CP 'incredible opportunity,' pastor says
GONZALES, La. (BP)--"In 2002, I took two men in our congregation to East Asia on a short-term mission trip," pastor James Law recounted.
"From that trip God called one of the men and his wife to the mission field. Within a year, this couple sold their house and vehicles and most of their possessions. They left their adult children and grandchildren, family and friends to take the Gospel to a city with less than 1 percent believers."
Law, of First Baptist Church in Gonzales, La., said the couple has "sown the Gospel and planted many churches and hundreds have come to the Lord through their labor" during their six years of service through the International Mission Board.
"When I think of how the Lord used that simple, short-term trip to East Asia, I stand amazed," Law reflected. "Not only was a bridge built through the local ministry of our church for them to actually go, but when the Lord called them to the mission field, we continued supporting them through the Cooperative Program."
First Baptist supports that couple -– and 10,000-plus other missionaries as well as other international and North American ministries of the Southern Baptist Convention –- by giving 18 percent of the undesignated gifts the church receives through the Cooperative Program, the SBC channel of combining the efforts and resources of local churches to make a difference in the lives of people worldwide.
In addition to its CP commitment, 4 percent supports a Hispanic church start in Louisiana's Ascension Parish where Gonzales is located; 2 percent funds a church plant started eight miles from First Baptist; and 3 percent is allocated for sending members on short-term international mission trips.
There's more. The Gonzales congregation in 2001 adopted an unreached people group in a security-sensitive region. That connection remains strong, as do connections made during at least 40 mission trips over the last 15 years that Law has been pastor of the church where about 300 gather for Sunday morning worship.
"I have friends in ministry all over the globe because of the Cooperative Program," Law said. "I can't improve on how the Cooperative Program allows me as an individual and us as a church to be involved in global, Kingdom-seeking ministry. We can do more together for Kingdom purposes than any of us could on our own."
First Gonzales, which celebrated its 100th anniversary last year, historically has been a strong supporter of the Cooperative Program. Located 60 miles northwest of New Orleans, professors from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary often were tapped for church leadership roles in the early years of the church. Their influence, coupled with a strong mission commitment of the church body, allowed for the Cooperative Program to be established in the DNA of the church.
Law noted with gratitude how the Cooperative Program not only funds missionary work around the world but underwrites about half the cost of ministry education at the SBC's six seminaries.
"Each of our pastoral staff has personally benefited from SBC seminary education," Law said. "What an incredible opportunity afforded to us through CP support. When we take in all the ministries funded by the CP, it solidifies our commitment and conviction in doing cooperative ministry."
Regarding the short-term mission trips that have been a major component of First Baptist's outreach, Law noted: "Getting our people to the field has been transforming. It puts a face on the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering [named for the pioneer missionary to China]. It gives such a new impetus to pray and give and go."
In the last eight years, the church has seen what happens when members get involved in missions.
"As we began missions going back in early 2000, our Cooperative Program giving has increased, from $121,000 in 2000 to $175,000 in 2008," Law said. "The church in 2000 also gave $6,000 to help its members go on mission trips; it allocated $30,000 this year. God has blessed the financial giving of this body."
One conviction embraced by the church to continually enlarge its global footprint: No debt.
"We as a congregation have refused to go in debt," Law said. "We have not had a debt in over 15 years, so all of that [money otherwise might have been spent on loans and interest] goes directly into ministry and missions."
First Gonzales has paid cash over the years for a major refurbishing of the sanctuary, for parking and for additional property. With plans made in 2005 to add to the fellowship hall, Sunday School classrooms and offices, the church's savings account has grown by $740,000. Members are committed to wait for the Lord's provision for this future development.
"Sure, I am looking forward to getting a new office and for us to have more room, but I wouldn't trade the freedom we have known to press the agenda of the Great Commission for anything," Law said. "We go back to Acts 1:8. We care very much about our 'Jerusalem,' and at the same time want to see our ministries move outward in concentric circles. We want to have a ministry that is worthy of export. Our missions going dovetails with our Cooperative Program commitment: to have a ministry around the world."
That "around the world" starts in Ascension Parish, the pastor said. Mike Hamilton, the church's missions pastor for the last eight years, and his family, plus four other families, were sent out by First Baptist in September to the northern part of Ascension Parish, where they are planting The Bridge Church of Galvez.
"The area, which is partitioned by four highways, forms a large square where about 10,000 people live," Law said. "They're highly unchurched and we need to sow the Gospel there. We believe the best way to do that is by planting a church.
"Mike was instrumental in building some important bridges for our congregation to be hands-on in our missions involvement," Law said of Hamilton. "His faithful leadership has been crucial to our mission strategy over the last eight years."
In the years ahead, Law said, "I want to be the best missions-mobilizing pastor that I can be, and I believe at the heart of that commitment is to take other pastors with me to the mission field" to nurture their missions commitments. "It's exponential that way. It's amazing what one vision trip can produce as God gets hold of hearts. Priorities take on a new order and congregations are changed.
"You don't have to be an adult to see God at work," Law continued. "We encourage family integrated involvement. We go to Mexico every year, just over the border. Our teens and children have gone for years, and several teens have gone to East Asia and Europe and other places on mission trips. Last spring, I took two of my daughters with me overseas and plan to take one of my five children with me as a yearly commitment."
On the horizon for First Gonzales: New Orleans.
"One of the things that has moved my heart since the [Louisiana Baptist Convention's November] annual meeting is for our church to make a connection [in New Orleans]," Law said. "We are praying for such a fellowship in the Gospel with a New Orleans church. This initiative is at the forefront of our mission praying and planning for this coming year."
Law said the missions commitment he and First Baptist share calls them to be concerned "about the nations as well as our neighbors. When we keep that before us, missions becomes a purifying power among God's people. I can't think of a more exciting pursuit in all of life than to see His Word run rapidly to needy hearts through the proclamation of the Gospel, and then at the end of it all to hear the Savior say, 'Well done.'"
Karen L. Willoughby is managing editor of the Baptist Message, newsjournal of the Louisiana Baptist Convention.