CP-grateful church: 'We want to be faithful too'

by Karen L. Willoughby, posted Wednesday, September 04, 2019 (2 months ago)

BELLE FOURCHE, S.D. (BP) -- Connections for people to meet Christ are expanding in the Dakotas.

Stephen Carson leads a church plant in Hettinger, N.D., one of three related to Connection Church Belle Fourche in South Dakota, where Carson became pastor soon after its founding in 2013.
Photo by Ashton Rone
Connection Church Belle Fourche in South Dakota -- planted in 2013 by Connection Church Spearfish 13 miles to the south -- is well on its way to helping start three more churches following the launch of Mercy Gate Church in Rapid City, S.D., in 2018.

And despite its young age, the church already is among the largest in the Dakotas, drawing around 225 to Sunday morning worship, with 12 baptisms in 2018. "Sunday School" takes place during the week in at least a dozen home groups: three for youngsters, two for youth and others for adults, a number that increases regularly.

"And we've given a minimum of 22 percent a year to missions, 10 percent of that -- since Day 1 -- through the Cooperative Program," planter/pastor Stephen Carson told Baptist Press.

The Cooperative Program is the way Southern Baptists work together in missions and ministry in state conventions and throughout North America and the world.

"Southern Baptist efforts were so good to get us started that we felt we needed to be part of doing that for other church plants and international missions," Carson said. "Besides, I've seen firsthand the benefits of the International Mission Board and North American Mission Board."

Connection Church Belle Fourche, which meets in a South Dakota storefront, is grateful for Southern Baptists' Cooperative Program support since its founding in 2013, with pastor Stephen Carson noting a desire "to be part of doing that for other church plants and international missions."
Photo by Ashton Rone
Carson and his wife Kaye served as International Service Corps (ISC) workers with the IMB for two years in Uganda (2007-2009). ISC is similar to the Journeyman program for recent college graduates, with ISC being for married couples. He became a NAMB church planter, and most recently as part-time, church-based Church Planting Catalyst in the Dakota Baptist Convention.

"Because of the Cooperative Program, when we were in Uganda, we didn't have to worry about having enough food or anything. We could focus on the work," Carson said. "With NAMB, our church was able to get off to a very good start because of CP.

"Also, I was part of a church plant in Mississippi in 2002 that has grown, and as a young minister I saw how faithful God was to give back when that church plant was faithful to give to missions," Carson said. "We want to be faithful too."

Perhaps it's that faithfulness that has prompted Connection Church Belle Fourche to help start a church in the Lead/Deadwood, S.D., next year and has connected it to two other church plants.

In Hettinger, N.D., a small border town about two hours northeast of Belle Fourche, a group of Southern Baptists had been meeting for a couple of years in a house church setting. One in the group saw Carson's Sunday message posted on the Connection Church website. The group talked about it and asked Carson to lead them.

Connection Church Belle Fourche, in its activities for youth, organized a hike in Spearfish Canyon in South Dakota's Black Hills.
Photo by Ashton Rone
Carson has been going there every other Sunday afternoon during the summer. In the winter, he will pare that to once a month, when travel can be hazardous on the two-lane rural road that stretches between the two towns. The weeks Carson doesn't preach in person, the group watches a video of his Sunday morning service in Belle Fourche.

The other potential church start is in Bismarck, N.D., the state's capital, where currently there is no Southern Baptist church.

Carson was in a gathering of pastors last January who prayed for God to raise up pastors for the Dakotas. Ten minutes later, Carson got a text on his cellphone.

"What are the church planting opportunities like in the Dakotas?" asked Chris Wallace, one of Carson's students when he was a youth pastor in Mississippi 15 years earlier. The two hadn't connected for at least a year before the text came. For the pastors, it was an answer from God to their 10-minute-old prayer.

Wallace, wrapping up a NAMB internship at Heartland Church in Southaven, Miss., plans to be in Bismarck in October. He holds an M.Div. from Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary in Memphis, Tenn.

Allie Mondlock flashes a smile during a Lego competition, one of the community outreach activities by Connection Belle Fourche Church in South Dakota.
Photo by Ashton Rone
Back to Belle Fourche: Carson and worship pastor Ashton Rone arrived at the church about six months after it had been started in 2013 by Doug Hixson, who first had planted Connection Spearfish in 2010 and later went on to sponsor Connection Sioux Falls in 2014 and Connection Sturgis in 2015. Since 2017, Hixson has been director of missions and church planting for the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention.

After Hixson had gathered a core group of about 15 in Belle Fourche, Carson began leading them to do monthly outreach -- "front-door events, a good introduction of our church to the community" such as monthly block parties, summertime movie nights in the park and a "Christ through Cars" automobile ministry. Church members also have taken mission trips to Uganda four times and Ecuador twice.

Connection Belle Fourche uses 10 percent of its undesignated giving from 50 Sundays a year for missions through the Cooperative Program. The other two weeks of the year -- at Easter and again at Christmas --– the entire Sunday offering is given to either the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for North American Missions or the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions.

Last Christmas, $20,825 was given on Lottie Moon Sunday; $12,000 had been the goal. And this Easter, $9,711 was given on Annie Armstrong Sunday, when a $7,500 goal had been set.

"Our folks have been so faithful to sacrificially give," Carson said. "It is an honor to be the pastor here."

Giving, however, is not the key focus at Connection Belle Fourche, the pastor said. "Jesus is. We are focused on bringing glory to Jesus Christ in all we do as a church family. He is strong in our weakness. When we're weak, He's strong.

"Missions is the heartbeat of our church. As a result, we desire to pray, give and go on mission."

Karen L. Willoughby is a national correspondent for Baptist Press, online news service of the Southern Baptist Convention.
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