Evangelism Response Center aids seekers

HARRISON, Ark. (BP)--Patricia Zimmerman, a 71-year-old widow in Arkansas, has led nearly 300 strangers to Christ. But the retired registered nurse and substitute teacher never had to leave her home in the heart of the Ozarks to do so.

Zimmerman is among 3,900 "telephone encouragers" for the North American Mission Board's Evangelism Response Center (ERC) who answer phones and share the Gospel from the convenience of their homes.

Using the ERC's high-tech "virtual" telephone network, volunteers remotely answer calls to 1-888-Jesus2008 (toll-free) 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The ERC also has "Internet encouragers" who use computers to share the Gospel with users who link to the ERC website, www.thegoodnews.org.

While Zimmerman sets her schedule to take calls on Tuesday and Sunday evenings, she actually "logs on" whenever she has a chance, much more frequently than the ERC's monthly minimum of two and a half hours. It doesn't take a computer to log on, just a touch-tone phone.

Modest by nature, she doesn't keep up with the number of souls she's helped lead to Christ. She said she worries more about pleasing Jesus and "doing it right."

"My biggest job is to reach people for Jesus," she says. "The people who call are like ripe fruit. Others have usually witnessed to them and prepared their hearts. All I have to do is pick the fruit."

Zimmerman, who has answered ERC calls for eight years, has a sense of urgency about non-Christians.

"I'm adamant about reaching people for Jesus because I know heaven and hell are real."

For leading 300 people to Christ during her ERC "career," Zimmerman was named "Telephone Encourager of the Year" for 2007 during the Arkansas Baptist State Convention’s evangelism conference.

After completing two hours of training, ERC telephone volunteers like Zimmerman receive a password. When they are ready to answer calls, they simply dial the ERC phone number, input a PIN (personal identification number) and their password, and type in the phone number where they can be reached. The ERC system then automatically forwards calls to that number. Calls are handled in either English or Spanish.

N.S.R.K. Ravi, ERC coordinator at NAMB's Atlanta-area headquarters, said the center exists to advance the intentional presentation of the life-changing Gospel of Jesus Christ.

"We respond and pray with persons who contact us through various media, and refer them to local Southern Baptist Convention churches where they can obtain further ministry and spiritual growth opportunities," Ravi said.

The ERC fielded some 75,000 calls during 2006-07, an average of 3,100 per month. More than 2,200 callers made first-time salvation decisions over the two-year period, Ravi reported.

In a recently announced partnership with Holman Bible Outreach, a ministry of LifeWay Christian Resources, the ERC will send out 2,000 free, Holman-donated Bibles to all callers who make decisions for Christ.

At the same time, Holman Bible Outreach now prints the ERC toll-free phone number in all of its new and reprinted Bibles and New Testaments, totaling more than 500,000 each year.

"God is clearly at work at NAMB, and we wanted Holman Bible Outreach to come alongside NAMB and help support the Evangelism Response Center," said Phill Burgess, Holman's executive director in Nashville, Tenn.

"Having a place that people who receive a Bible can call to speak with a trained counselor about Jesus Christ, and then be able to connect that person with an ERC church, completes the evangelism loop in a way that could never be achieved otherwise," Burgess said.

Ravi said the ERC is looking for relationships with 6,000-8,000 SBC "covenant" churches nationwide –- four or five in each local association -- who commit to follow up on callers in their areas within three days. During the follow-up, the covenant church encourages the person to be baptized, discipled and join a local SBC church.

"About one in four people calling the ERC makes some kind of decision -– a commitment to ministry, to volunteer or a decision for Christ," Ravi said.

Calls are generated from a myriad of ministries and media, some outside the Southern Baptist Convention. For instance, the ERC handles more than 10 percent of the calls to the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Other calls may be generated by special events or mass media campaigns (TV, radio, billboards) launched by one of the 40 state Baptist conventions or other ministries.

Telephone encouragers such as Zimmerman are carefully trained and certified by one of 43 regional facilitators or NAMB staff on how to field calls and share the Gospel. They can choose the time they want to handle calls -– evenings, late nights or weekends -– based on their schedules.

Ravi said the ERC is in "desperate need" for more covenant churches and more volunteers, noting, "We have a goal of having 10,000 volunteers handling 100,000 calls a year."

Zimmerman, who has fielded calls from all 50 states and Canada, has shared her faith over the phone with Jews and Muslims, along with truckers on America's highways who saw the toll-free number on a billboard. She's even shared with those who couldn't read.

"You have to feel your way through each call, and each call is different. Bottom line, you make them realize they're sinners, need a Savior and without Him, they're going to hell. Believe it or not, most of my callers are from believers who need discipling, and you can disciple folks on the phone.

"I do it for Jesus," said Zimmerman, a member of Countyline Baptist Church in Compton, Ark. "He's my life. He's blessed me. It's not always easy being a widow in Arkansas, but this is where He put me for this reason and purpose."

Ravi said by the end of 2008 there will be more than 2 billion wireless phones in use, and 1.5 billion people who use the Web.

"We need to use technology to reach people for Christ. The tragedy of the church today is that evangelicals are biblical but not contemporary in technology. The world uses contemporary technology more than us. We need both faithfulness to the Word and sensitivity to the modern world," Ravi said.

Mickey Noah is a writer with the North American Mission Board.

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