Art Ayris is Executive Pastor of First Baptist Church Leesburg, a Southern Baptist church in a city of 22,000 about an hour's drive northwest of Orlando. Ayris oversees the staff and ministries of the church, which is committed to what it calls "ministry-based evangelism." First Baptist's key message: "All people matter to God, and as we meet the real-life needs of unbelievers in various life circumstances, we will have the opportunity to share the answer to their greatest need-a relationship with Jesus Christ."
The most visible indicator of that mission is the church's "Ministry Village," which is adjacent to the church in downtown Leesburg. Three brick buildings are home to residences for homeless men, abused women, and children needing shelter because of family emergencies. Three more buildings house a benevolence center, a family resource center, and a village thrift store, all of which help with the material needs of the poor. A seventh building houses a medical care center.
The church recently purchased another building, the Big Bass Motel, once a stopping point for anxious anglers, but more recently a business address for prostitutes and a hole in the wall for drug addicts. First Baptist has now converted the building into the Samaritan Inn with the goal of housing homeless families. Staffers and volunteers will link the adults to GED classes and help them find jobs.
Some pastors might not be thrilled with all that your church is doing. They might say, "The primary purpose of the church is to share the gospel, and these social projects take away from that." How do you respond to that? They're absolutely wrong, because our church for over 20 years was in the top one-quarter of 1 percent among Southern Baptist churches for evangelism. A lot of people come to Christ because of some difficulty or personal need in their life. At the most impressionable time in their life we're there with them in a tangible way. One year at the women's shelter literally almost every woman there received Christ.
What about the "rice Christian" problem: people saying there's spiritual change because they've received or are hoping to receive material provision? We have seen so many changed lives. A lot of those same pastors bemoan that the church is no longer the center of community and the local culture-but our church is. Literally thousands of people are coming through, and there's so much respect in our city and community for First Baptist because of those ministries. Now, anything happens and the local press calls me.
How do the secular journalists respond? It's absolutely astounding. The Orlando Sentinel reporter, who is not even a believer, wrote an article saying, "This pastor is trying to buy a hotel [for homeless individuals], so you should help." During the next three weeks over $100,000 was raised, primarily because of that article. The local ABC affiliate, FOX, and Good Morning America have all given us positive coverage. When the church is what it's supposed to be, the lost world says, "Whoa! What is this?"
Your compassionate ministry buildings are right in front of the church. What happens when those poor individuals come into a middle-class church? I envision our church as a modern-day version of the Corinthian church. On a Sunday morning you'll find a cable executive sitting next to a lady who two weeks ago was selling her body for crack. The people are very integrated. Our former pastor put this concept in our hearts: Everything should be under the shadow of the cross. My experience is that Christianity is much more caught than it is taught. I think that as people involve their lives, take people into their homes, adopt, whatever, people really begin to see the gospel played out.
Does that involvement also help the church in its dealings with the broader community? A lot of churches get stuck on the planning and zoning issues: They can't grow, they can't do this or that, they can't do evangelism, and it really hurts the outreach of churches. We began buying these properties adjacent to our church and the city zoning commission said, "Oh, you can't do this, you can't have a women's shelter; that's not what a church is." It was really sad, but their conception of a church was, church is what happens between 11 o'clock and 12 o'clock on Sunday mornings. If you go to our church now almost any night of the week there's something happening, and since we help over 15,000 people a year we have a good relationship with the government.
But historically, whenever the government gets involved, problems develop. About 25 years ago when we opened our daycare, we wanted to take in a certain percentage of Title 10 children so they could get a good education. But the state said, "Wait, you can't talk about Jesus," and we said, "Don't let the door hit you on the backside on your way out." Did it hurt us? No, it didn't hurt us. We immediately filled up with people who could pay well, but it hurt those kids who weren't getting a good education. Since then we've turned the corner: We have a good relationship with government and have received grants.
If government officials tried to put pressure on you to do certain things, you could say no? Absolutely. Never make yourself dependent on anybody. I raise a lot of money and have learned never to make yourself dependent on one financial source: That's a recipe for disaster.
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