"Because of the Cooperative Program, we get to be a part of everything," Melvin York, pastor of First Baptist Church in Des Arc, Arkansas, for seventeen years, said. "With the Cooperative Program, you get to support missions at every level in every area."
The Cooperative Program is Southern Baptists' method for financially supporting state, national, and international missions and ministries.
"We practice missions," York said. "I don't have to preach it. My folks practice it .... Last year we marked $1.5 million to missions since I've been here, this little ol' country church, and $1.1 million of that has been through the Cooperative Program."
About 250 people participate in Sunday morning worship at First Baptist. The church, across from the post office, has been expanded and renovated over the years to accommodate the growing congregation.
Once, they knocked out the back wall of the church to add seventy seats in the worship center. Another time they built an eleven-room activity center in an educational annex across the street from the church.
But never has money been taken from the Cooperative Program for construction.
"Whenever any [building project] is presented, it is not voted on but just verbally stated that we're not cutting back on missions," York said. "That's just who we are as followers of Jesus.
"God had one Son and sent Him as a missionary. I read that somewhere, but it's a good quote. We're just carrying on the family business."
First Baptist was giving 20 percent of undesignated receipts to missions through the Cooperative Program when York was called as pastor in 1993. He led them to increase it to 24 percent, where it has remained the past fifteen years.
"We're a declining [Mississippi] Delta town," the pastor said. "The population is decreasing, the median age is going up. We've lost most of the industry over the last sixteen years. We're drying up as a community.
"But God has really blessed us in the circumstances," York said. "It just makes it that much more phenomenal what God has led us to be a part of."
As the town declined, the church doubled in size.
"In my early years at Des Arc we had explosive growth numerically and financially," York said. "We baptized 136 in my first three years. The church was in a state of real revival, and it just came up that we needed to invest the increased offerings into missions. Everybody was in total agreement, so we raised the CP giving to 24 percent."
The community of about two thousand residents in a county seat town is about sixty miles northeast of Little Rock. It was started in the late 1700s as a French fur trading outpost. The name Des Arc means "Little Bend" in the White River. First Baptist Church was started in 1848, the year the town was plotted.
Early church records have been lost, but First Baptist was giving 20 percent to missions through the Cooperative Program at least twenty years ago, the pastor said.
"The church had been taught well even before I came," York said. "We have expanded what we were already doing. They always have either a building project or a mission project they're working on.
"We keep 'em busy," the pastor added with a laugh. "That way they don't get discontented."
Beyond CP, other missions causes bring the church's total missions giving to 31 percent of its annual budget. But its generous giving to missions is only part of First Baptist's missions outreach.
Locally, the women of the church have jail and nursing home ministries as well as in-depth video Bible studies. The men of the church do light construction, yard cleanup, minor repairs, and home maintenance for the elderly and needy in Des Arc. A recent residential handicap ramp was the fifth they've built in the last couple of years. And an ongoing Mother's Day Out program involves about forty preschoolers each Tuesday.
First Baptist regionally supports the work of the Hope Migrant Center in Hope, Arkansas, a ministry of the Arkansas Baptist Convention. Teams go there twice a year to do maintenance and light construction. The church also supports the ministry financially each month.
Nationally, the church has made short-term mission trips to seven states in the past seventeen years, including disaster relief trips to New York City after 9/11 in 2001 and to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Internationally, the church sends out two or three short-term mission teams each year, to ten nations in all, though the church has zeroed in on Guatemala twice a year for the past several years. Two members of the church have served as Journeymen missionaries with the International Mission Board.
One of the joys York sees as a long-term pastor is watching young people grow up, marry, have families, and continue the missions focus their parents had when he arrived.
For example, a girl who was a second-grader when York was called as pastor went on a mission trip to Iowa a few years later "and the spark of missions just ignited," York said. Today she is serving in a security-sensitive part of the world.
"I have a very strong young couples department," the pastor said. "Out of the twelve we're sending to Guatemala in February, ten are under 30 .... I've seen my young couples grow up. They see missions, hear about missions, participate in missions from the very beginning. It's passed on to the next generation. That's why they're so committed. It's always before them or in front of them.
"God has blessed this church, and I believe it's because we're so missions-minded," York added. "We keep focused on getting the Gospel out to every avenue."
One avenue takes the church to the high school football field and basketball court.
"We get very involved in the school," the pastor said. "We bring Gatorade to practices — gallons and gallons over the years — and our young people pass it out [to the players]. We have a very high profile with that. It's another way our young people get involved in hands-on doing something."
First Baptist has been doing its Gatorade ministry for fifteen years, he said.
"We always have a share time when we come back" from a missions trip, York said. "There's always a new level of excitement and vision generated by this.
"When you're actively involved in missions, obviously the Holy Spirit blesses and energizes, and you don't become stagnant. I've said from the pulpit, 'If you just kind of sit, you're going to sour,'" he said.
He illustrates that by saying the Sea of Galilee is vibrantly alive because it has streams flowing in and out of it, but the Dead Sea, without an outlet, is dying.
"God has blessed us, this little ol' country church," York said. "We're touching the world from Des Arc."
Living Hope Baptist Church Pastor Jason Pettus points to results, especially when it comes to missions.
"We don't talk much about the Cooperative Program as a program," Pettus said. "We talk about the results of it. We talk about the half-dozen students we send to seminary every year. We talk about what we are able to do in our city and around the world through the SBC. We don't talk about the Cooperative Program; we show what it accomplishes."
Pettus, 37, pastor of Living Hope Baptist Church in Bowling Green, Kentucky, was 28 when he was called in 2001 to lead the congregation. Worship attendance has grown from 1,500 to around 2,300 in tandem with the church's increased emphasis on missions.
