For First Baptist Church of North Mobile, Alabama, the Cooperative Program simply undergirds its heavy emphasis on missions and outreach.
This is a church where more than 1,300 people attend Sunday morning worship, where about 175 people last year went on one of seventeen overseas missions assignments, and where last year 10.6 percent of undesignated offerings was given to cooperative missions and ministries through the Cooperative Program.
This is a church with a focus on people, a call from God to reach the world, and a commitment to obedience.
"I tell people I'm a missionary to rednecks; we look upon that term fondly," said Ed Litton, pastor of the church, which is located in a blue-collar suburb of Mobile. "Our goal is to reach the people who live here for Christ and help them grow and become missional.
"We have a growing community and our focus is this immediate mission field, but we try to think globally about everything. We want people to see themselves as missionaries ... even [through] their sufferings and difficulties. Everything in their lives are platforms for God to communicate His Gospel to others."
The Cooperative Program is an important first step of obedience for the church to do its part to fulfill the Great Commission, said Litton, who recently was elected president of the 2009 SBC Pastors' Conference.
"I believe in the Cooperative Program," said Litton, a former church planter in Arizona whose support back then came from CP, which is the Southern Baptist method of pooling resources of local churches to make a difference in the lives of people across the nation and around the world.
"I think the Cooperative Program is one of the most ingenious funding mechanisms ever created, and I support it," Litton said. "The Cooperative Program allows me to participate with other Southern Baptists in Kingdom work. Ultimately, the purpose is to get the Gospel to the nations, and that's what we're attempting to do.
"I believe the local church has to make their own decision as to the level of participation, but it is my responsibility as a pastor to lead my people to give."
He tells the First North Mobile congregation, "Your church tithes, and you need to tithe."
"There's seldom a direct benefit to us, but that's not why we give," Litton said. "Our motivation is to support our missionaries and support taking the Gospel to communities everywhere. The benefit is we're part of something bigger than ourselves."
Much has changed since First North Mobile called Litton as pastor fourteen years ago. The church had relocated and dropped its Cooperative Program giving to 4 percent. Litton led the church to raise it "by a couple percentage points a year" to its current 10.6 percent. He said he doesn't know if the church took an international mission trip prior to what may have been the first one twelve years ago.
"We went to Brazil and had an amazing evangelistic experience there, and since that time we've had quite a few appointments [to career missionary service] from our church."
Church members who are trained in Evangelism Explosion and who use it locally in outreach to the suburban Mobile community are given scholarships up to 50 percent of the cost to go on overseas mission trips to the nation of their choice. Billy Graham (not related to the famous evangelist) is First North Mobile's evangelism and missions pastor. He is blind and a paraplegic, and leads with wise counsel from his godly heart, Litton said.
"His obvious handicap is our secret weapon," the pastor said. "Our people rise to provide leadership under his guiding hand."
Laypeople in the church develop a passion for a specific international mission field and recruit others to join them on mission there.
"Some of our teams have sixty people going," Litton said. "We go to some harvest fields like Brazil and Tanzania, but we also go to some very difficult places in the 10/40 Window where people have not ever heard the word 'Jesus.'"
First North Mobile has seen nine appointments to the International Mission Board in the last dozen years, with three families serving as career missionaries in East Asia. The church supports their work with short-term mission teams and direct support of a national evangelist.
Other members of the church go to Botswana in Africa three or four times a year to work on an AIDS project. Still others span the globe as they are called by God.
"We believe the local church should be directly involved in missions," Litton said. "That's one of the ways God is calling more people to the mission field — by sending them on short-term assignments."
Missional living and missionary outreach start at home, he said. First North Mobile has strong children and youth programs, including a vibrant Vacation Bible School as well as a children's ministry that links parents in the training of their children, and a specific training program for parents to lead their children to Christ.
"We connect with people, help lead them to Christ, and then disciple them, and the first step of discipleship is obedience; that's where baptism comes in," Litton said. "It's based on relationships, helping people grow in the Lord."
It's this strategy that has led the church to baptize an average of 140 people a year for each of the last ten years. The church during that time also built a 1,500-seat worship center and added nineteen acres of property without incurring additional debt.
The church also has found unique ways to reach the community. About five years ago Litton and the church started an outdoors television program — called One80 Outdoors — as an evangelistic outreach.
"Most of the guys in my church have grown up hunting," the pastor said. "They're very skilled at it. They talk hunting. They know hunting. So we taught them to use a camera, and send them out all over the country, outfitted with all the camera equipment and their hunting gear."
They come back from deer and turkey hunts with the digital equivalent of miles of camera film, which the church's producer edits into thirty-minute programs that later are aired on The Sportsman Channel, NRB Channel, and coming this fall, the Maximum Adventure Network channel. It also airs on the local ABC affiliate. (Visit www.one80outdoors.com for details.)
"We target unchurched people so most of our programs air on Sunday morning, while believers are in church," Litton said. "We are expanding into prime time also."
The program is designed to share not only the wonder of being outdoors, but also the transformed lives of the people who tell their stories as they describe their hunts.
"It's a for-profit venture," Litton said. "We sell advertising; we give away a lot of things on the show, such as Mathews compound bows. Viewers are invited to call in for a drawing, and after getting information for the drawing, an Evangelism Explosion-trained call-taker invites them to take a survey.
In the last five years, more than eight hundred people have made professions of faith as a result of the show, Litton said.
"Most of our viewers don't have a clue we're a church," the pastor said. "One80 is [code for] a transformed life, one turned around 180 degrees by Christ, which is the nature of the story that's told during the program. We don't directly share the Gospel; we plant a seed about how Christ has changed a life."
Since the programs are beamed nationally, First North Mobile connects those making professions of faith with a Southern Baptist church in their viewing area. A retired missionary contacts pastors across the nation who are willing to follow up on the person making the decision.
Everything First North Mobile is able to do is the result of the obedience of the people God has brought to the church, Litton said.
"Releasing these people to do missions is the most exciting part of what God does," the pastor said. "If there is a story here, it's in what He is doing through them."
Karen Willoughby is a member of Kingsville Baptist Church in Pineville, Louisiana, and is managing editor of the Louisiana Baptist Message and Dakota Baptist newspapers.