FROM THE STATES: Ark., Texas, Tenn. evangelism/missions news; 'This is quite an emotional moment. This is about to come to fruition.'
Arkansas Baptist News
Southern Baptist TEXAN
Baptist and Reflector
Ark. prison seminary to
start classes fall '19
By Caleb Yarbrough
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (Arkansas Baptist News) -- A partnership between the Arkansas Department of Correction (ADC), Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary (MABTS) and the Arkansas Baptist State Convention (ABSC), will soon establish a seminary within one of Arkansas' prison units, it was announced April 30 at the State Capitol.
The new seminary will begin classes in the fall of 2019 with an initial cohort of 25 male inmates in the state's Varner Unit, located about 30 miles south of Pine Bluff.
"I wish I could be with you today to celebrate the establishment of a seminary in the Varner Unit of the Arkansas Department of Correction," said Gov. Asa Hutchinson in a video produced for the event. "This is a remarkable opportunity for inmates to learn more about biblical principles and powerfully influence the lives of others as they begin their journeys as ministers of faith.
"Thank you to everyone for your role in establishing this ministry. I appreciate the hard work of Eddie Joe Williams, Mid-America seminary, the Arkansas Baptist State Convention and the Arkansas Department of Correction," said Hutchinson. "Please know that I am praying for you, for the seminary and for the students whose lives will be changed."
The seminary is the brainchild of former Arkansas State Sen. Eddie Joe Williams and Dubs Byers, pastor of First Baptist Church, Dumas, and board member of the ADC.
After attending a meeting of legislators on prison reform in New Orleans a few years ago, Williams contacted Burl Cain, who at that time served as warden of Louisiana State Penitentiary, commonly referred to as "Angola." Cain shared how a Christian ministry program had made a tremendous impact on the inmates and culture of Angola, as well as in a similar program in Texas patterned after Angola's program.
Williams said the visit to the prison exposed him to the prison's seminary education program that existed under the leadership of Cain.
Byers spent nearly a decade as superintendent of the Arkansas Correctional School, the ADC's education system. After visiting Angola, and knowing Byers' experience in prison education and passion for ministry, Williams approached Byers with the idea of creating a similar program in Arkansas.
"This is quite an emotional moment. This is about to come to fruition," said Byers. "This has been the culmination of years of effort.... There are many people that are making this happen."
Byers introduced Arkansas native Mike Spradlin, president of MABTS, who shared about the seminary's role in the new partnership.
"We have a culture at our school. If you enroll at Mid-America, you are part of our Mid-America family, and we're going to take care of you," said Spradlin. "For our new members of the family that we are going to be meeting this fall, they're part of our family. We are going to get them to the finish line."
ADC Deputy Director Dexter Payne shared the ADC's support of the new prison seminary.
"We fully support this seminary program and its goals. Our goal is to have a team at the Varner Unit in place to assist those inmates in achieving their mission," said Payne.
"We want the inmates to be field ministers who will go unit to unit once they receive their degree, and assist us in caring for our population -- teaching them, mentoring them and giving them a vision that will help them once they go outside of our gates," said Payne.
"I am excited about the possibilities and the impact of this prison seminary at the Varner Unit. I am thankful to the many folks who made this happen, and to the Arkansas Department of Correction and Mid-America Seminary for partnering with us," said J.D. "Sonny" Tucker, ABSC executive director.
"We owe a debt of gratitude to Burl Cain, former warden of Angola prison, for pioneering this concept, and to a very generous anonymous donor who helped get this started," said Tucker.
Following the announcement of the prison seminary, a time of focused prayer for the new ministry was led by Greg Sykes, senior pastor of First Baptist Church, Russellville, and ABSC president; Tyrone Broomfield, pastor of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, North Little Rock, and Jarvis Smith, pastor of Second Baptist Church, West Helena.
This article appeared in the Arkansas Baptist News (http://www.arkansasbaptist.org/), newsjournal of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention. Caleb Yarbrough is assistant editor at the Arkansas Baptist News.
Texas church rebounded
with renewed vision
By Karen L. Willoughby
ATHENS, Texas (Southern Baptist TEXAN) -- The first time Pastor James Cox realized Virginia Hill Baptist Church was showing signs of revitalization was during a monthly game night when he witnessed cross-generational participation.
A simple board game infused with friendly competition sparked laughter throughout the fellowship hall. They were listening, they understood, and they were living life together as disciples, the pastor recalled.
