely worth it,” he said. “It’s been incredible.”

And though the church has seen a sharp increase in the number of visitors thanks to the free advertising, they have nonetheless donated two of the billboards to the local school district to congratulate them for their recently awarded
A-rating from the Texas Education Agency. 

Patterson said he has developed a close relationship with the district superintendent, which has allowed the church unprecedented avenues to serve the teachers and student of Community ISD.

“We are completely involved in our local ISD. We do everything for them. We create a community Christmas project for them, where we give Christmas presents to kids in need,” he said. “All of the other churches in the community have now gotten together and we give 250 kids Christmas presents every year. We personally, as a church, do a hundred of those.”

The church also fills 50 backpacks for students in need of school supplies, and they have set up a program in each of the four local schools to provide for students in need of food.

“If they have extra juice, extra fruit, extra milk that they don’t want but it comes with their meal, instead of throwing it away they can put it on a share cart. And that way if there’s somebody else who’s hungry or thirsty that doesn’t have a lot, they can just come and pick it up off the share cart,” Patterson said.

The share cart idea was a collaboration between FBC Lavon and CISD’s food department. The church had originally approached the district about paying off student debt related to school lunches. While there was little debt, the idea of students sharing unwanted food with each other gave birth to the share carts, which the church purchased and donated.

“The partnership we have with them has been tremendous, and the billboards have helped us to do that.”

When asked about how it made him feel to know that the Lord had used these billboards in so many ways for kingdom advancement, Smith demurred.

“I try to be real humble about that,” he said. “I just want to be along for the ride.” 

*Name changed

Churches in Tokyo, Italy experience “gospel renewal” adapting to online discipleship

TOKYO — On normal days, Pastor Joey Zorina is keenly aware that his church, The Bridge Fellowship in Tokyo, is like a tiny candle flickering in a very dark place.

The gravity of that truth is even stronger now that he feels a bit like he’s having to keep that light to himself.

“In a country of less than 1 percent Christian population, we are saddened that we cannot meet onsite in person,” said Zorina, whose church—like many others around the world—now meets online because of COVID-19 gathering restrictions.

“It has affected how we seek to disciple others and build relationships with our non-Christian friends,” he said. “Since our church is located in an artistic neighborhood, we have many musicians and their friends in our outreaches. That had to be postponed for the future.”

But Zorina can see a glimmer of light in this crisis—one he hopes sticks around even after the doors are reopened.

“When we were meeting offline, we did not have the chance to hear from everybody, as conversations were more scattered in different corners of the room during our Sunday gathering,” he said. “But after meeting online, it forced us to see who is missing on the screen, who is cared for and who is sick or needs encouragement, and the whole community has taken the responsibility to listen well and extend pastoral care to everyone.”

They’re able to ask how everyone is doing and pray specifically and personally for each other, he said.

“We are also able to slow down with a renewed community rhythm and pace, learning to be patient and confront the idols of control and repent and rest joyfully in the gospel,” Zorina said. “You could say this is a gospel renewal, or at least the start of one.”

Loren Holland, pastor of Rome International Church, said the COVID-19 gathering restrictions have done unexpected things for his congregation’s ongoing discipleship also.

“Rome in particular is a really difficult city to gather in. People are very, very busy. They work hard, and they’re pulled in different directions constantly,” he said. “Public transit also makes it difficult.”

Holland, a missionary kid and graduate of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, said he lives six miles from the Colosseum, but it takes an hour and a half to get there from his home. Dealing with those kinds of transportation issues makes it tricky to gather people together for small groups during the week.

But meeting on Zoom has knocked down some of those barriers, he said.

“Doing things online like this has made me think that this is something we could do—not permanently [for church gatherings]—but we could use it more often for meetings and discipleship,” Holland said.

The church’s men’s and women’s groups are going strong, and the crisis has provided Holland a chance to reconnect with a family who stopped coming to the church about a year ago.

He’s also seeing spiritual growth in the way church members are praying as a result of the pandemic.

“One of the important parts of discipleship is living alongside other believers who can see and measure how you’re growing. That can be a challenge when we’re not serving side by side in things,” Holland said. “But one of the rudimentary ways I’m seeing that happen is through our once-a-week prayer times and hearing how people are praying differently than they used to pray. Their prayers are showing how they’re going deeper.”

Zorina said he and other leaders at The Bridge Fellowship are using this time when nonessentials are stripped away to reevaluate what is essential. As they use the “God-given gifts” of online streaming services, they are praying about what they should stop doing once the crisis has passed.

“We believe that we will come out stronger as our relationships are forged in the furnace of the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said. “We were surprised to find that our church is a sticky group—we have not lost any of our regular attenders and members even after going online. The sense of family and camaraderie is still there.” 

