By Sharon Mager, BCM/D Correspondent
Wilmington, DE—Bethany Church has great programs. They have ministries for children, teens, adults, and seniors. They’ve got people excited to serve the Lord. They preach the Word relentlessly.
What they’re realizing more and more, however, is that if they keep their message inside the church walls, they may never reach those who really need to hear it. And as this realization has begun to sweep through their church, they’re beginning to see God work in undeniable ways.
David Helton, pastor at Bethany Church, admits his church, like many others, has been traditional in its missions mindset.
“We tend to think ‘we’re the church and people come to us’,” said Helton.
There’s been an exciting shift in that thinking, however, and Helton attributes it to a mission partnership in July. A team of 36 volunteers, ranging in ages from 3-75, from Chapel Hill Church, Northport, Ala., came to Bethany and worked with the congregation to visit door-to-door, have backyard Bible clubs and host a big block party in the community.
Chapel Hill Church’s senior pastor, James Nichols, was the former pastor of Faith Church, Glen Burnie. Nichols invited BCM/D Executive Director David Lee to be a guest speaker at a church leadership conference. While visiting, Lee shared with the church the needs of Embrace Wilmington, a strategic BCM/D effort to reach the city of Wilmington for Christ. Chapel Hill leaders visited Wilmington and met with Mitch Dowell, Embrace Wilmington’s executive director.
“From that, we pretty well felt we were being led to go to Bethany and work with David Helton,” David Fletcher said. Fletcher said they chose Bethany due to its central location, its compactness and density and its mix of poverty and wealth.
Helton saw the possibilities of reaching the community, and of mentoring his church members as they worked side by side with the Chapel Hill team, engaging the people of Bethany.
“It has been my goal to push a lot of ministry off campus. We’re a society that doesn’t like to come to church. They’re more welcoming if we go to them,” Helton said.
The team began reaching out by knocking on doors. “We really didn’t’ know what to expect,” David Fletcher acknowledged. Fletcher led the Chapel Hill mission team.
“The Mid-Atlantic is different from Tuscaloosa, Ala., but our teams had a great response going door-to-door. We met a lot of really great people.”
“The response to the door-to-door was the one thing that surprised me. I’m from the Midwest, and I didn’t think people would respond here,” Helton said. “I was wrong. If we come in with love and a great spirit and interest in them, they will open their doors to us.”
The backyard Bible clubs were also a little surprising. Fletcher told his team to remember to be flexible. That came in handy when they found out that the apartment complexes where they ministered at had a large Hispanic population. Most of the children were bilingual, but not the parents.
“The Lord provided,” Fletcher said. “Our youth minister (Nesha Smelley) has good Spanish skills, and we had Blackberries, iPhones and translators,” he said with a laugh.
The translators were Marvin and Anne Ford, members of Bethany Church and former missionaries to Ecuador, who saw the need and came forward to help.
After the Bible clubs, the team hosted a big block party with games, prizes, food and music. At first, just women and children were participating, but by the end of the evening everyone was having fun.
“It was an awesome experience,” Fletcher said. “By the end of the evening, fathers and some of the ‘rough and tough’ teens were getting their faces painted.”
The Fords followed up with a Hispanic man and woman they met at the block party and the couple began regularly attending the church. Marvin felt led to start a Hispanic Sunday school class that began in early September. Helton envisions at some point starting a Hispanic church.
Another potential outcome of the mission trip was that a woman at one of the apartment complexes wanted to attend Bethany, but needed transportation. Now members are considering taking a Bible study to the apartment complex.
Helton said he has not seen dramatic changes in attendance, but the gradual ministry shift is exciting.
“We know we can’t do things like we always did. We have to get out and go to those Christ is calling us to go to. We can’t wait for them to come to us. We have to be missionaries in our own backyard.