NAPLES (FBW) – In what he hopes will be a “game-changer in terms of the Cooperative Program and our whole relationship with missions,” Hayes Wicker has led First Baptist Church in Naples to launch the “Great Commission Connection.”
In an effort to personalize missions, GCC will link missionaries and church members while also boosting support for Southern Baptists’ missions funding mechanism.
Part of a month-long missions emphasis culminating with commitments during the church’s Oct. 10-11 worship services, the project has already resulted in connecting 507 family units in the Naples’ congregation with about 1,500 missionaries affiliated with the International Mission Board, North American Mission Board (including combat chaplains), the Florida Baptist Convention, and faculties of Southern Baptist seminaries.
In the coming weeks, especially as seasonal members return to Naples, the church anticipates additional families will sign up to be part of the project.
“I had a growing conviction early in 2009 that the Lord wanted us to do more in the area of missions than we had been doing,” Wicker, senior pastor of First Baptist Naples since 1992, told Florida Baptist Witness.
Although negatively impacted by the current economic recession, like other Florida congregations, the Naples church remains “very missions-minded,” Wicker noted.
First Baptist contributes about six percent of its undesignated receipts through CP, as well as supporting other missions organizations and sending multiple teams each year on short-term missions trips, he said.
While traveling early this year, Wicker conceived of the “Great Commission Connection” (GCC) concept in which church families adopt a “missionary package” featuring one IMB missionary, a NAMB missionary or combat chaplain, and either a Florida Baptist Convention missionary or seminary faculty family. By adopting the missionary package, the Naples’ congregants agree to establish contact with the three missionaries to seek their prayer needs and be an encouragement to their ministries.
Special “protocols” will guide church members in contacts with missionaries in high security regions of the world in which the workers’ safety is a concern.
The church members also commit to giving at least an additional $300 per year over their tithe, with some of them using a “Change the World” piggy bank in which loose change can be collected throughout the year. The additional funds will complement the church’s budgeted allocation to the Cooperative Program with the hope that it will allow an extra two percent giving from the church through CP.
“In no way is this a substitute, but is a supplement for Cooperative Program giving. And the exciting thing about this is it opens the doors for us to talk about how to pray for missionaries, how others are involved in missions that they don’t normally think about – like seminary professors, Baptist missionaries in our state and others,” Wicker said.
“I believe we have the greatest missions program in history. Our people need to know how wonderful it is,” he said, noting the strength of CP is its mobilization of missionaries who are not required to raise their own support, but its weakness is a “facelessness” and “lack of personal contact.”
Wicker hopes the Great Commission Connection will address the lack of personalization, while undergirding CP funding, and especially by connecting grassroots Southern Baptists in prayer for their missionaries.
“Giving should follow prayer, not precede it. I believe it’s time to make a difference,” Wicker said, noting the theme verse for GCC is Romans 15:30: “Now I urge you, brethren, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to strive together with me in your prayers to God for me.”
There is a need in the congregation, he said, to make First Baptist members more aware of Southern Baptists’ missionary efforts because many members converted from a non-evangelical background and are unaware of missions obligations, or come from an independent churches supporting missionaries who raised their own support.
“We’re hoping that our people who, by and large, have not come from an evangelical or even a Southern Baptist background will gain a new appreciation for the Southern Baptist Convention, the Cooperative Program, and world evangelization,” Wicker said.
Although the idea for the new effort came before he was aware of current missionary sending limitations the IMB has experienced this year due to insufficient funds, that situation has heightened the urgency to better educate and involve church members in missions, Wicker noted.
Wicker said he believes “nothing on this scale has ever been attempted” before in Southern Baptist life. “I would love to see this reproduced all over our Convention. I think it ought to be encouraging to all of our denominational people to know that folks care and we’re doing our part.”
In order to identify the missionaries, chaplains and professors in the “missionary package,” the church worked with the SBC entities and Florida Baptist Convention to provide the names, photos, biographical information and contact information for the missionaries.
Contacted by Florida Baptist Witness, the organizations expressed appreciation and enthusiasm for the Naples effort.
Ken Winter, IMB’s vice president for church and partner services, praised the Naples congregation’s “conspicuous Great Commission passion for their Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth.”
Winter said the prayer aspect of GCC will impact both the missionaries in their Gospel efforts, as well as the First Baptist families.
“We pray that the prayer partnership that develops between each of these missionary families and the families in the church deepens into strategic intercession for the unreached people group being engaged by that missionary, the challenges being faced, and the divine opportunities to see the Gospel spread among them,” he said.
“I hope it catches fire,” said David Howard, NAMB’s team leader for Church Relations, noting he has received similar requests from other churches. Howard’s office supplied information about NAMB missionaries to Wicker’s church.
“While I’m a proponent of other forms of personalization, prayer tops the list as something everyone can/should do, regardless if they are ever able to do anything else,” he said.
“The missionaries and chaplains will know that others ‘have-their-back’; while the praying Christians develop a more powerful sense of ‘co-laboring’ as their prayers become an integral part of that missionary’s work,” Howard added.
Don Hepburn, director of the Public Relations Division of the Florida Baptist Convention, told the Witness providing information about its missionaries will help the members “see how Cooperative Program gifts underwrite actual persons involved in ministry efforts being conducted on the Florida mission field.”
He added that his office would be happy to supply similar information to any church that desires to have such, helping Florida Baptists see the “personal” and “human side” of missions.
Steve Lemke, provost of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, said GCC is a “great idea that is long overdue,” especially with its emphasis on prayer.
“I believe in the power of prayer, and I believe that people praying through the Great Commission Connection will bring about some things for the Kingdom of God that would not have happened had people not prayed,” he said.
The prayer aspect of GCC also was commended by Chuck Lawless, dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions and Evangelism at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.
“Prayer warriors interceding for us are a continual reminder that we must have God’s help to do what He has called us to do. Indeed, there can be no Great Commission resurgence apart from the power of God,” he said.
Dennis Darville, vice president for institutional advancement at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., told the Witness the Naples church is “modeling great leadership for other churches in the SBC by demonstrating a concern for others outside of the immediate needs of their local congregation. How Christ-centered is that!”
Keith Eitel, dean of the Roy Fish School of Evangelism and Missions at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, said GCC may help Southern Baptists appreciate more the obligation of missions in the way short-term mission trips have done so.
“The FBC Naples initiative could very well be an idea that matures into a similar bridge for local Southern Baptists to sense greater spiritual awareness of the goings on within our collective efforts to work together in all areas of Convention operations to see the ‘main thing’ – Great Commission – happen,” said Eitel, who will be preaching Oct. 17-18 at First Baptist Naples to conclude its month-long missions emphasis.
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