On October 25th, the First Baptist Family lost two of our own. They were, in most respects, regular guys. But the Lord allowed them to have an impact on our community, our nation, and our world that most of us will never have. That's the way the world (and the Lord) sometimes work.
Many of us stood by holding our breaths as we waited to hear the news we so desperately did not want to hear ... that the runaway plane, which riveted the attention of the country, did in fact carry our dear friends and part of our church family, Payne Stewart and Van Ardan.
But the amazement of that emotional week had only begun as the attention of the world was focused not only on a famous professional golfer, but also on a man's personal spiritual walk with Christ. It became evident that the joy in this tragedy was going to be the miraculous way that the Lord would use Payne's faith to literally touch the world.
As the week progressed, those of us involved in the unbelievable flood of attention that came to the church as a result of Payne's affiliation were thrust into a level of urgency that most of us had never experienced before. The media descended on the church with a consistency that no other incident or event has ever brought to our church. That's where the opportunities began. With every interview, we took full advantage of sharing that the difference in Payne Stewart's life was one thing ... Jesus. And Payne shared that without apology.
Little did we realize that when the family released the church to send the video signal of Payne's memorial service outside to the media that the television facility the Lord has blessed us with would now provide the opportunity to share the Gospel of Christ to the entire world. Not only did our friends in our local market carry the service but also such national networks as ESPN, CNN, and the Golf Channel carried it in its entirety.
The service was barely off the air before the calls started pouring in ... from all over the United States, Europe, Central America, Canada. Story after story of how the powerful words, music, and testimonies touched lives.
Someone suggested to Tracey after that long, emotional day that if Payne had lived to be ninety, he would not have touched as many lives as he did on this one miraculous day. Tracey agreed. We will never know the scope of the impact that this one life has made for eternity.
Testimonies Following the Stewart Memorial Service
"On the Sunday after the funeral, I was contacted by an older member of my church. She asked if I would be willing to meet with a sixteen-year-old friend. As it turned out, Ronnie, the sixteen-year-old high school sophomore, was a very good golfer (he missed qualifying for the high school state tournament by two stokes). He had stayed home from school due to illness and just happened to turn on the Payne Stewart funeral. At the end of the service, particularly moved by Pastor Henry's message, he told his mother, who does not attend church, that he wanted to get his life right with God. Through my church member, I was able to meet with Ronnie and lead him to the Lord!
"Ronnie's family does not attend church and he lives about twenty miles from my church. He wants to be and will be baptized in a few weeks. As I met with Ronnie's family, I sensed an opening to God's leading and that He is beginning to work on other family members in addition to Ronnie. Pray for God's reaching this family." - Email from a pastor in Ohio.
On Sunday, Nov. 14, J.B. Collingsworth, associate pastor of Orlando First Baptist, led a caller from Cincinnati to salvation, and he's regularly handling telephone appointments with persons seeking information about spiritual matters spoken of during Stewart's memorial service. He also has led many to salvation who came to the church after watching the service on TV.
Friends have called or sent e-mails, telling of golfers accepting Jesus on the golf course or in other venues because of Stewart's influence. The largest single response he mentioned was more than thirty men who responded at a church service.
A viewer from California wrote of having searched for a personal relationship with Christ for several years, but it hadn't taken place yet. "I'm certain that there is someone here who can provide that sense of engagement that I felt from you," the viewer wrote. "I just need to find that person. I'm not really sure what I'm asking of you, if anything, just that I'm looking for something and that maybe you can help me find it."
A woman whose husband is a golf pro at a course in Missouri and had played with Stewart on several occasions related that many men who rarely attended church went after the golfer's death.
She recounted that one man who walked forward to accept Christ had received a W.W.J.D. bracelet from a friend who attended the memorial service. - Adapted from a November 18 Baptist Press Report.
"My oldest son Joshua just graduated from Purdue University. He had gotten away from the Lord while at school. We watched Payne's Memorial service together and as Brother Collingsworth was sharing I got a call and had to step out. Joshua recommitted his life to the Lord. When Brother Collingsworth said Payne came to him and said that he didn't want to be a Bible-thumper, but just wanted to live right, that is where the Holy Spirit spoke to Joshua." - Email from a ministry leader in New Jersey
Steve Smith is Assistant Pastor of Media at First Baptist Church, Orlando, Fla.