South Hills Baptist Fellowship in Montana City, Montana, got its start fourteen years ago with help from the Cooperative Program, but it didn’t take the congregation long to forget its Southern Baptist heritage.
By the time Steve Young was called as pastor in 2008, the church had decreased its CP giving to 2 percent of undesignated offerings, down from its original 10 percent in 1998 to help support Southern Baptist work in Montana, across North America, and around the world.
�The church went through some hard times, and the Cooperative Program was the easiest place to trim some dollars,� Young said. �They went a year without a pastor. The men of the church took on the responsibility, and financially things began to turn around. By the time I came, finances weren�t a problem, but they hadn�t put that money back to work for God.�
Young led South Hills, located in the suburbs of Helena, Montana’s capital city, to increase CP giving to 4.5 percent that first year and to 6 percent his second year.
�Hopefully in one to two years we�ll have it back to 10 percent,� Young said. �I just believe the Cooperative Program is the most efficient way for us to fund Kingdom ministries, and that is what we�re supposed to be about in churches. If you give more, then you do more.
�When the churches give more, we see more Kingdom ministry going on through ourselves and through the Southern Baptist work we have going on around the world,� the pastor said. �When you see it up close, you no longer see it as a convention fundraising plan. You see the Cooperative Program really is about ministry and missions.�
Getting their giving back on track has helped South Hills Baptist gain confidence and God’s strength in all the church does, including outreach and nurturing members, Young said.
�We have not had any extended stewardship campaign,� he said. �We�ve not set commitment goals of how much you�ll give each Sunday or anything like that. We�ve just talked about being faithful to God, and that the area of our giving is a part of faithfulness. Besides, when people see God at work, they�re excited to be part of that, and to give.
�Last year we received about $12,000 more in general receipts than we budgeted for,� he said. �So not only did our CP percentage go up, but we gave more because we received more. That�s one of the positives of giving a percentage.�
Young said he believes 10 percent to be the minimum that a church should give through the Cooperative Program.
�It�s a worthy offering for the Lord�s work,� he said. �If we really are Southern Baptist and we really do believe in what Southern Baptists are doing, 10 percent is just a starting place for us. I know as a church we�re not commanded to tithe, but I almost personally believe that is a place to start.�
God has blessed South Hills Baptist with more ministry opportunities, more workers, and more money since they increased CP giving, Young said.
The church paid off its debts, sent three members on international mission trips, and gave more to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions in 2009 than they had in the previous five years combined: $3,000. In 2010, they gave $3,500.
�I challenged them,� Young said. �I told them Southern Baptists have work on six continents. Surely we can give $500 for each continent, I said, and they did.�
From its beginning, South Hills Baptist has sought to reach the 2,000 people who live in Montana City. That focus has broadened to include all of the local Treasure State Baptist Association.
In Montana City, the church hosts a community-wide block party each summer to kick off Vacation Bible School. The church’s choir leads in special events for Easter, Christmas, and the Fourth of July and performs at a half-dozen area nursing homes. The choir director even started a Sunday School class at a retirement home as a result of the choir performing there.
Vacation Bible School last summer was the biggest ever for South Hills, in part because a North American Mission Board-appointed summer missionary was assigned to the church at Young’s request. Trevor Cooper, a student at Arkansas Tech University, also led a five-day sports camp at the end of summer that offered instruction in a different sport each day.
�It really was a blessing for our church to have Trevor for the summer,� Young said. �It helped our church understand how we do things as Southern Baptists: We give and here�s how we get back. We basically had youth and children�s ministries for the summer because of NAMB.�
South Hills has a year-round part-time volunteer youth minister, John Goodsell, who has seen the youth group grow from fewer than five to 19 students on a recent Wednesday night for Bible study.
�I think he got a lot of help and energy from our summer missionary,� Young said.
The other summer events have resulted in a surge of students in the school year’s AWANA program, which now draws about 50 children.
�We�ve seen several families of new Christians come into our church this last year,� Young said. �That�s been exciting.... There are a lot of people to reach, and we don�t have to go far to find them. We do have a good foundation. We�re not struggling every week to pay the bills and keep our head above water, so we do have good opportunities to look outside ourselves.�
South Hills Baptist provided housing throughout the summer for mission teams that came to help with church plants in Helena. This winter, South Hills is doing the same for mission teams coming to assist the Capital Baptist Fellowship church plant. That “housing” consists of sleeping on the floor of the church, using the church showers and the kitchen.
