Baptist Associations creatively minister among residents of Florida’s northeast corner
By CAROLYN NICHOLS
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BLACK CREEK BAPTIST ASSOCIATION
Although Black Creek Baptist Association is located in a seemingly rural area of northeast Florida, new homes and businesses are encroaching on every side, according to Director of Missions Joe Butler. The association’s 42 churches and two missions will need “to get perched” to minister to the area’s growing population, he said.
“Churches who have always been rural are waking up to find hundreds of $300,000 houses next door, and they are asking ‘How do we reach those folks?’” Butler said.
A planned by-pass between I-10 and I-95 across Clay and St. Johns counties will further open the area for growth, and property prices are rising with the population. An established church recently tried to add to their 10 acres by buying more land. The asking price was $500,000/acre.
“Like Baptists in South Florida, we are going to have to stop thinking that we have to have land and a building to have a church,” he said.
Black Creek association began in 1913 with eight churches, and most still exist in the same places, but with different names, Butler said. The association called its first full-time director of missions, Tom Harper, in 1984. Butler, former pastor of Parkview Baptist Church in Lake City, has served as director since April 2006.
Butler, working from the associational offices in Orange Park, travels to visit with pastors and churches spread across St. Johns, Duval, Clay and Baker counties and in Moniac, Georgia. Seventy-five miles separate churches in the northwest and southeast corners of the association. Butler said getting church leaders together who are “spread to the four winds” is one of the challenges he faces as a new director of missions.
“There is no manual on how to be a director of missions. The flavor and personality of each association is different, just like churches,” he said.
Butler said he heard from more experienced directors of missions that most churches prefer the “salad approach” to associational work — “just lettuce alone.” The varied ministries of Black Creek association, however, require cooperation from its more than 11,000 Baptists.
Volunteers from more than a dozen churches form an active disaster relief team. The association provides a bucket truck and trained, experienced volunteers who are assigned “the more delicate work” in a disaster area, Butler said. Working with the bucket truck and a grappler truck, the team removed overhanging trees from homes in central Florida after the February tornadoes.
Black Creek association also maintains a very active ministry to an orphanage in Haiti. More than 20 years ago, members of the Haitian Baptist church in Green Cove Springs led the association to begin the ministry among children in their former communities. North Florida volunteers stay at the Florida Baptist Convention residence in Port au Prince and travel two hours to work at the orphanage.
One of the association’s most popular ministries is the Sunshine Express Trailer which contains carnival games and inflatables for churches’ block parties, Vacation Bible Schools, festivals and camps. Housed year-round at Fleming Island Baptist Church, the Trailer is “on the go all the time” and has become a ministry well worth the initial investment, Butler said.
Like the association’s varied ministries, Black Creek churches range from traditional rural congregations to fast-growing suburban. However, the key to ministry to and through the churches remains “people having a heart and passion for their neighbors,” Butler said.
JACKSONVILLE BAPTIST ASSOCIATION
Director of Missions Ron Rowe wants the 200 churches and missions of the Jacksonville Baptist Association to make “association” a verb instead of a noun. He asserts the congregations will have to work interdependently to meet the challenges of ministering in a growing and changing city.
“We have to help our churches understand that we are now in a mission context instead of on the Bible Belt,” he said. “One-size-fits-all doesn’t work anymore.”
The association, which began with only four churches in 1879, now includes churches in five counties: Duval, St. Johns, Clay, Baker and Nassau. Saying “the days of the old geographical association are over,” Rowe told Florida Baptist Witness he and the directors of missions of Jacksonville’s bordering associations meet quarterly to “stay in touch and hear about the new work.”
“We are not trying to protect our turfs,” he said.
Rowe and his fellow staff members — Art Taylor, Bob Loy, David Garrett, Walter Bennett and Tom Harper — are intent on keeping the association’s churches focused on a two-pronged mission that seeks to plant new churches while fostering the health of established congregations. They lead ministries that serve both area residents, visitors from around the world and residents of Haiti.
Jacksonville Port Ministries has cared for seafarers and port workers 35 years, providing centers where workers relax among trained volunteers. The two centers, on Blount Island and Talleyrand dock, offer a home away from home to residents of more than 100 nations. It is a God-ordained “ministry delivery system,” according to Rowe. Thirty-eight volunteer chaplains also visit workers aboard ships at the ports.
In 1998, the Jacksonville Baptist Association instituted an orphanage, school and church on 10 acres near Cabaret, Haiti, 35 miles north of Port au Prince. Hundreds of mission volunteers from Jacksonville churches have traveled there for construction and to serve the 200 children housed there. On-site directors, Rusty and Cheryl Merritt from Hillcrest Baptist Church in Jacksonville, oversee the work of a staff of 35, including childcare workers, cooks and security guards.
Locally, the association sponsors the work of volunteer missionaries who live in area apartment communities and minister to their fellow residents. They offer children’s activities, Bible studies, birthday parties and welcome baskets for new residents.
Recently, an associational task force took on the burgeoning crime problem in Jacksonville. Its objective was to “determine what churches and individuals can do to help” reduce the violence. The 10-member task force proposed cooperation between local churches and public schools. Several churches, including Deermeadows Baptist, First Baptist in Orange Park and the Church at Chets Creek, have adopted schools both in their suburban neighborhoods and in urban areas where violence is more prevalent. Church members now serve as mentors for students.
