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Jacksonville church adjusts ‘evangelistic thermostat’

By Barbara Denman

July 1, 2013         


Eighteen months ago, Pastor Ricky Powell led Fort Caroline Baptist Church on a 50-day journey called “Love Your Neighbor Share Christ,” an emphasis designed to help churches make evangelism a priority by building intentional relationships with the spiritually lost in their community.

“It’s not a program,” said Powell, “but a roadmap for achieving expressions of love and evangelism.”

“We have a busy church. So it’s easy to focus on our membership and not be as intentional in evangelism as we should.”

Church members are so “busy attending classes and worship services we never release them to be missionaries in their daily lives. We become preoccupied with the perks of membership rather than the priority of being on mission with God in a lost world.”

As a pastor, he added, “I can get caught up on shuffling holy paper in my office and never get around to personally building relationships with the lost for the purpose of sharing the gospel.”

Through the Love Your Neighbor emphasis, Powell hoped to “adjust the evangelistic thermostat” at the Jacksonville church to keep it from “getting cold in sharing the gospel.”

Powell and his staff began turning up the heat for the spiritually lost in August through October, 2011. And still today, the embers burn bright. As a result of their commitment, the church saw a record number of new believers profess their faith in Christ and follow through in baptism—72 in 2011 and 70 in 2012.

Love Your Neighbor, developed by the Florida Baptist Convention, identifies six expressions of love and evangelism defined as: prayer for the lost; enjoy and serve the lost; evangelism training; friendly up the church, bridging and harvesting events; and connecting and deploying disciples.

The Fort Caroline staff designed an action plan to focus on the expressions in small groups, age groups and corporate gatherings. Members were urged to invest in relationships with their neighbors “just because you love them,” recalled Powell. They trained 43 church members in personal witnessing techniques.

Among the plans put in place was helping the church “think out of the box” to celebrate baptism, Powell said. Thirty-eight people were baptized during a beach baptism. Another baptism was held in a horse trough on stage instead of the church’s baptistery. Both events created an excitement about the ordinance within the congregation

Fort Caroline is a community located on the East Arlington side of Jacksonville where nearly 100,000 people, with a median age of 37, reside within a five-mile radius of the church. The growing residential area is buffeted by the St. Johns River, the Intracoastal waterway and Mayport Naval Station. The ethnically diverse community is primarily middle class with a couple of pockets of affluence.

Powell, who radiates warmth and approachability, has served the congregation since 1994 and was called as pastor in 1996.

“Pastor Ricky is a man of God,” said Mark Burton who has been a member of the church for the past five years. “We were looking for authenticity and a church where the truth was taught.”

Through the process of the Love Your Neighbor focus, the congregation began a Spanish-speaking small group with the goal of starting a Hispanic congregation. The church also targets special needs within the community by offering divorce care, grief counseling, Celebrate recovery and a men’s support group for sexual addictions.

Some time ago, the church moved from traditional Sunday school classes to a small group approach. Now nearly 750 people attend the church’s 86 small groups—16 meeting off campus and 70 on campus, explained John Shultz, associate pastor.

He leads a small group at the Naval Station with sailors stationed on the same ship with the intention they can continue the Bible study when the ship leaves on deployment; and ultimately gaining new participants and disciples.

The Mayport Naval Base, just seven miles away from the church, presents a true mission field for the church, said Shultz, who is a retired Navy sailor. More than 5,000 sailors are stationed there and their families have made homes in neighborhoods near the church.

In the past, the church’s visitation program had lacked a consistency in involvement, Powell said. But when they discontinued evening worship service to institute a visitation program called “Through Every Door,” participation increased significantly. Each Sunday evening 20-25 members go out into the community to knock on doors of church visitors, carrying gift baskets with cookies, CDs of gospel music and information about the church.

Not only have they seen increased involvement, Pastor Powell reported, “we find more people at home and willing to come to the door or let us in.” Visitation on a weekday night usually inconvenienced homeowners who were preparing to feed families, transporting children to sports or parents helping with the childrens’ homework, he added.

As a part of the Sunday night experience, church members are encouraged to invite neighbors over to their homes for meals or desserts. “Our goal is to be through doors in our community.”

Powell admits, however, that keeping the congregation focused on real purpose of the church is an on-going challenge but one he continues to address from the pulpit and keeping it in front of the church members. This spring’s sermon series “Work Talk” encouraged members to take their faith to the workplace.

“Love Your Neighbor, Share Christ holds me accountable as pastor to be intentionally evangelistic in my personal life,” he added. “And it gives me track to run on as the pastor trying to lead out the church to be more evangelistic.”

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