Scores of people lined the sidewalks around the church before the Ministry Center doors opened at 8:30 a.m. on a crisp Saturday last fall. By 11:30 that morning, more than 600 people had taken advantage of a free yard sale at First Baptist Church, Rolla.
A congregation once primarily recognized as a “university” church, attracting professors and students, is more often seen today as “the church committed to its community.”
That turn in reputation reflects a keener awareness among First Baptist members that personal and corporate faith must express itself through community ministry.
Two years ago, promotional information for “Faith in Action” caught the attention of First Baptist’s small-group leaders, Matt and Lori Ausmus, who were looking for their next study series.
Relief agency World Vision and Outreach Inc., a church communication resource firm, partnered to develop the missional-lifestyle campaign in 2007 and continue to promote “National Faith in Action Sunday” each fall.
Although groups at First Baptist had completed studies in the past, the Faith in Action material attracted attention because it emphasizes service, Lori Ausmus explained.
When the Ausmuses brought the material to him, pastor Bob Johnston jumped at the opportunity to see what difference the service component might make. “I had seen that we had not stayed connected with the community,” said Johnston, now in his 20th year of ministry with the congregation.
The Ausmuses formed a team to brainstorm and coordinate possible service projects as small groups studied the four-week material and Johnston preached a sermon series on active faith.
The national campaign calls for canceling morning worship to serve on Sunday, ending the day with a celebration service. Instead, First Baptist launched its participation in 2008 with members completing several service projects on Friday evening and all day on Saturday, and celebrating on Sunday morning.
“We started with simple things,” Johnston said, including cutting brush and doing other chores around an outdoor classroom at a nearby elementary school and assisting with U.S. Department of Agriculture food distribution.
Seeing and hearing the community’s response to that first weekend venture gave church members a glimpse of the impact they could make in Rolla. That weekend and two similar weekend ministry blitzes last year — in spring and fall — birthed several ongoing ministries and opened members’ eyes to other needs.
Faith in Action “is not an event, not a program, not something you go home today and forget about,” Lori Ausmus said. “It’s a lifestyle for our church.”
The congregation also offered a pancake-and-sausage meal throughout the Saturday of their 2009 fall ministry blitz. Church members sat and visited with community folks who came, while others assisted with the yard sale. They staffed a prayer tent to talk and pray with those who stopped in.
Ausmus added that members still talk about that weekend. Some members didn’t realize the toll today’s tightened economy had taken on some area residents. During testimony-time at the celebration, several said they plan to give more for next year’s “sale.”
“It was a real eye-opener to the needs of our community,” Ausmus said, adding that many members who originally had not volunteered to assist showed up to work anyway.
Helping at the elementary school in the original blitz in 2008 led to assisting with chili suppers there and partnering with a middle school. Now the schools contact the church. “And that’s what we wanted to see happen…. It gives us another way to connect,” Ausmus said.
Reconnection for opportunities to share Christ was what the pastor sought. While some members just see the church working in the community, others are seeing that work open other opportunities.
“In the last one and a half to two years — I know especially in the first year — I had to keep explaining [the concept],” Johnston said.
“As we get involved in the church, our relationship with the unchurched gets smaller and smaller…. [Faith in Action] opened those circles so we could expand our connections.
“People began to look and say, ‘Wow, this is really making connections,’” he added. “Now they look and recognize…this is making an impact for Christ.
“It’s not that we haven’t done things in the past. We have, and some of the groups in the church have,” Johnston said. “But this has made a greater awareness.”
That increased awareness continues to lead to new ministry.
As a church family sat in the intensive care waiting room at the local hospital, they realized no food was available on that floor. None wanted to go to the cafeteria on a lower floor, fearing they would miss the doctor.
The congregation responded with a new ministry — stocking a basket of snacks in the ICU waiting room. A church member who works for the hospital stepped up to lead the ministry, which has given her opportunities to pray with waiting families.
When a teen’s mom passed away and the church learned the family had no money for her burial, members gave enough to cover the cost. “I don’t think that would have happened a few years ago,” Johnston said.
The church hasn’t seen a large influx of new members, although the ministry has attracted some who want to participate and some who have been helped. The pastor and Ausmus stressed that ministry — not increased membership — drives the congregation.
First Baptist keeps its eyes on its vision — “Bringing the hand of Christ to a hurting world.”
And changed the slogan on its Faith in Action banner to — “So that no one misses the grace of God.”