“I think the church has an obligation to its community. We bring another dimension of help,” Rowe said. “We have the power of the Gospel, not only verbally, but also in ministry.”
NEW RIVER BAPTIST ASSOCIATION
New River Baptist Association Director of Missions Jerry Gesell believes personal contact is the secret to successful church work — from evangelism to enlisting volunteers for associational projects.
“You just can’t beat the human side of it,” Gesell said. “I believe that most of our work is done one on one.”
The 26 associational churches of rural north Florida cooperate to support local ministries that include a four-year-old African American church and a new Hispanic Bible study. The Hispanic work is in cooperation with Iglesia Evangelica Bautista Pastor Nilo Dominguez from Gainesville.
The association, an entity since 1882, also sponsors the Bible Institute of Panama by providing faculty and funding. The school’s two locations — at the Baptist seminary in Panama City, and in the city of Aguadulce — house classes for local pastors and church leaders who study toward a degree in the two-year program. The first graduating class received diplomas in July 2006, and the next graduation is in January. As the pastor/students study, mission teams from Northeast Florida association work on their church fields in evangelism and children’s ministry.
“This has changed our attitudes,” Gesell said. “The work is making people more mission-minded.”
Mission involvement among churches and individuals in the association begins with a desire to serve. Gesell then organizes mission trips and opportunities for them. The new Baptist Children’s Home location north of Gainesville is providing opportunities for area Baptists, as is a growing interest in disaster relief, spurred by the recent training event at Trinity Baptist Church in Keystone Heights.
“The volunteers come first, then we organize around what they are called to do,” he said.
Gesell hopes God will call volunteers in the Northeast Florida Baptist Association to a ministry with prisons and their employees, many of whom live in the Starke and Lawtey communities. He personally volunteers with the prisoners in the Lawtey faith-based prison.
“It is a ministry we need in our area, a formal ministry with a combined effort among the churches,” he said.
Gesell, DOM since 2001, has served as interim pastor in several association churches. He uses the platform to promote the association’s work, again using personal contact to nurture cooperation among churches. He says he uses the word “partnership” more than “association” to encourage cooperation.
“We have to encourage churches to partner together to accomplish what they cannot — or should not — do alone,” he said.
As the work of Baptist associations becomes more involved with technology, Gesell continues to look for ways to maintain personal contact with church leaders and members.
“We talk about the new age of technology, but the Gospel is the same,” he said. “We have to stay true to the truths of the Gospel while we change methods.”
NORTHEAST FLORIDA BAPTIST ASSOCIATION
Northeast Florida Baptist Association churches work in partnership to nurture church plants in their communities, in Central and South America, and around the U.S. In church planting and in community ministries, the association utilizes unique modes of evangelism and service.
Until 1938, churches of the Northeast Florida Baptist Association were part of the Jacksonville Baptist Association. In a friendly secession in October of 1938, nine churches in the extreme northeast corner of Florida voted to form their own cooperating body. Today, the association encompasses 31 churches, including one in St. Mary’s, Georgia; church Sunday School attendances range from 800 to nine.
Under the leadership of Director of Missions David Drake, the 13,000-plus Baptists of Northeast Florida Baptist Association cooperate in planting churches not only in their own communities, but also in Brazil, Honduras, West Virginia and Nevada. The newest Florida mission is Providence of West Jacksonville Baptist Church which held its first service in January. The multi-racial congregation is in the Cisco Gardens area of Jacksonville. Three more missions are planned to accommodate burgeoning growth in the area — on Yellow Bluff Road, Chester Road in Yulee, and at Highway 200 and A1A.
For many years, Northeast Baptist mission teams have traveled to Honduras to assist missionaries Lesley and Brenda Shaw, who went to the mission field from First Baptist Church in Hilliard. Now home after 33 years on the field, the Shaws left behind a hospital in western Honduras, with which mission teams still work in ministry. The association’s partnership with Brazil is also a partnership with Baptist College of Florida in Graceville. Together they sponsor training events for local church leaders in leadership development and church planting.
Amelia (W.V.) Baptist Church regularly receives mission teams from northeast Florida, and a new partnership with Nevada will entail ministry to the residents of an Indian reservation 40 miles west of Reno. An annual offering in memory of long-time Director of Missions Jim Hamrick is received in area churches to partially fund mission trips to the partnership states and nations. The mission trips provide opportunities for ministry, but also opportunities for fellowship among the churches, according to Drake.
“I try to keep the projects in front of people and the pastors. They naturally strengthen churches,” he said.
A unique ministry in Northeast Florida association started “in the heart of Lynn Hyatt,” Drake said. Hyatt, pastor of First Baptist Church in Callahan, began a chaplaincy ministry to the Nassau County Police Department that has grown to include 16 chaplains who tend to the police department staff and also to families who receive bad news from police. Ten of the 16 chaplains are pastors and staff members of Baptist churches. Saying it is “no small thing” to receive a chaplain endorsement, Drake said the process includes training in death notifications, critical incident stress management, and even weapon certification.
“We have to agree to defend a deputy if he is in trouble,” Drake explained.
Drake said his greatest challenge is introducing Southern Baptist Convention organizational structure to an influx of new church members from other parts of the country.
“Some of our churches don’t understand what associations or conventions do,” he said. “We really have to work on educating people.”
However, Drake said the association’s churches are, for the most part, strong in people and finances.
“Our folks are Kingdom-oriented, and God is blessing,” he said.
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