Ministry in the age of pandemic

Sometimes suffering hides in plain sight. For instance, the internationally known 19th century British pastor Joseph Parker, in spite of all of his ministerial success and achievement, lived and died in sadness. Parker preached weekly to several thousand people at City Temple in London, where he served as pastor for 33 years. Only Charles Spurgeon, his contemporary across town at The Metropolitan Tabernacle, led a larger congregation. Parker was also a prolific author, and many of his 60 books are still in print today. Yet, in spite of the giant footprint his ministry left on modern Christian history, he lived with constant emotional pain. 

When his wife of 35 years died, Parker never successfully recovered from the unbearable grief. Perhaps that’s one reason why his most famous quotation rings true: “Preach to the suffering and you’ll never lack for a congregation,” he once advised. “There’s a broken heart in every pew.” 

If it’s ever been true that “there’s a broken heart in every pew,” it’s true in the age of pandemic.  Our ministries will focus now, more than ever, on caring for the pain nearly everyone is feeling. Our congregations are almost universally experiencing fear, uncertainty and loss. The gospel has an immediate answer for all of that and more. 

Healing

Matthew summed up the ministry of Jesus when he wrote, “He went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people” (Matthew 4:23). We will never lose sight of the significance of preaching and teaching, but the ministry of healing is probably in sharper focus today than at previous times. 

The word “healing” in Matthew 4:23 is the Greek word therapeuo. We may live our entire lives and never witness miracles like Jesus performed, but our ministries still have a therapeutic role to play. Now is the time to minister to the real suffering of a broken world and to our struggling congregations. James, the half-brother of Jesus, reminds us, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:27).

Purpose

In addition to healing, our churches can also provide something our hurting world can find nowhere else: we offer meaning. 

During times of great suffering an almost universal question is, “Why?” It’s a fair question. Do the recent, terrible events—natural disasters, school shootings, and now global pandemics—mean anything? Is it possible to find purpose or meaning in these painful and even deadly setbacks? Or, are they only brutal reminders of Macbeth’s empty perspective that life is no more than “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing?”

The life and death of Jesus assures us every circumstance of life—even the most painful—has significance, since God himself chose to live it with us. In Christ, God didn’t dodge a thing. He even experienced the terrible, unending suffering this world dishes up so liberally. Paul insisted our pain can be best understood when we consider the example of Jesus and choose to think like he did about suffering.

“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:5-8). Since the ultimate purpose of Christ’s ministry is located in the suffering of the cross, his people are constantly ready to find meaning—and God’s purpose—in suffering. 

The church that suffers along with its community is simultaneously preaching a message of hope and relentlessly communicating a stunning vision of meaning in the midst of sorrow. No one is better equipped to preach this message of meaning in the age of pandemic than the people who identify with a savior who voluntarily chose to be nailed to a cross!

Ultimately, suffering of any kind finds purpose as it opens the door to evangelism. In addition to forgiveness and eternal life, meaning is restored to broken lives through a personal relationship with God through Christ. 

Prayer

Finally, the church Jesus left in this broken world is a house of prayer. The late evangelist Armin Gesswein once observed, “When Christ ascended into heaven all he left behind was a prayer meeting. The early church didn’t have a prayer meeting; the early church was the prayer meeting.”  If there was ever a time for the ministry of intercession, it is now. In fact, a recent study from Pew Research Center shows that even people who rarely pray have prayed for an end to
COVID-19.

The coronavirus is physical, but our prayerful response addresses the spiritual vacuum and the questions the virus has created. Now is the time to call people to pray and let them know they are being prayed for! 

Fortunately, in order to minister through this challenge, our SBTC has responded rapidly to address the need for resources in all of these areas. These excellent resources and much more, are available at our fingertips at sbtexas.com. 

Your church has a powerful role to play in your community. All of us are alive now—at this phenomenal point in history—for a surprising and significant reason. As followers of Jesus Christ, we are each called to lead and minister in the age of pandemic. Together, this could be the church’s finest hour.  

Jesus is in the house

You have heard the cliché, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” COVID-19 has dispelled that saying. Not only have I been able to learn some things about technology, but I have seen some who are my seniors using the internet with remarkable skill. Praise God for the tools we have to spread the gospel around the world and to remain connected to one another.

“Social distancing” was not a phrase I was familiar with until a few months ago. Now we understand better the importance of not exposing others or being exposed to a dangerous disease. More attention will be given to practicing good hygiene. People may be more careful about being around others when they are not feeling well. Ultimately and eventually, most people will return to their former practices. One practice I’m concerned about that may not bounce back in the long run is congregational worship.

