WOODBINE, N.J. (BRN) — What once started as a mere vision, provoking the mind of a tuned-out grad student, has come to life as a thriving, community-centered church in Cape May County, N.J.

“I was having a sense of calling on my life that God would call me to pastor,” recounted Rev. Tom Dawson, pastor of SOAR Church in Woodbine.

“I’m kind of like the plan ahead type person. So in that sense of calling, I was working on my master’s degree, and I was in class one day, not paying attention to the professor, but God was giving me a vision for SOAR.”

Since that initial vision, SOAR – an acronym for “Soldiers Ordered After Righteousness” – has become a reality and the heartbeat of Dawson’s church.

“My concept, or vision, behind that [SOAR] was to win people for Jesus Christ, teach them how to be soldiers, and to walk after righteousness. So, that’s kind of our vision – take people, win them for Jesus Christ, and then disciple them.”

Prior to becoming SOAR, the church was formerly known as First Baptist Church of Woodbine but at around year 10, the church had hit a wall.

“We were growing okay. We were one of the fastest growing churches in the county at that time, but I felt like everything was slowing down,” Dawson explained. “And I was like, ‘Okay, Lord, where do we go from here?’ I mean, I knew we had a vision [and] I believe God gives you pieces of the vision at a time. So, it’s like, ‘Okay, what’s our next step – what’s the next move?’”

It turns out, the next move was outreach and a name change.

“I decided, which is biblical, to shift to focus in on outreach and outside in the community,” shared Dawson.

With this shift, the church launched under the new name SOAR Church and started to develop creative ministry teams.

“I developed three creative teams and each team had seven people on there. I got just people in the congregation, not everybody was in leadership. So, I said, ‘Each team come up with creative ways on how we’re going to reach the community,’” said Dawson.

Dawson’s congregation left him in awe, with each team contributing ten different creative outreach ideas.

“That’s how we got started reaching a community. It is amazing how some of them people just sitting in the pew – never said anything Sunday after Sunday – came up with some of the most impactful and creative ideas on how to reach the community.”

Dawson continued: “I want to encourage every pastor, there are people sitting there – just because they quiet you overlook [them] a lot of the time – that [have] some creative stuff in them that can help you really revitalize your church.”

One of the ministry areas that came out of the creative teams was autism support, as some of the SOAR Church families have children with autism.

“One of the quietest people on that team, in our church, came up with an autism walk. So, every year we do an autism walk – we raise money for autism, and it’s given to those specialty classes. A lot of schools’ budgets are cut, and they really don’t have the resources and stuff to help engage those kids,” he said.

In the last eight years, SOAR Church has raised and given more than $40,000 to schools with autistic programs. The annual walk now benefits three to four local schools every year.

The autism walk “opened other doors for us to do other stuff within our schools throughout the county,” explained Dawson.

Recently, the church gave away more than 900 backpacks across the county. The church is also preparing for a winter coat drive, which will provide students with winter apparel.

Along with serving local schools, SOAR church also partners with police departments, colleges, the local prosecutor’s office, and other agencies.

“I’ve learned that you need to collaborate with other agencies and it will open up doors,” said Dawson.

He continued: “My advice to all pastors is connect with your community. If your community does not know that you exist, that’s a problem. If your community don’t know your pastor’s name, that’s a problem.”

By being known within the community, Dawson and SOAR Church have been able to aid the area during troubling, tense times.

“One of the biggest things that we got involved with [was] when George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis…protests were going on all over the place. In our community, there was a protest out in the street, it was going on all day.”

After being contacted by the Prosecutor’s Office late at night, Dawson and one of his associate ministers went down to the protests to help bring peace.

“I kind of got in the street with them and was talking and it was a long time, but they knew who I was because of all of the outreach,” said Dawson. “The protesters listened to us and not the police. Why? Because we have relationships with family members and they saw all the outreach we were doing in the community. That protest ended peacefully with prayer in the street with law enforcement and protestors locked up [in prayer].”

A powerful display of prayer and peace that was later that week included in President Trump’s news briefing.

“I don’t know how…but he put it in. It was the White House weekly update and they were showing what was going on around the country. That protest was on that video saying, ‘This is how you end a protest.’”

Through several community outreach events, ministries, and, now, another church location, SOAR Church has watched God open door after door to build their community and His Kingdom.

“I’ve seen God just keep providing and keep the doors open. So, if God is still providing like that, then why should we stop doing what we’re doing?”

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The “50 Stories of Transformation” series, told in honor of the Baptist Resource Network’s 50th anniversary, highlights the many ways God has moved throughout Pennsylvania, South Jersey and beyond. Your generous support of the Cooperative Program makes this ministry possible and fuels evangelism and outreach in our local churches and all over the world! Thank you!