You might be surprised how well
churches can work together to reach a community--Tampa was!
By Carolyn Curtis
and Sherri Brown
Sixty thousand people in Tampa's Raymond James Stadium would seem like a
mass of humanity to most of us. But not to Jaye Webster. He thinks of such a
crowd as, say, 6,000 manageable groups of 10.
The Florida resident and small business owner has experienced how churches
and groups of people--better yet, organized and cooperative groupings--can turn
a seemingly insurmountable task into an effective, even exciting, project.
Webster has seen the results of such partnering in his professional life.
Owner of a wholesale produce company ("My town, Plant City, Florida, is the
winter strawberry capital of the United States," Webster claims with pride),
his business depends on teaming up with suppliers and retailers.
Strawberries come in, strawberries go out. A massive harvest of the
delicious fruit is reduced down to small, affordable baskets--and, eventually,
to bite-size chunks, just right for the consumer.
So, to take a page from Webster's management book: Large volume becomes
manageable; small chunks wind up where they belong.
The same principle applies in evangelism accomplished through big events,
says Webster. He saw it firsthand when a Billy Graham Crusade visited nearby
For months, even years, the crusade was planned by churches and associations
of churches, which have the experience and resources to handle such a huge
But the churches and associations were made up of individuals like Jaye and
Deedee Webster, who staffed the event when the big week finally arrived.
Volunteers paired up with people who made their way down the concrete steps of
the stadium, onto the grassy field and finally to the front of the stage, where
they made a public commitment to follow Christ.
And, like Webster's strawberries, the new believers are winding up where
they belong. Churches were prepared to accept the newly committed
Christians--freshly planted churches, ready and ripe for new members.
Supply and demand
Tampa's Billy Graham Crusade produced a harvest of not only new Christians
but record numbers of new churches. The October 1998 event was a monumental
By February 1999, more than 50 new churches had been started, almost all of
them on solid financial footing, according to Rodney Webb and Jim Coldiron of
the North American Mission Board's (NAMB) Church Planting Group.
"Tampa's Billy Graham Crusade produced a harvest of not only new
Christians but record numbers of new churches. The October 1998 event was a
monumental success story."
Often, many of those who make professions of faith at a crusade do not get
involved in a local church. Various reasons keep them from assimilating into a
congregation, explains Webb. Sometimes churches just aren't set up to receive
new people, sometimes they don't aggressively go after them, sometimes they're
comfortable the way they are.
Exceeding their goals
Webb and Coldiron needed the the partnership of Southern Baptist leaders and
laypeople to make it happen. And they have found eager partners in both state
and local associations of churches.
George Thomasson, church planting director for Florida, and Tom Biles,
director of missions for the Tampa Bay Association, for example, saw it as a
solution to a problem.
"In Florida 70 percent of the existing churches are declining or plateaued.
Many of them aren't assimilating new people. Some aren't even receiving new
people. We saw this as a vision-building opportunity," said Thomasson.
Biles had doubled his original goal of starting new churches, committing to
10, a leap of faith, he knew. But God answered prayers when the Florida
convention and the North American Mission Board each committed $300,000.
Local associations of churches were offered both start-up funds for each
church and an average amount per month for a year to help cover the salary for
each new pastor.
Thomasson and others got together and designed an experimental set of
guidelines for the project.
"We encouraged the associations to identify their target areas in writing,
then we gave them the start-up money, letting them decide how and where best to
use it. The directors of missions were active participants with control over
the funding," Thomasson explained.
That flexible funding was key to the project's success, adds Biles. The
Association's leaders scrambled to pull together the church planters,
locations, sponsoring churches and other necessary details to begin a
"It was a miracle," said Othoniel Valds Sr., church extension director of
the Tampa Bay Baptist Association. "Usually we have church planters but no
money, or money and no church planters. But God just led us to people who were
"It was a snowball effect," agrees Biles. "It was hard to start those first
10, but once it got going, it went like a snowball down a mountain."
