PENNSYLVANIA – A vision team from the southwest region of Georgia made an onsite visit to Pennsylvania and South New Jersey this month to explore the missions possibilities for connecting Georgia Baptist churches to the churches of this partnering convention called the Baptist Resource Network. Some churches in Georgia’s southwest region have made previous mission trips to various parts of the United States, but very few have long-term partnerships with churches in a specific place. The goal of the missions team of each region is to help develop these long-term partnerships so that both the church in Georgia and the church partner in another state might be strengthened in their missions pipelines.
Why Pennsylvania and South Jersey
Samuel Ayala leads the missions efforts in the Southwest as a consultant on the Georgia Baptist Mission Board’s Church Strengthening team. To prepare for a vision trip, Ayala decided to recruit key team members for a vision team to become more aware of the lostness in the area and to find some potential partnering churches. Ayala said, “As we were getting ready to travel to our Southwest region’s national assignment, we asked ourselves this question, why Pennsylvania/South Jersey? The answer was clear. Statistics say that 91 percent of the population in Pennsylvania/South Jersey is not affiliated nor attends any evangelical church.”
What Ayala and his team discovered was that most of the lostness is centralized in South Jersey. Currently, there is one church for every 50,000 people in the convention’s region, indicating that Georgia Baptist churches have an opportunity to help plant new churches as well as help existing churches reach out to those who do not have Christ in their lives.
Upon arrival in this northern sister convention, the group first met Greg Drayer, pastor at Rolling Hills Church in Verona, PA. He shared with the group his thankfulness that he already had an existing relationship with one of Georgia’s Associational Missions Strategists, Lee Bradley of the Tucker Association, and that this southwest association had already helped Rolling Hills raise some funds for a needed renovation.
“That was so unique to hear, because of all places, God has already put some partnerships in the very places we want to connect,” Ayala said.
Each day of the trip, pastors and church planters in Pennsylvania and South Jersey shared the ways they are being innovative with their churches during the past year of pandemic. The group discovered that, even amidst pandemic hardships, people are still being saved and baptisms are still taking place.
Ayala shared his enthusiasm by saying, “God is still at work! Praise the Lord for that!”
The Georgia team and its hosts
As unique members of southwest Georgia’s first vision trip, Grant Hignight, Trey Eakins, and Barbara Waldron joined Samuel Ayala to visit key partners at the Baptist Resource Network in Pennsylvania/South Jersey. Barry Whitworth, executive director of the state convention; Buff McNickle, director of network development; and other regional leadership, met with the Georgia vision team, provided hosting arrangements and logistical support, and helped with local travel arrangements to connect with pastors, church planters, and associational directors. Grant Hignight, AMS for the Mercer/Thomas County Baptist Association, expressed this vison trip was one of the most transformative trips he’s been able to take. He shared that one of his takeaways were the words of a pastor he met, “Trust before Truth,” meaning that building relationships is better suited for Kingdom advancement than ever before.
Trey Eakins, pastor of New Elm Baptist church, expressed that he was moved as he observed so many addicts in Kensington, South Jersey, and the need to reach these people with the gospel. Eakins came back brokenhearted, thinking that this could literally be any one of our family members or loved ones.
Barbara Waldron, Missions coordinator at Mercer Baptist Association, has now started to pray, partner and to plan future missions work with Robert Fontell, pastor at Calvary Christian Church to help reach the community. The group also learned that Calvary Christian Church has also partnered with a Georgia Baptist church to host their construction teams for renovating meeting space.
The group considered it a very productive trip, in that they all got to meet and get to hear God’s work, specific needs that each spiritual leader presenting and a great start in building a great relationship that was coming together to move promote God’s kingdom.
At the end of the trip, McNickle told the Georgia group, “This trip was both refreshing and needed, because the majority of pastors, church planters, and regional directors, had not been able to meet and fellowship with other in the past four years.”
Ayala expressed a hope that the pastors and leaders of Southwest Georgia churches would begin praying for the convention of Pennsylvania South Jersey, initiate partnering with the mindset of being relational with the churches in those particular states, and start planning to mobilize our church members and leaders to help meet the needs that Pennsylvania/South Jersey has.
There are definite needs that Georgia Baptist churches can meet, and God has provided a great potential church-to-church partnership. Virtual Strategy Coordinators are being trained to provide assistance in knowing what to plan for a missions trip to this area. The information that the vision team gathered is being compiled for future connections and is being shared within a private Facebook group for Southwest Region missions. Anyone in that region is invited to join that group and learn more.
Buck Burch is the Missions catalyst with the Georgia Baptist Mission Board. Previously he served as a missionary with the International Mission Board in Russia and as a pastor in middle and south Georgia. A graduate of Liberty University, Southeastern Seminary, and Regis University, Buck holds degrees in Communications, Theology and Organizational Leadership.