Church is 'healthy' after EKG emphasis
FORT STOCKTON, Texas (BP)--Along Interstate 10 in the Texas panhandle sits a small Southern Baptist church that has caught a vision of its role in accomplishing Kingdom purposes as it intervenes in the lives of people who need Jesus.
"As believers, we need to be ready at all times at all places in front of all people to give a reason or an account of our hope," Matt Sams, pastor of First Baptist Church in Fort Stockton, said. "No, we're not a mega-church and we probably never will be, and that's OK. But we are a church that's healthy and a church that's engaging."
When Sams was called as pastor of the church a year ago, the congregation had suffered a major split and lost about 30 families. They were so far in debt they had to lay off their last staff member, and they were in desperate need of leadership.
Sams, a Georgia native who says he wasn't the best student at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, wasn't filling a pulpit and didn't see himself pastoring again. But then he answered the call to First Baptist.
"One of the first things that I did was when I met with the deacons I asked them to tell me what God was doing in their lives," Sams told Baptist Press. "I got a variety of answers and we shared some things, and I said, 'One of the things I'd like us to do is have Bible study together.'"
While he was at Southwestern, Sams had befriended Ken Hemphill, national strategist for Empowering Kingdom Growth, and at a subsequent annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention heard from Hemphill about the launch of the first EKG materials.
Sams led the deacons at First Baptist through the cornerstone book in the series, "Empowering Kingdom Growth: The Heartbeat of God."
"When the deacons finished EKG, the next thing we went through was on spiritual gifts and we began to see what it really meant to embody the name of Christ and to embrace His mission and to obey His Word," Sams said, referring to Hemphill's book "You Are Gifted."
First Baptist began an outreach called First Response, which Sams likened to a crisis management or shelter ministry. In reaching out to the local community through service projects, Sams said God has granted the church favor with the town. They have seen a couple of police officers accept Christ, and they've ministered specifically to one officer's family.
Another ministry they've linked up with is GriefShare, a grief recovery support group for people who have lost a loved one.
"If we hadn't been Kingdom-focused, we would have let those folks just slip through the cracks," Sams said.
Fort Stockton is a town of about 8,000, and during an oil or natural gas boom the population doubles, the pastor said.
"In some respects we have a transitional population, so our church growth is not packing the pews for a Sunday morning," Sams said. "We've seen our church grow through a variety of ministries that meet very specific needs. So ... we pretty much have something going all the time."
Sams said Empowering Kingdom Growth has been an exceptional resource for the church, and as more people have completed the studies, they are learning to be Kingdom-minded. As school starts, a group is beginning the "Eternal Impact" study.
The pastor also credits the prayer warriors of the church for the recent improvements.
"The church family is the most praying people I've ever met in my entire life. I've pastored two other churches. I was a prison chaplain while I was at Southwestern during my seminary career. For six years I did strictly interim work and was in nine churches.... I have never seen a group of people that are as dedicated to prayer as the people of First Baptist Fort Stockton," he said.
Despite the budget setbacks earlier in the year, First Baptist finished 2008 with $50,000 in the bank, Sams said, and in January they increased their budget by 20 percent. They've even convened a committee to search for an associate pastor of music and youth.
"One of the things we've started is 5th Quarter after the football games," Sams said. "High school football is a big thing here in Texas. I went up to the head coach and talked to him. I got to know him a little bit and I said, 'Can I be the chaplain for your football team? Can I pray with you before games? If you've got a player that's struggling and got some personal issues or you think you might need somebody to talk to, I'd like to be your guy.'
"I thought he was going to tell me I was crazy, but he said, 'That would mean a lot.' He's a man of few words. I got back in the truck and drove back to the church and I was on cloud nine," Sams said.
So far this year, the church has baptized about 15 new believers, and Sams said he is pleased that about half of them are adults. In Vacation Bible School, nine children accepted Christ. On a good Sunday, the church has had as many as 125 people in attendance. And they're planning to host their first missions conference next January.
"I have come to a new understanding of Jesus' statement that the fields are white unto harvest and pray to the Lord of the harvest for the laborers are few," Sams said. "I understand that a whole lot differently than I used to, and I no longer see it as an academic concept or a theological principle. It is a way of life."
Erin Roach is a staff writer for Baptist Press.