�South Hills Baptist Fellowship is a willing partner with Treasure State Baptist Association,� Young said. �Besides being heavily involved in church planting, the association provides all kinds of training, plus pastoral fellowship and retreats. We get far more back than we give to the association.�
Casting a larger net, the youth are planning a mission trip to Idaho this summer to do backyard Bible clubs, Vacation Bible School and follow-up for both. The pastor is working on a long-term partnership between the association and a nation in East Asia. He plans to lead a group from the association there when schedules can be arranged to give Bibles to travelers who don’t have easy access to them in their homeland.
�We�re not doing anything others aren�t doing,� Young said. �God�s blessing. I think the people here have a heart to serve. I think folks are praying.... Sometimes God just chooses to bless and we can�t put a finger on it.
�Our major challenges are the same ones you have everywhere: maintaining a missions and evangelism focus, not growing satisfied with what we have,� he said. �We are in a community that�s 90 to 95 percent unchurched, upper middle class. They enjoy all the things I enjoy, and do them on Sunday.�
Guiding the church members to grow in their faith and follow God’s direction for their lives is an important part of his leadership as pastor, Young said. As people grow closer to God, His love spills out from them and touches everyone they encounter.
�Our focus is to impact our community,� Young said. �We�ve got some good things to talk about and encourage us, but we�ve not done near all what God wants us to do at South Hills Baptist Fellowship.�
Or throughout the world, he added.
Last summer Young participated in an East Asia Summit in Oklahoma City sponsored by the International Mission Board.
�I came away with a renewed appreciation for the International Mission Board,� Young said, saying, �It�s not perfect� but affirming that it�s �doing a pretty good job. I was reminded what solid missionaries we have.�
Most members of Lodi Avenue Baptist Church in Lodi, California, “have strong Southern Baptist roots and have seen how missions and the Cooperative Program works, and how people are connected,” pastor Mike Abdollahzadeh reports.
�I think they love the opportunity to serve missionaries around the world and even locally. To meet them firsthand, to know that their finances are helping take care of them on the field, that�s a real blessing for our church.�
To reinforce the heart for missions at the church, Abdollahzadeh, an American-born Iranian, shares a vignette from the Missionary Moments prayer guide each Sunday. He also leads in the North American and international mission studies each year and promotes missions, the Cooperative Program, and seasonal missions offerings regularly from the pulpit.
�When they hear names mentioned just before we take our offering, they make the connection that with this money we give, we�re helping this missionary,� said Abdollahzadeh, who has been the church�s pastor for 10 years. �I like to get the names out there so they know where their giving goes.�
The Cooperative Program is the Southern Baptist method of supporting missions and ministries in state conventions, nationally, and around the world. Closer to home, the churches of Lodi have a burden to reach the sizable contingent of Pakistanis who live in the area, but Abdollahzadeh said they have had little success.
�They have their own culture and way of life, so that�s been a challenge,� the pastor said.
By committing 10 percent of their undesignated gifts to missions through the Cooperative Program, Lodi Avenue Baptist Church supports Southern Baptist missionaries who serve in southern Asia. Abdollahzadeh said the congregation trusts that because of their faithfulness in spreading the Gospel through their CP gifts, in God’s economy of time, people in southern Asia will be reached who will in turn reach out to their friends and relatives in Lodi.
�Missions and the Cooperative Program have always been at the forefront of what this church is about and desires to be since I�ve been here and I�m sure before that,� Abdollahzadeh said of the congregation with about 100 in worship on Sunday mornings. �If we as a church continue to be faithful and do the things we are doing, God will give us growth in His time and in His way.�
In the same way that Lodi and a neighboring town, Stockton, California, serve as the nation’s most inland deepwater port for international shipping and as a hub for railroads and interstate highway trucking, the church serves as a conduit for Southern Baptist global missions.
Started in 1950 by a couple from Arizona who moved to the area to plant a church where there was no Southern Baptist work, Lodi Avenue Baptist grew on the backs of transplants and came to thrive by reaching out to its community as well as across the globe.
