The need for more churches in Fairbanks, Alaska, weighed heavily on Joe and Cindy Boney. As new church planter catalysts with the North American Mission Board, they were praying fervently in September 2015 that God would show them how he wanted to start new churches in this frontier city of thirty-two thousand souls.
Within the month, God had answered that prayer—and over nine months, events have unfolded in a very dramatic manner.
The Boneys had served as church planters for thirty years, in Montana, New York, Wyoming, Idaho, and southeast Alaska, so they knew prayer was the starting point. What they didn’t know was that God was using prayer in Anchorage—360 miles to the south—to begin a new work in Fairbanks.
Paul and Rebekah Kim had traveled to Anchorage in October 2015 so Paul could participate in the annual gathering of PrayerLink, which included a prayer event focused on that city and its surrounding region. PrayerLink is a national organization composed of prayer coordinators with SBC entities, state Baptist conventions, and ethnic fellowships. Paul, who also serves as the national Asian American relations consultant for the SBC Executive Committee, is pastor emeritus of Antioch Baptist Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Rebekah serves as one of two Southern Baptist chaplains at Harvard University. Together they have planted a church a year for the past thirty-five years across the United States and overseas.
During that visit to Anchorage, the Kims were struck by the need for the Gospel to be proclaimed among the state’s 736,000 people. God spoke to Paul’s heart about the Good News of Jesus being preached in places where no one had heard it. Rebekah sensed the Lord saying that, although Alaska is a frontier state, Alaska’s frontier was in Fairbanks.
So in December, the Kims contacted Joe and Cindy Boney to tell them they wanted to help start a church in Fairbanks and in the spring would bring a group to prayerwalk the city.
When the team arrived, the Boneys were surprised by how much luggage they brought. Amazingly, seven families had heard God’s call to move to Fairbanks—sight unseen—and help plant a new congregation, Frontier Baptist Church. Not only would they prayerwalk the city that week, they also were going to find places to live. The team filled the Boneys’ garage with suitcases and said they would return in two weeks to move into their new apartments and look for jobs.
When 330 people gathered in Fairbanks June 19 for the church’s first service, 264 came from eleven churches the Kims had started over the years in far-flung places like Turkey and South Korea.
Focusing on Students
Frontier Baptist Church will focus on reaching college students at the University of Alaska campus in Fairbanks, much like the Kims’ other church plants have focused on making disciples of students. In fact, the church planting team is largely composed of people the Kims have led to Christ and discipled as students over the past thirty-five years.
Each time the Kims plant a church, people in their church network move to the new city to help. Not only have former students moved to other cities in the United States to help start churches, but they have even left jobs and home to start churches overseas—in places like China, Uzbekistan, Japan, and Russia.
Many pastors don’t see college campuses as likely places to start churches, but Paul and Rebekah Kim see great strategic value in focusing on students.
“Many people ask me, ‘Why start churches for students? They don’t have money to give and are only going to graduate and move away,’” Paul Kim said. “But Jesus trained his disciples for three years. We intentionally focus on university campuses for the future leaders coming out of them. My wife and I have devoted our lives to raising up leaders for the twenty-first century.”
Randy Covington, executive director of the Alaska Baptist Convention, was deeply impressed that seven families from the Kims’ network of churches would move to Fairbanks to help start the church.
“One of the biggest challenges our other church planters face is not having a core group, not having other brothers and sisters they can fellowship with,” Covington said. “Usually they are out there on their own.”
The new congregation, led by pastor James Suh, will meet in the facilities of Fairbanks’s First Baptist Church, where the launch service was held, Covington said. The older congregation was encouraged by the large number who traveled long distances for the service, in addition to the fact several families actually moved to Fairbanks to help start the new church.
“It was exciting for the people of that church to see the building full for the first time in probably three decades,” Covington said. “It should be a shot in the arm for them. It should make them think, ‘Hey, we can get back to doing this ourselves.’”
Mark Kelly is a national correspondent for SBC LIFE and is a member of Johnson Ferry Baptist Church in Marietta, Georgia.