"When we first arrived, the younger population of members weren't really involved," Cox told the TEXAN. "The church was really kind of segregated by generation. There wasn't any cross-pollination between the age groups. At each event it seemed as if the younger members were cautious and timorous around the more experienced members.
"I believe the turning point [toward revitalization] was understanding that discipleship meant more than teaching God's Word; it meant living life together, encouraging one another and enjoying the blessings that each person brings to the body of Christ. That is what created the opportunity to laugh together over a game."
The church was in a transitional state, Cox said. The former pastor had served faithfully for 18 years, but the church had withered to about 20 in attendance for Sunday morning worship. They realized change was necessary, but they weren't sure where to start. They needed someone to lead that change.
Virginia Hill Baptist members knew they needed a spark when in late 2016, after a few months without a pastor, they called on Cox. He came to the church in November 2016 as a supply preacher. That month the congregation asked him to be interim and the next month, pastor. He started as the official pastor on Jan. 1, 2017 and within three months had connected with the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention for help.
To get started, he held a meeting with the church members.
"I asked them what they were looking for in a pastor, their expectations of him and their dream of what would happen at the church," Cox said. "After listening to them and hearing that they wanted the church to grow and thrive in the community the way that it once did, I told them the only way these things would happen would be if they would be willing to go into revitalization. I explained how the revitalization process works and how hard it can be to wipe off the old and put on the new. It was up to them to decide the fate of the church, I told them. Praise God they were ready."
This included adopting a statement of faith (the Baptist Faith and Message 2000), writing bylaws and affiliating with the SBTC.
Cox connected with Mike Landry, an SBTC revitalization consultant. Landry talked with the pastor, visited the church two months later, preached and that evening talked with the members. Landry explained the revitalization process in detail to the congregation.
Events moved smoothly from that point, though not without an occasional monetary hiccup.
"The church recognized the need," Landry said. "They had a desire to do the work necessary and the willingness to change. These are the things we always look for in revitalization.
"With the work that is involved and the changes that may be necessary, it is important for the pastor and the church to be committed to the revitalization process. Many times, we have a 'town hall' meeting with the church to ensure the congregation understands the process and is committed to revitalization."
Revitalization basically is a three-legged stool, Landry explained. The process includes preaching for heart change, a focus on evangelism and a commitment to discipleship.
"To sum it up," Landry said, "a church needs to be impacted by the Word of God and become refocused on the Great Commission found in Matthew 28:19-20."
Virginia Hill Baptist also began giving more than 8 percent to missions through the Cooperative Program.
"We want to be a part of what SBTC is doing," Cox said. "Going from a lethargic state to becoming an enthusiastic part of a convention you're very active in was the difference between night and day.
"We started just rolling through," the pastor continued. "Maybe I'm naïve enough to think that if we did the process that the SBTC created, things were going to work for us. I used every resource they offered, taking advantage of the wisdom of others instead of trying to recreate the wheel for Virginia Hill."
That was in 2017. The first year involved a 13-week message series both preached and taught in Sunday School to unite the church in working toward revitalization. The monthly game night that was in place helped to build fellowship and bridge the generational gap.
"After the first series I went into Acts," Cox said. "I felt that what our church really needed was the full force that the book of Acts can bring. Acts reveals to us everything going on with the church as it is established, and that is essentially what revitalization is, re-creation of the church the way God planned for it to be."
In the second year came VBS for the first time in five years, a first-ever weekend women's conference, led by the pastor's wife, and a Fall Festival that drew some 90 people. These three events are planned again for 2019.
"The church has moved out of its comfort zone," Landry said. "We see evangelism becoming the culture of the church, and with the renewed vision and excitement, people are being saved and baptized."
Even before Cox was called as pastor, the church had determined the building needed a facelift. By the time he was on site, a crew had come in and torn out old paneling, repainted walls, lowered the ceiling and purchased new pews.
"With all of the work they had done and the new pews coming, that gave us the opportunity to have a church cleaning day," Cox said. "We purged all of the old stuff that hadn't been used in forever, or that had run its course and wasn't necessary or able to be used. Also, with the church being built in 1945, we even had the opportunity to return some of the items to the families that were original members of the church and that meant a lot to them. They were able to hold onto a piece of their history."
Now, the worship center will seat 89 people.
"When we get to the point where we overflow our capacity for two or three services, maybe then we'll consider building," Cox said.
In this, its third year of revitalizing, Virginia Hill Baptist continues its focus on becoming a healthy church that exhibits God's love in its community, the pastor said.