Members volunteer at the Salvation Army food ministry, Lodi Pregnancy Center, and Lodi House shelter for women and children. Several members are trained in Southern Baptist Disaster Relief and minister several times a year in California and across the nation.
Twice a year Lodi Avenue Baptist Church members blitz their neighborhoods with information about the church, usually tied in with Christmas and Easter events. This year that included God’s Plan for Sharing materials.
In addition to Sunday School and Sunday morning worship, Lodi Avenue Baptist’s programming includes midweek Team Kid and prayer/Bible study. A women’s group meets on Wednesday mornings, and the men’s group is between leaders.
The church’s youth/children’s minister started WAKE last fall. It’s a Sunday evening contemporary worship service for people between ages 18 and 40, designed as both outreach and in-reach. Another community outreach is the monthly gathering at the church of a group for family members of those with mental health issues.
�Our congregation believes wholeheartedly that we�ve been placed on the corner of Lodi Avenue to be a lighthouse to our community,� Abdollahzadeh said. �The Lord is counting on us to spread His amazing love and grace to people we come in contact with. We have a purpose. It�s to represent Christ in our neighborhoods and in our home and workplace. I try to challenge our people that it is important that we please our Lord through our obedience and commitment to carry out His worldwide agenda.�
Lodi Avenue Baptist also works within the Delta Valley Baptist Association, where Jerry Yates, longtime director of missions, retired recently.
�They are the largest giver to the association,� Yates said. �They�re committed to missions through the Cooperative Program and local, worldwide missions.... I guess you�d say it�s in their DNA.�
Lodi Avenue Baptist participates each year when, Delta Valley Baptist Association hosts a block party at a park in a Hispanic part of town. Food and clothing are distributed, a praise band and Gospel presentation provide spiritual sustenance, and games and “fun food” such as cotton candy and popcorn draw hundreds of youngsters and their families.
�This is a Kingdom effort,� Abdollahzadeh said. �It�s just one more way we can reach out to people who live in our community and share God�s love with them.�
Several members of the church participate regularly in short-term national and international mission trips, including the pastor.
�I�ve been to Brazil and Paraguay,� Abdollahzadeh said. �My first-year experience as part of a team in Brazil was wonderful. The second year I went alone, to build relationships with pastors there and assist them.... The connections have gotten better and bigger.
�Like the Apostle Paul, I felt it was significant for me to continue the partnership with these believers,� the pastor said. �God is able to use me in sharing His love with the people there and to be an encourager of the faith. I know how much it blesses my life when I go there. I trust it is a blessing to them as well.�
The Lodi congregation as a whole is strengthened each time one of the members goes on a mission trip because when they return, they have much to share about what they experienced, the pastor said.
�It has a ripple effect,� Abdollahzadeh said. �The testimonies of what the Lord is doing somewhere else touches the hearts of our people. They get excited and some even feel the conviction to go on a mission trip someday. The dynamics of our giving to the Cooperative Program and being a mission-minded church hits a whole new level when our people go on a mission trip, come back revived, and share the good news with the entire congregation. It touches the heart of this Baptist preacher every time.�
The purpose of Lodi Avenue Baptist is “to be an extension of Christ, sharing His amazing love with people, helping them see their own need for Christ and salvation,” Abdollahzadeh said. “We’re His hands, feet, ears, eyes.... We’re being an example to the world of what Christ is.”
Lodi Avenue Baptist is a family-style church, where members welcome newcomers and make them feel a part of what God is doing through the church, Abdollahzadeh said. It is that sense of family, connection, and caring that spreads out to include people far from Lodi.
Discipleship of new believers is an important part of Lodi Avenue Baptist’s ministry, the pastor added.
�We continue to help develop and train the new believer to grow spiritually, to be refreshed and rejuvenated so they can inspire those they have connections with�family, friends, coworkers, and others they come in contact with on a regular basis,� Abdollahzadeh said.
�We have genuine love here for people and God�s Word, and for extending God�s Kingdom,� he said. �We have our heart in the right place, with biblical consistency, for our church to continue to reach out and be an extension of Christ. That�s what He�s called us to do: to reflect His light and love in the world.�
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.