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Doing well, doing good

Ministry | One of America's most innovative churches looks conventional at first glance. But its practice of ministry evangelism serves the community and provides all the indicators of a healthy, growing church

Issue: "Beyond hate speech," Aug. 20, 2005

LEESBURG, Fla. -- Alfred Hitchcock directed films in which terror emerged from thoroughly conventional surroundings: a motel shower, a crop-dusted field, a row of birds on a telephone wire. But Christians from the Gospel writers through Walker Percy have shown how goodness also can leap out of stables, suburbia, and other unexceptional surroundings.

Located about an hour's drive northwest of Orlando on a main street that also boasts a McDonald's, Subway sandwich shop, and Ace hardware, the First Baptist Church of Leesburg (pop. 15,596) sports a standard denominational look: columned portico, rising steeple, and lots of people, with an average attendance of 2,200 during the winter and 1,400 during the summer. During services the words of praise songs and hymns flash onto huge screens at the front of the sanctuary while a song leader directs a robed choir.

Yet one recent sermon suggested a key distinctive-and it wasn't only that senior pastor Charles Roesel, a 68-year-old who runs three miles a day, bounded up the steps to the pulpit. First, while exegeting Exodus 20:13, "You shall not murder," he spoke sternly about abortion, a topic many preachers like to skip. Mr. Roesel called it "the greatest crime in America today. It's cold-blooded murder. . . . If we do not provide an alternative, we share in the corporate responsibility for this crime."

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What came next, though, was even more striking: "Doing nothing when you can save or transform a life is also condemned by the Sixth Commandment. . . . Ministry is not an elective. It is a divine mandate. Any church not involved in ministry is guilty of high treason and spiritual disobedience. . . . For too long we've evaluated a church by how many people stream in the front door on a Sunday." He proposed an alternative: "Evaluate a church by how many people serve the Lord Jesus by serving the hurting all week long."

Mr. Roesel referred to the main sin of Sodom and said it was not homosexuality: That was a sin, but it was part of the Sodomites' overall tendency to be "arrogant, over-fed, unconcerned." He said many of today's churches are like Sodom: "staff members strutting on platforms," with the church becoming "the knife and fork club . . . ignoring the needy, callous and unconcerned, committing silent murder. . . . We don't spend time with those who are lost, we spend time with each other."

Mr. Roesel began emphasizing what he calls "ministry evangelism" shortly after he became the church's pastor in 1976. The church's typical attendance of 200 leaped to 600 six months later, but not everyone was on board with the plan to make First Baptist known for its compassion. When the pastor pushed for the church to create a children's home, only 51 percent of congregation members voted for it.

"I backed off and started expository preaching through the New Testament," Mr. Roesel recalls. "The centrality of ministry to the needy comes up over and over. I hit it hard." One couple decided to give $25,000 for the children's home, and additional money came in once the home opened and stories about the needy children circulated within the congregation. One 9-year-old who came to the home trembled when anyone tried to hug him, didn't know what a bathroom was, and at first slept in the closet rather than on a bed, because that was all he knew.

In the 1980s the church also established a crisis pregnancy center and shelters for homeless or troubled men and women in existing buildings, one so ramshackle that (as a church joke went) "if the termites hadn't held hands, it wouldn't have stood up." But compassion was still an add-on at a church headed in the right direction, one not yet making major sacrifices for the poor and needy.

By the early 1990s Mr. Roesel's preparation of his congregation was complete. Some members spoke of building a larger sanctuary so the church would not need two (now three) worship services on Sunday morning, but when their pastor said he wanted the church instead to build a Ministry Village with first-class buildings for those in need, members voted unanimously to embrace that vision, and without any formal campaign donated $2 million.

"This has been one of the most thrilling adventures of my lifetime," Mr. Roesel said. "God did this." What God did at First Baptist is striking not only in the broad range of ministries the church runs, but in their location smack by the steepled church, and in the quality of their buildings. Some churches want their ministries of compassion to be geographically separate from and financially unequal to their worship functions, but First Baptist supports Christ's teaching (Luke 10:27) that loving our neighbor belongs in the same sentence as loving God.

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