Hebrews 10:25 is a verse I have used to encourage believers to be faithful to the local assembly. The Christian Standard Bible translates the Scripture: “not neglecting to gather together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging each other, and all the more as you see the day approaching.” Scholars tell us that the phrase “gather together” comes from the Greek word episunagoge. Commentators offer varying interpretations about this term and its meaning. The only other time the word is found in the New Testament is in 2 Thessalonians 2:1. Both verses point to the coming of the Lord Jesus. When we come together as a body of believers, we are picturing the final gathering of the redeemed at Christ’s return. It will be a literal gathering not a virtual one.

During social distancing, churches have used technology at an unprecedented level. It is possible that more people have heard the gospel during the last few months than any comparable span of time. Praise God for the evangelistic outreach.

Unusual practices have surfaced too. Some churches have held virtual Lord’s Suppers. Others are considering allowing people from other states and even overseas to be members of their church. These are theological issues that need to be addressed. Perhaps at another time in another venue I will do so. For now, I want to share some biblical principles for local church participation.

In Hebrews 10:24, the writer tells us that getting together fosters love and good works. This can best be done when regularly interacting in person. Feeding the hungry is an act of labor. Caring for the bereaved means we need to be present. Good works and evidence of love often include a touch and a tear.

Physically gathering is a witness to neighbors when we leave to attend our local assembly. We can worship online but when we pull out of our driveway on a Sunday morning it speaks to those who live around us.

The Great Commission encompasses learning what Jesus taught. Regular fellowship with believers is an essential element of a Christian’s growth. We need unrestricted access to one another in order to practice accountability. Looking someone in the eye is not the same as when you do it through a camera.

Community helps us in the face of adversity. There is strength in numbers. Online connections do not embolden us like having other believers tangibly around us. We are truly stronger together.

When God created man and woman he said it was not good for man to be alone (Genesis 2:18). This speaks of the husband and wife relationship. It also speaks of the universal need for deep relationships that can only be satisfied by living life with a group of other believers. We are made to come together.

Use technology! Preach the gospel over the internet! Be careful that it doesn’t take the place of the local church. A few years ago an uncaring practice surfaced called “catfishing.” This was when a person would create a false identity online for the purpose of deceiving or developing a relationship with someone. Catfishing offers all of the elements of relationship. Conversations are held, photos are exchanged. Emotions are real. Yet, it is a sham. The entire experience leaves a person empty and embarrassed.

When the buildings are open for public use, don’t be satisfied with a poor substitute for the real thing. Don’t forsake the assembling of ourselves together. Jesus meets with the local church. 

Kilgore pastor dies on Easter Sunday shortly after preaching final message

KILGORE—Earl “Buddy” Duggins, 81, died shortly after preaching on the hope of the resurrection on Easter Sunday at Forest Hill Baptist Church, in Kilgore, where he has pastored for over 30 years. The final words of his sermon were “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved.”

According to church members, an ambulance was called to transport Duggins to a local hospital after he reported feeling unwell. Shortly after arriving for treatment, he died of a heart attack.

“With a heart of greatest compassion, he came to the pulpit prepared and delivered a sure, powerful and good word from God,” according to Mark Fried, FHBC minister of music and long-time friend.

Duggins pastored the church since 1989, and was involved in ministry over 55 years. He preached over 400 revivals in 10 states and served as an advisor to the Conference of Texas Baptist Evangelists. Called to preach in 1964, Duggins served seven churches and led thousands of people to faith in Jesus Christ.

In fifty-nine years of marriage, he and his wife, Connie, saw many blessings, including the birth of their three daughters, four grandchildren, and one great-grandchild. Duggins stood by his wife’s side through her nine battles with cancer until her death Jan. 30.

As he closed his final sermon, Duggins shared the difficulty he had sleeping following his wife’s death on Jan. 30, crying himself to sleep each night.

“The Lord spoke to my heart and I began to thank God,” he said. He was reminded of the words of I Thessalonians 5:18, reciting, “‘In everything give thanks for this is the will of God concerning you.’”

Duggins continued, “I wanted to be in God’s will so I began to pray, ‘Lord, thank you for the 59 years, four months, 13 days and one hour that we had together.’” Struggling with the fact that he remained after his wife had died, Duggins said he asked, “‘Lord, why am I left?’”

He told the congregation listening remotely, “The answer has come to my heart,” adding that God had told him, “‘I’ve left you here to do nothing more than to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ that you’ve been preaching for over 55 years.”

With that in mind, Duggins closed his sermon with an appeal for souls to be saved. “I stand today this resurrection day to tell you Jesus Christ is alive. He has helped me. He has blessed me. I bless his holy name today. All for Jesus.

“He is the true, living Savior. He’s alive. He was born of a virgin, lived a perfect life, was crucified out on Mount Calvary, put in a borrowed grave, but on the third day—on God’s schedule—up from the grave he arose and he lives as our blessed hope. Trust him today. Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved.”