California church nearly closes, then sees tremendous growth within 1 year

PORTERVILLE, Calif. (BP)--Tom Smith, bivocational pastor of Mountain View Southern Baptist Church in Porterville, Calif., said nothing can withstand the forces of God's grace and God's will. Smith has seen it happen in his own flock.

"God is working here in California even with an aging congregation, even in the rough part of town, even when it looked like the church might have to fold," the 61-year-old computer technician and business owner said.

Smith became pastor of the congregation -- seven small families -- in January. The church is located in an area of Porterville known for gang-related violence and drug and alcohol abuse. They had been without a pastor since April of last year when Smith came on board to preach as an interim pastor.

Now, eight months into his pastorate, Mountain View has seen eight people baptized -- their first baptisms in three-and-a-half years.

"I give an altar call every Sunday morning, and one Sunday in March Opal, who is 82 years old, came walking down the aisle to make a profession of faith, and right behind her was Deana, a mother of three," Smith recounted. "No one was more astonished than me! We baptized them the next Sunday."

Then on Easter Sunday, Smith baptized four Native American children.

It's the children and youth Smith brings into the church best, mostly through a program called Friday Night Alive, held each Friday from 7 to 9 p.m. Smith collects neighborhood children in his van and brings them to the church for crafts, games, videos and a meal. The first Friday night they had six children. They're now up to about 20 children and about 10 adults -- parents coming to check out this new program.

In addition, Smith and his wife, Doris, restarted children's Sunday School for the first time in three years. With the help of the local Baptist association, they organized a Vacation Bible School this summer, which the congregation had not had for a decade. Twenty-three children attended.

"When the church first interviewed me in view of a call, I told them plainly that I would focus on the children of the neighborhood," Smith said. "I also told them I was convinced that they were capable of growing so much in one year that they could support a full time pastor -- not necessarily me, just a full time pastor. And I said if you're not interested in that I'll just move on."

But they were. Though Smith had been warned that the elderly congregation wasn't keen on disturbing the status quo, he said he didn't find that to be the case.

"These folks are genuinely interested in seeing the community reached and Mountain View Southern Baptist growing," Smith said. "They have supported every initiative I've made. And God is blessing it."

He and his wife were missionaries for 10 years to the Yokut tribe of Native Americans on the nearby Tule River Reservation. Smith served as associate pastor for youth at a mission church there. It was while on sabbatical from his missionary service that he began serving at Mountain View Baptist.

Being at the church wasn't much of an interruption from his ministry to Native Americans anyway, as it turned out. Many of the Yokut tribe have moved off the Tule River Reservation into precisely the neighborhood of Porterville where the church is located.

"Tom had an inroad and connection with the community already that Mountain View Church had not had in many years," said Don Smith, director of missions for Sequoia Southern Baptist Association. "His coming to Mountain View gave them that connection."

Smith said the key to the newfound growth at Mountain View lies in the renewed outreach to their community.

"When you reach outside of your own walls, you grow," he explained.

Those walls are rather high at Mountain View. Because of the roughness of the neighborhood, the church had erected a six-foot chain link fence around the property.

"The people in the neighborhood honestly thought the church was abandoned," the pastor said, "because the only time anyone was there was Sunday morning, when all the neighborhood was asleep. The first Monday my wife and I were here we had 12 visitors -- people just curious to see if the church was really open!"

Mountain View's story is exactly the kind Bobby Welch, immediate past president of the Southern Baptist Convention, had been hoping to see happen all over the country. Welch's initiative, the “‘Everyone Can!’ Kingdom Challenge” for evangelism, urges Southern Baptist churches to baptize 1 million people in the current church year, which ends Sept. 30.

Mountain View Southern Baptist Church, on the rough side of Porterville, can be counted in the number -- for the first time in three-and-a-half years, baptizing new believers.

“It's hard to pinpoint what's most wonderful because it's all so overwhelming,” Smith said.

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