ALBA—In the fall of 2011, International Mission Board President Tom Elliff issued a challenge to the churches of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention. Presented with the statistics relating for unengaged, unreached people groups (UUPGs) across the globe and their need for the gospel, SBTC churches from across the state responded with enthusiasm.
Lake Fork Baptist Church in Alba answered that call. After becoming aware of the IMB’s Embrace initiative, Pastor Perry Crisp and Missions Pastor Bob Stephenson began praying to discern the direction the Lord was leading their church.
“We began to go to Embrace conferences and did a lot of online searches, looking at the IMB website to read about different UUPGs,” Stephenson said. “The unique thing about it was that as my pastor and I began to pray about it, we didn’t share any information with each other about where God was leading us. We just continued to pray.”
As the two sought direction from the Lord on Lake Fork’s budding missions initiative, a common theme began to emerge in each of their hearts: East Africa.
“One day the pastor came into staff meeting and wrote a people group number on the board,” Stephenson explained. “It was the Sonjo people of the Temi Valley in East Africa, the same people I had been praying about.”
At that point, the people of Lake Fork Baptist Church wholeheartedly embraced that UUPG, voting unanimously to adopt the Sonjo people in August of 2012 as a part of the IMB Embrace initiative and the broader gospel mission.
“Since that time, our missions giving has increased,” Stephenson said. “Our congregation has given over and above their usual tithes and offerings to help with material needs, travel and Bibles for the believers in the Temi Valley.”
Although the area was originally deemed too difficult to reach and the people considered too hostile, Stephenson said that they have found just the opposite to be true. While the trip to the Temi Valley is certainly arduous (consisting of a two-day flight and a 10-hour drive over unpaved roads), the people of the Sonjo tribe have responded overwhelmingly to the gospel.
“We got there and found out that they were a very loving people. We found some people of peace and had a great vision trip,” Stephenson said. “God gave us a harvest—more than we ever dreamed of. More than 1,000 people came to know Christ on our first trip.”
Thirteen members of Lake Fork Baptist Church have traveled to the Temi Valley so far over the course of four mission trips, and according to Stephenson, most of those people are awaiting another opportunity to return. The church’s fifth trip to East Africa will be this month.
“The spiritual growth of the Sonjo people has been amazing,” Stephenson explained. “They are studying the Word and applying it to their lives. On our last trip, six of them went with us to another village to do evangelistic work. God used them to lead many of their own to Christ. They have learned to tell the ‘Creation to Christ’ story, they are holding their own services, and each of the churches is increasing in numbers.”
In addition to significant numerical growth in the churches, Stephenson also notes the stories they have seen of individuals who have experienced the power of the gospel.
“On our very first trip and our very first day of evangelizing among the Sonjo, a young man named Joseph walked with one of our teams and translated the gospel into the language of his people,” Stephenson said. “Between huts Joseph asked questions. He had recently heard about Jesus and prayed to receive Jesus while on business outside of the Temi Valley, but he had not learned much about his new faith.
“While walking between huts that day, he asked, ‘What is Baptist?’ Our pastor gave a quick answer: ‘Baptists are people who believe the Bible, only the Bible and all of the Bible. And we believe baptism is by immersion for those who choose to follow Christ. It testifies to Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection.’
“Joseph nodded and continued walking to the next hut. After translating and seeing another family pray to receive Jesus, we resumed our walk to the next hut and Joseph asked if he could be baptized,” Stephenson recalled. “Our pastor assured him that he could be baptized that very day. As they continued along the path, Joseph made a statement that answered our prayer.
“He said to our pastor, ‘We need a church. We need a pastor. I want to be that pastor.’”
Joseph was baptized that day in a river that was ankle deep in water. “Before our pastor could join him in the river, Joseph used his hands in the sandy bottom of that river to dig his own baptismal grave. When our pastor baptized Joseph, the water was still too shallow at Joseph’s head and his nose was still above water. Of his own accord, Joseph turned his head so that he was completely immersed. He is now the pastor of the very first Baptist church in the Temi Valley.”
When Lake Fork first began their Embrace initiative with the Sonjo people, there were a reported 3,800 UUPGs across the globe; according to the most recent statistics, however, that number is down to around 3,030.
“The three main ingredients for embracing a people group are prayer, prayer and prayer,” Stephenson said. “God is still in the business of reaching out to those unreached people groups, and our prayer is that other churches would catch the vision.”