Kima Jude & Eric W. Ramsey
Photography by Morris Abernathy
Thomas Bester greets Cameron Smith and Danny Ray
Demas, two young men who are at risk and embody who the church is trying to
Forerunner Baptist church in Ripley, Tennessee, plans
neighborhood events to reach teens.
Thomas's wife, Shirley, helps keep him on track as he
juggles job, ministry and family.
Thomas shares the gospel with young men in the
Ross Bates prays the sinners prayer after accepting
Christ. "If we touch one life and make a difference in their walk with the Lord
it will be worth it," says Thomas. His genuine concern for the young men in the
community has made a tremendous impact.
Neighborhood kids play a game of pick-up basketball on
a dirt court. "We'll do anything necessary to meet them at their point of need
except change the gospel."
Through his full-time job as Chief Parole Hearing Officer for the State of
Tennessee, God seemed to point toward a new ministry assignment. "My job gives
me a perspective that a lot of pastors may not have," says Bester. "It keeps me
in the loop of what's going on in the world—what the enemy is doing to our
people and our children."
Sensing God leading him into a different role, Bester resigned the church
he'd pastored for almost 10 years—with nowhere to go and no plan in mind.
After taking a month-long sabbatical to pray, Bester's attention turned to a
church facility abandoned by an Anglo congregation in Ripley, Tennessee.
Sensing a specific need in the community, Bester zeroed in on "the hip-hop
generation." With people ages 13-35 in mind, he started a Tuesday night Bible
study, including his wife Shirley and 16-year-old son, T.D. Hearing God's
specific instruction to invite her, Bester also asked his granddaughter,
Takesha, to be one of the core members in the new church plant. "She's 19 and
full of the world," says Bester. She also was a symbol of the population Bester
hoped to reach—"the sagging-pants and the bling-bling generation."
It was a church Bester initially tried not to plant. When he learned the
church building would become available as the Anglo congregation relocated, he
talked up the possibilities with other young pastors. "I really tried to give
the ministry away," he recalls. "No one would touch it." He talked to God about
it, too. "I asked the Lord, 'Lord, why won't anybody take this
The answer eventually became clear. After spending several years driving 60
miles to his church field, Bester had been praying for two years to live among
the people he pastored. He realized God was answering his prayer by giving the
ministry to him rather than another pastor.
The seeds of Forerunner Baptist Church actually began in Bester's heart
through a mission trip he took to the Philippines. While on the plane, he was
reading his Bible and was stirred by Luke 1:17: And he will go on before the
Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to
their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready
a people prepared for the Lord (NIV).
"Before God does something He sends somebody," Bester says, "and we feel
like God has sent us to make a way for the people in our area."
Forerunner is atypical, as Bester characterizes it, because "we'll do
anything necessary to meet you at your point of need except change the gospel."
To that point, Forerunner avoids rituals. "We don't want people to wake up
thinking they know what's going to happen during our worship services." To that
end, Bester also hopes not to be preaching to the same congregation a few years
from now. The church's priority is discipleship.
He takes responsibility for his own discipleship, scheduling study "just as
I would any appointment on my calendar. I make time." Only in extreme
emergencies does he alter that schedule.
Interestingly, Forerunner not only has members of the congregation who have
been on parole, some have come before Bester or dealt with his wife Shirley,
who also works for the state in the same agency, although in a different
capacity. Bester actually declined parole for one man—forcing him to serve
another two years in prison—who later became one of his most faithful church
members. "When people see him leading in prayer, they realize God can change
At 52, Bester marvels at the changes God's made in his life. "It's kind of
weird, God using an old man to draw young people. It's only by His grace."
Now that he's accepted his new assignment as church planter, Bester also has
embraced the big picture. His vision is for Forerunner to become an incubator
church, giving birth to a string of other churches in Tennessee. He envisions
himself training other church planters. Forerunner is already in the process of
initiating its first church plant in Covington, Tennessee.
Bester balances the demands of work and church "by placing the ministry in
the people's hands. I see myself at Forerunner as the main trainer." To aid
with that, the church conducts spiritual inventories and helps members develop
their spiritual gifts. Although Bester characterizes it as a small church, it
offers 20 different ministries. "It's not a situation where you've got the same
faithful few serving in every ministry." Instead, people once considered
"outcasts," according to Bester, are finding a service niche. "Once they find
out 'God can use me,' they go at it."
A Southern Baptist Convention entity supported by the Cooperative Program and theAnnie Armstrong Easter Offering® ©Copyright 2013 North American Mission Board, SBC