God leads Watauga church to consider needs of South Asia

WATAUGA—South Asia was never really on the radar of First Baptist Church of Watauga in years past, although the congregation of about 300 members had made a successful transition to becoming an Acts 1:8-focused church. In the oft-cited Bible passage, the resurrected Jesus tells his disciples they would become Holy Spirit-led witnesses in “Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”

As a long-term partnership with International Mission Board missionaries in Peru is winding down in 2012, Pastor Dennis Hester was eager to see where God would lead them next, but he’d be the first to admit he did not see South Asia as a future ministry focus.

After two women of the church returned from attending the annual Southern Baptist Convention meeting in Phoenix, where they heard the focus on the Great Commission, Hester was intrigued by an appeal from IMB President Tom Elliff and SBC President Bryant Wright to embrace an unengaged, unreached people group (UUPG).

“Let’s just begin to pray about this,” Hester told the staff. “My assumption was that it was going to be something in South America since we had connections down there. We prayed about it as a staff and asked our Wednesday night prayer meeting to do so for several months.”

The pastor and two other members learned more about the Embrace strategy while attending a training event in Cedar Hill last fall. “The Lord began to confirm that we are supposed to do this,” Hester said, while adding that he realized not every church is ready to embrace a UUPG. “We’re not the largest church, but the Lord began to show me that we’re healthy and we have a strong missions emphasis,” he said.

So the next step of commitment seemed reasonable.

“The question was, ‘Where are you going to lead us?’ There are nine affinity groups and it could be anywhere.”

Watauga’s population of over 25,000 is very homogenous with a racial makeup that is 87 percent white—about 10 percent of the city being Hispanic or Latino, fewer than 3 percent African American, and the remainder drawn from other groups. So when a young mother walked in unannounced to inquire about job opportunities and said her family had just relocated from one of the largest countries in South Asia, the staff was quick to help the new resident who seemed an unusual match for the area north of Fort Worth.

That was just the first of more than a dozen hints that Hester and the congregation began to notice as God directed their attention to South Asia.

The group that went through the Embrace training scattered out to each of the affinity group sessions to make sure they were exposed to all regions, while agreeing all of them would go to the South America session since that’s where God had used them in the past. They were surprised to find their attention being re-directed.

“During that day we believed the Lord just drew our hearts to South Asia,” Hester said, reflecting on several insights that pointed them toward an unfamiliar territory. In addition to the visit by the newcomer whom they never saw again, one member shared about meeting a new family at the school where he teaches that had relocated from South Asia. A college student told the pastor that he found himself weeping over the lostness of that same region every time he heard the country mentioned. The associate pastor, a seminary student, introduced the church to a church planter attempting to reach the 40,000 first-generation residents from the very same region who live in Plano.

“Stuff like that happened in rapid succession as the Lord was giving us direction,” Hester said, adding that he had accepted an invitation from Southern Baptists of Texas Convention missions director Terry Coy to participate in a vision trip to South Asia in late January.

When Hester asked one of his prayer warriors—a woman he described as having “a heart for missions”—to pray intently about the Embrace vision, she asked whether Asia might be the place to which God was directing them. “I asked her where she got that idea and she told of spending time in the prayer room that Sunday morning. She felt like the Lord was pointing us in that direction.”

Meanwhile, the pastor began making a 45-minute presentation to different groups about the Embrace strategy, seeking their support and prayer. He started with the five-member staff, wanting everyone to be on board with the concept. Then he met with the deacons and later the missions committee.

“Through our prayer time last year we felt the vision for the next year was to focus on prayer and missions, but I wasn’t sure how that would flesh itself out.” After becoming convinced First Baptist Church of Watauga was to embrace a UUPG, Hester said the congregation was driven to its knees even more, setting the framework for discovering which group to embrace.

Over a six-week period the congregation utilized inserts provided by the IMB at call2embrace.org, praying each Sunday morning and during a one-hour, mid-week prayer meeting Jan. 4, seeking to discern which group to embrace.

Hester will travel to South Asia with a former IMB missionary who is studying at Southwestern while teaching Spanish at a local Christian school. During the two-week period they are gone, other members of the church will gather each night to continue praying for discernment.  

Ten members from the church are being enlisted to participate in a March 27-28 focus on the IMB’s work in South Asia that is scheduled at Gregg Baptist Association in Longview.

“We’re asking God specifically to open our eyes to the unengaged, unreached people group we are to embrace,” Hester said, hoping the trip will give him greater exposure to the culture of South Asia and clarity as to whether their UUPG will be in on of those countrys.

Coy wants to see the SBTC vision trip provide that clarity for the Watauga church. “Pastor Dennis has already expressed a passion for this region and for adopting a UUPG in or near the area we will be visiting. I know that he and the church have been intensely and intentionally praying for God’s direction and for open doors,” Coy said. “I pray that God will speak clearly to Dennis and others during this trip.”

SBTC launched a series of Embrace SENT labs, which started with First Baptist Church of Euless on Jan. 14, then moving to Champion Forest Baptist Church in Houston on Feb. 11, Castle Hills Baptist Church in San Antonio on Feb. 18, and Redbud Baptist Church in Lubbock on March 10.

The IMB is also offering Embrace equipping conferences at Immanuel Baptist Church in Highland, Calif., on March 24, First Baptist Church in Orlando, Fla., on March 29, and at the Baptist College of Florida in Graceville, Oct. 25.

For more information on being a part of the SBTC challenge for 1,000 Southern Baptist churches in Texas to embrace an unengaged, unreached people group, call the convention office toll-free at 877-953-SBTC or visit sbtexas.com/embrace.

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