J3s fuel missions fire at Falls Creek

DAVIS, Okla. (BP)--Plenty of pop culture action heroes have their trademark vehicles.

This elite team's 1974 Volkswagen bus, however, is quite a contrast.

Dubbed the "Mobe-Bile" (short for mobilization), the restored bus is just fine for these young missionaries intent on getting teenagers to care about missions. In this key assignment, it's mobilizing the world's largest Christian youth camp.

Though Falls Creek might not be a familiar name outside Oklahoma, it's practically a rite of passage for the tens of thousands of middle and high school students who attend Southern Baptist churches across the Sooner State.

Founded in 1917, the sprawling 160-acre facility claims to be the world's largest "religious youth encampment." More than 45,000 students pass through Falls Creek during eight weeks of summer camp, roughly 9 percent of Oklahoma's entire teenage population.

Falls Creek Baptist Conference Center also claims to be the spot where more missionaries have experienced a call to ministry than anywhere else on the planet.

Such facts prompted International Mission Board President Jerry Rankin to dispatch a special team of recent college graduates to spend their summer as Falls Creek staffers in an unprecedented student mobilization experiment.

"These campers are the next generation of missionaries," Rankin said. "If they can be confronted with the challenge of missions, this is the time when God is going to touch them."

The six-person team is part of a unique group known as "J3s," who've chosen to add a third year to their missionary journeyman term primarily to work as missions recruiters on university campuses across the United States.

"I see us as advocates for the lost," said Oklahoma native Joel Houston*, a J3 who served in a country so hostile to the Gospel his real name can't be printed. "We've come from places that are 99 percent lost. That's why we do this job. There's a big pool of Christians here that need to be mobilized."

Campers like 13-year-old Brendon Calfy from Newkirk, Okla., are part of that pool.

"I just have to face the fact that God is probably calling me to missions," Calfy admitted with a sigh. The eighth-grader's reluctance shows he understands a missions call means sacrifice. But with encouragement from J3s like Houston, Calfy already is researching volunteer opportunities and praying about where God will send him.

Others, like 17-year-old Carolyn Doyle from Elgin, Okla., are looking even further down the road.

"I feel led to find somebody to date and to marry that's committed to missions, so I'm thinking my calling may be a long-term thing," Doyle said. "I didn't realize until today just how much of an impact needs to be made. There are so many lost people ... I just feel like it's me that needs to be one of those who step out and tell others."

Annie Gardner*, a J3 from Louisiana, believes one of the biggest roadblocks to mobilizing students like Doyle and Calfy is lack of awareness. It's not that students don't care, Gardner said, but that many simply haven't been taught there is a need to share Christ with the world.

That's where tools like the Mobe-Bile come in handy.

MYSTERY MACHINE

Rolling into Falls Creek's recreation area enveloped in a cloud of dust and diesel fumes, the Volkswagen's appearance channels the spirit of Scooby Doo's "Mystery Machine," complete with groovy decals and an obnoxious horn. Students swarm the bus as its doors swing open. Josh Walton, a J3 from Kentucky, leaps out and rushes to pop the Mobe-Bile's rear hatch.

"Put this on! Do it now -- NOW!" Walton shouts at students as he frantically throws articles of clothing from a cardboard box in the bus's back seat. Initially dumbfounded by this apparently random attack, something clicks and the teens suddenly begin to don what turns out to be brightly colored West African tunics.

"Who knows which country drinks more Coca-Cola than any other place in the world?" Walton shouts. One of the students correctly guesses Mexico (where Walton served as a journeyman) and is promptly rewarded with a ticket for a free Icee at the camp's snack bar. Walton now has the group's full attention.

"Did you know that you can buy a Coke anywhere in Mexico, but there are still places there where you can't learn about Jesus because no one knows who He is?" Walton asks. "What about the rest of the world? The shirts you're wearing came from West Africa. You can buy Coke there, too, but millions of West Africans have never heard the name of Christ.

"How is it that we've made a can of sugared water available almost anywhere on earth, yet we haven't done the same with the Living Water that is Jesus Christ?"

As this sobering reality sinks in, Walton challenges the students to visit Falls Creek's missions center, headquarters for the J3's mobilization efforts.

MOBILIZATION HQ

Housed in a brand-new brick building, the Wynn Center for World Missions is a physical manifestation of Falls Creek's commitment to missions mobilization. Its purpose is to provide students with everything they need to translate a missions call into action.

"For me it's been a missing piece of a lot of conversations. We talk about missions but never tell kids how to get started," said James Lankford, Falls Creek's program director.

To help students make that jump, the missions center is outfitted with every conceivable resource, from a bank of computers linked to missions websites to giant maps highlighting "hot spots" where Christ isn't known. Most of all, it's a place where students can talk one-on-one with somebody who's actually been overseas.

Over the course of the summer, J3s have engaged thousands of students in conversation -- answering questions, dispelling myths, encouraging those who've accepted God's call and comforting those afraid to embrace it.

"There are students who've come to me crying because God was calling them to serve Him in a different country," said Christy Moore, a J3 from Louisiana. "I'm able to tell them the story of how I cried the whole plane ride to Russia. It's neat to be able to be a normal person to them."

Summer Abla, a 23-year-old Falls Creek staffer from Shawnee, Okla., always pictured missionaries as "really old people who went overseas and never came back" -- that is, until she met Moore. Abla has since begun the application process to go overseas as a journeyman.

"Now I know I don't have to wait until I'm 95 and in a wheelchair to be a missionary," she said.

MULLET ON MISSION

One of Gardner's most vivid memories involves a "tough looking biker-dude" who walked into the missions center sporting a mullet, tattoos and a bushy beard.

"He came in by himself one afternoon [in] tears ... this grown, 45-year-old man," she recalled. "He said, 'God has not let me rest this week. I want to take the kids overseas but I've got to go, too. What can I do? How can I go?'"

With success stories like this, Lankford said it's obvious that the J3s' efforts -- eight straight weeks of 14- to 16-hour days -- have paid off.

More than 2,600 campers signed up to explore the possibility of going overseas on a short-term mission trip. Thousands more made public commitments to reach their schools, friends and family for Christ.

But the J3s' biggest impact may be on Falls Creek's collegiate staff and church sponsors who chaperone campers. More than 340 made commitments to some type of missions involvement in the next year, including service as full-time missionaries.

Paula Manning is a 22-year-old sociology major at Dallas Baptist University in Fort Worth, Texas. Fluent in Spanish and sign language, she's one of a handful of Falls Creek staffers who began the application process to become a journeyman while working at the camp.

"Before Falls Creek, [international missions] wasn't really an option that I let myself have," Manning said. "Then a J3 walked up to me randomly and asked what I thought about deaf missions in Paraguay. It was a slap in the face that God doesn't have limits."


*Names changed for security reasons. Don Graham is a writer for the International Mission Board.

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