The multicultural congregation (he's Native American; the congregation and visitors are typically black, Hispanic and white) is looking for volunteers to help with the youth and music ministries.
"I'm incredibly humbled and grateful for the help we've received from Kenneth Priest, Mike Landry and the team at SBTC, along with the resources and the help through the Cooperative Program," the pastor said. "Without their help this would be an incredibly difficult journey that might not have been fruitful.
"We are so appreciative and give all the glory to God," Cox said. "He has more than doubled our average in attendance, created a children's ministry, the ladies took an additional four women to their conference, and just this weekend we welcomed two new families to join us that will include three being baptized. God is so good."
This article appeared in the Southern Baptist TEXAN, newsjournal of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention. Karen Willoughby is a writer in Utah.
Tenn. church building
donation 'a God thing'
By Lonnie Wilkey
SELMER, Tenn. (Baptist and Reflector) -- Though only 25 years old, Central Baptist Church in Selmer had fallen on hard times in recent years.
Attendance had dwindled to less than 10 people and the church knew two years ago that something had to change for the church to survive, said pastor Stephen Davison. The members consulted with the local association and representatives from the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board about church revitalization.
About seven months ago, as attendance dwindled to less than 20 people, it became apparent that the best solution for Central was to merge with another church by giving its property to a sister church in Shiloh Baptist Association. "We prayed for a church to partner with us," Davison recalled.
Along came First Baptist Church, Selmer, which was already pursuing a multi-campus approach to its ministry, according to pastor Joey Johnson.
"They asked us to take their property and use it for the kingdom," Johnson said.
Both congregations voted unanimously for the plan which gives First Baptist Church five acres of land and two buildings. "If you were going to build a new church in McNairy County, that is where you would build it," Johnson said.
Immediate plans call for First Baptist to use it for activities and events for both the church and the community, but it could be a campus site in the future or potentially a new church plant, he added.
Johnson is grateful for the desire of the remaining Central Baptist members to see their church continue to be used for ministry. "It was a courageous step for them to take," he said.
The Selmer pastor observed that while similar things happen in other parts of the state, it's not that common in rural West Tennessee.
"It's a new paradigm. Hopefully this will become a model for other churches that are struggling," Johnson said.
"It's been a remarkable situation," he continued. Accepting the Central property was not something the church planned or had a strategy for, Johnson explained. "It was a God thing."
Davison, who will serve on First Baptist's staff for three months as he transitions into a new ministry role, said he is excited that First Baptist accepted the gift. "They have a heart for the community and we felt they would be a good partner," Davison said of First Baptist.
"It became clear through the process that this was the right way to go. God took care of everything every step of the way," Davison affirmed.
Central held its final service on May 19. Johnson and other members of First Baptist attended.
Davison acknowledged Central members who remained, especially those with deep roots to the church, had mixed emotions, but they were excited that the church will continue to be used for God's ministry.
"At the end of the day, it's not about whose name is on the church sign. It's about the name of Jesus Christ," he affirmed.
Russ Wilkins, director of missions for Shiloh Baptist Association, observed that occasionally "something seems counterproductive or even like a loss, but it becomes a victory. The cross would be a great example."
He noted the closing of Central Baptist falls into that category. "Recently, Central Baptist Church conducted its last service after many years of wonderful ministry in that location. That is a loss in many ways but the people of Central believe the greater victory is to see new life in that location."
Wilkins said one member told him, "I don't care what name is on the building, we just want to see people coming to Jesus."
"What a generous spirit the people of Central have shown," Wilkins said.
"We are praying for a healthy model of what can be done to keep churches and ministries in neighborhoods and communities."
This article appeared in the Baptist and Reflector (tnbaptist.org/BRNews.asp), newsjournal of the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board. Lonnie Wilkey is editor of the Baptist and Reflector.
EDITOR'S NOTE: From the States, typically published each Tuesday by Baptist Press, relays news and feature stories from state Baptist papers and other publications on initiatives by Baptist churches, associations and state conventions in evangelism, church planting and Great Commission outreach, including partnership missions. Reports about churches, associations and state conventions responding to the International Mission Board's call to embrace the world's unengaged, unreached people groups also are included in From the States, along with reports about church, associational and state convention initiatives in conjunction with the North American Mission Board's call to Southern Baptist churches to broaden their efforts in starting new churches and satellite campuses. Except for minor style, security, formatting and grammatical changes, the items appear in Baptist Press as originally published.