"It was so awesome to realize there were thousands of divine appointments,
one-on-one," says Ken Alford, pastor of Bell Shoals Baptist in Brandon,
Florida, which started a satellite church for the Billy Graham Crusade
During the crusade--the culmination of more than a year of work and prayer
and dreams--thousands came to know Christ.
"And, looking out at the sea of humanity, I realized God is not a God of
multitudes. He's the God of the individual," adds Alford.
Bell Shoals member Jaye Webster, our strawberry wholesaler, and Dotty Lacey,
also from Bell Shoals, saw that principle firsthand.
Webster worked with counselors, people who joined the newly committed
Christians as they made their professions of faith.
On each of the four nights as many as 5,000 counselors were paired with new
Christians. Some nights a counselor might talk to three or four new
Supervisors worked with groups of 10 counselors, matching each person in
their flock to a new Christian making his or her way to the stadium field for a
"These cell groups of 10 functioned efficiently to make the crusade a
success," says Webster, who stayed in contact via walkie-talkies with the teams
scattered throughout the stadium.
"They made a huge event into an intimate time of spiritual commitment for
thousands, who--without them--could have felt terribly alone in the crowd."
Lacey, who works as a cook at a juvenile detention center, saw that the
individual effort resulted in decisions for Christ which are "solid because of
"After the new believers come forward, they are met by a volunteer
counselor. Then they are hooked up with a church so they can grow in their
faith. From there, pastors and more mature Christians walk with them," Lacey
Eventually, she predicts, many of these new Christians will be back to help
with other crusades. "Big events aren't intimidating when you see one-on-one
Joy of church planting
To receive the names of converts from the Billy Graham Crusade, the new
churches had to meet certain qualifications: a location, a pastor and a
representative who attended the follow-up preparation classes before the
crusade. But the investment of time is well worth it.
Conventional wisdom says that new churches grow faster than established
churches, they are more aggressive about new converts and prospects and they
experience less operational friction.
Still, there are struggles.
Jerry Watson, an advertising account executive in the telecommunications
industry, took a big personal risk when he left the comforts of an established
congregation to go with a new church start.
It was Dayspring Community Church (SBC), which began with three couples
immediately after the Billy Graham Crusade and grew to approximately two dozen
people within a few weeks.
A native of Tampa, Watson made his decision based on initial conversations
with Dayspring Community Church pastor, Evan Burrows.
"For me, Evan embodies the character of Christ. He's definitely in the Word
of God, he says what he means and he means what he says. People who are serious
about forming a closer relationship with the Lord want to follow a man like
"A new church needs sold-out men and women to advance the
kingdom of God. For people just sitting in pews who don't want to get involved,
a start-up church wouldn't be for them."
Watson had cast his lot with other churches in the past. He spent two years
with one, four with another and two with the last church before becoming a
member of Burrows' new congregation.
"People need to be challenged. I needed to be challenged," says Watson.
"A small upstart is that challenge. You can't hide when the 'crowd' is so
small. A new church needs sold-out men and women to advance the kingdom of God.
For people just sitting in pews who don't want to get involved, a start-up
church wouldn't be for them."
During the years he was a youth pastor at a larger church, Evan Burrows
received several letters from the African American Ministries Division of the
Florida Baptist Convention inviting him to take part in a church-planters'
course, but this letter was different.
"It stated that resources were ear-marked, and that got my attention," said
Burrows. "Once I found that out, I was more receptive to what was going
That was a year ago. By fall, the crusade was over, and the unprecedented
number of new churches were springing up in the Tampa area.
Burrows is happy with the growth of Dayspring Community Church and expects
the congregation to become multi-ethnic over time.
He is grateful to the Billy Graham Crusade for making people in Tampa more
receptive to the gospel.
Carolyn Curtis is Publications Editor/ Manager for the North American
Mission Board and Editor of On Mission magazine.
Sherri Brown is a writer for the Georgia Baptist Convention.
A Southern Baptist Convention entity supported by the Cooperative Program and theAnnie Armstrong Easter Offering® ©Copyright 2013 North American Mission Board, SBC