"We couldn't run a seminary and provide disaster relief and plant churches and reach the nations the way the Southern Baptist Convention does," Pettus said. "The Cooperative Program allows what we give to go further than it could in our hands alone. There is no other method I know of that would enable our church to be engaged in Kingdom work the way the Cooperative Program does."
As a key avenue "to support what God is doing in our state, nation, and world," Pettus reiterated that the Cooperative Program provides "seminary training for future leaders and mission opportunities through the North American Mission Board and International Mission Board for our people."
Living Hope, established in 1976, currently commits 10 percent of its undesignated offerings to missions through the Cooperative Program.
The church's missions focus includes Hope House, a nonprofit established in 2007 by — but separate from — the church to help area residents physically, mentally, and spiritually, in a local adaptation of the multifaceted ministry centers of First Baptist Church in Leesburg, Florida, and First Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas.
"Hope House shares the Gospel, helps existing and new churches grow, and shares resources with the poor," Pettus said. An example of its ministries: backyard Bible clubs for children throughout the summer.
Extending its missions reach across the United States, Living Hope "partners with church planters, NAMB, and sending mission teams to spread the Gospel and help churches care for their cities," Pettus added. "We are hoping to begin planting more churches."
Living Hope also is involved internationally, with members from the church serving on three continents as missionaries with the International Mission Board.
"We are partnering with them by sending teams to serve with them throughout the year," Pettus said. "We also are training and raising up new leaders to become IMB missionaries."
Pettus is a teaching pastor for the multi-generational church. His Sunday morning messages are backed each week by a worship guide insert that includes "Four Christ-Centered Conversations with your Children" and multi-question study guides for teens and adults to use in midweek small group Bible studies.
"I sense God calling us away from being a consumer-driven church and more focused on being a missionary training and sending church," Pettus said.
"The process begins with membership. We ask all our members to be involved in sharing their faith, in reaching their lost friends and family, and in studying God's Word daily. And we ask them to gather with a group to study God's Word, to discuss the four questions based on Sunday's worship [service] and their studies as a family, and to serve on-mission somewhere in the church and outside the church."
Pettus added, "My personal passion is to make disciples who make disciples and raise up leaders who will touch the world with the love of Christ.
"We see two or more people baptized each week, on average. We have more than one hundred men training for Kingdom service of some sort," the pastor continued. "We have hundreds of people leaving our city every year to take the Gospel to our nation and world, and we have more than a thousand people serving in our city throughout the year by sharing Christ and showing the love of Christ in acts of service.
"The church exists to help people get to know God, grow in Christ, and give to others," Pettus said. "We are challenged every week to invest love and prayer into people, and to invite them to know Christ and to worship with us."
Pettus described Living Hope as "a simple church ... driven by a simple vision that God has given us in the Great Commandments found in Matthew 22:37-40, and all we do is determined by the simple mission God has given us in the Great Commission: Matthew 28:19-20."
Two years after Pettus was called as pastor, the church dedicated a new preschool and children's building on its ten-acre campus.
Living Hope's first building was constructed in 1978. Educational space followed and, in 1996, a worship center. A gymnasium with dedicated space for children and youth currently is being built.
Despite the cost of construction, Living Hope remains committed to supporting missions through the Cooperative Program and is in the top fifty churches across the SBC in its commitment to putting love in action through CP.
"They are our top CP dollar giver in Kentucky," said Billy Compton, Kentucky Baptist Convention's executive associate for the Cooperative Program. "The church continues to grow and be an excellent model of mission and ministry cooperation."
Pettus turned the conversation away from accolades.
"God has laid leading men on my heart these days," the pastor said. "I feel compelled to raise up as many effective dads, husbands, deacons, elders, pastors, church planters, and missionaries as possible.
"No church is perfect and I am far from the leader God wants me to be," Pettus said. "Yet, God is faithful and is choosing to work through me and the church I serve. God does not need a person, a church, or a system to be perfect for Him to fulfill His Kingdom purpose. We must simply be willing to allow Him to produce fruit through us and to undergo the pruning and painful process that He has chosen to produce growth for His glory."
Karen Willoughby is a member of Kingsville Baptist Church in Pineville, Louisiana, and is managing editor of the Louisiana Baptist Message, Dakota Baptist, and The Montana Baptist newsjournals.
Supporting Southern Baptist missionaries through the Cooperative Program is central to the life of many Illinois Baptist churches, but particularly to O'Fallon First Baptist Church, which led the way in Illinois by giving nearly $250,000, or 8 percent of its budget, to CP in 2009.
Doug Munton, senior pastor, stresses the importance of giving to and participating in missions with his congregation. "I believe we need to teach missions all the time," Munton said. "Humanly, it's our nature to be self-focused and self-centered, spending our resources on ourselves. Spiritually, it's natural for us to reach out to our Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth. We need to be about reaching people who are not here yet [who do not know Christ], that we might not meet this side of heaven."
Church members actively participate in both local and international missions. "We help with Vacation Bible School, our youth went to Chicagoland, some of our families participated in the North American Mission Board's Families on Mission, and we have had partnerships in Uganda and Siberia for many years," shared Munton. Members have also taken mission trips to Nevis (an island in the Caribbean), Peru, Burkina Faso, Bulgaria, Romania, Chile, and other countries.
Munton appreciates the way CP enables Southern Baptists to join together in obeying the Great Commission. "I'm grateful that we can be part of doing missions together with other Illinois Baptist State Convention and SBC churches doing the tasks God asks us to do. Churches are in danger of only caring about what they do directly. I want to be part of something greater to help fulfill the Great Commission."
Adapted from an article in the Illinois Baptist by Lisa Sergent, associate editor.