ORLANDO (FBC/FBW)—Beyond the bright lights and theme parks of Orlando lie the lives of thousands of “beautiful city” residents, many of whom are searching for lives of real meaning in a city that celebrates fantasy.
Florida Baptists joined efforts to reach seekers during Crossover Orlando, an evangelistic effort preceding the 2012 Florida Baptist State Convention annual meeting Nov. 11-13.
This year’s multicultural evangelistic outreach took place in 14 venues and ranged from basketball clinics to block parties to youth rallies.
Approximately 2,800 people came to the events where the Gospel was presented more than 100 times, resulting in 147 professions of faith and about 100 prospects, according to Jeff Hessinger, lead strategist for the personal evangelism team for the Florida Baptist Convention.
“These 147 people who made professions of faith can now call heaven their home,” said Tom Cheyney, executive director of missions for Greater Orlando Baptist Association (GOBA).
“Thank you Florida Baptists for your great commitment to outreach and evangelism,” Cheyney added.
Crossover, a part of Florida’s evangelism strategy since 1991, is a joint effort between the local association, state convention and churches. Planning for the event begins as much as a year in advance as churches strategize how they want to reach out to their communities. The association and state convention then determine how they can best resource those outreach initiatives.
“The personal evangelism team of the Florida Baptist Convention was wonderful to work with as we strategically sought to reach out to Central Florida with the Gospel,” said Cheyney.
For many churches involved in Crossover Orlando, the experience provide a training ground and model for continued evangelistic penetration into the communities served by each church, according to Hessinger.
At about 6'6" tall, former Orlando Magic player Nick Anderson is hard to miss when he walks into a room. Speaking in the gymnasium of Orlando’s First Baptist Church, Anderson, the first player drafted for the Orlando basketball team, was able to tame a gym-full of more than 500 energetic children and their parents with stories of a tough upbringing, his basketball exploits, and the transformation in his life by Jesus Christ.
Pat Williams—the man responsible for bringing the professional basketball team to Orlando—sat on a stool beside the basketball phenomenon and told the young attendees, “God has something to teach you” in every circumstance of life.
As the basketball duo wrapped up their testimonies, David Uth, pastor of the mega church known for its outreach into its community, picked up a brightly colored basketball, with each color representing one aspect of the salvation message and shared the Gospel with the throng gathered for a free Saturday morning basketball clinic.
By the clinic’s conclusion, some 35 individuals had made professions of faith.
“Sports are a natural connection point with children,” according to Uth, himself a former college basketball player. “Their heroes are athletes.”
“We may do more today connecting with these kids through the basketball clinic than we might do through preaching,” he said.
As the cool morning air began to warm with the sun, the world-class Strength Team began its first performance of the day at Iglesia Bautista Santuario de Adoracion.
The two-man team performed “feats of strength” on a flatbed trailer as a segue to preaching the Gospel. Each team member completed a feat of strength and then shared his testimony in English with a pastor translating in Spanish to ensure each person in the multicultural gathering understood.
Strength Team member Zeb Bishop, a 350 lb. former track and field player, crushed a diet 7Up can with his bare hands, spewing soda into the crowd and eliciting cheers.
“I went to church because I was supposed to,” Bishop said. “I wasn’t a bad person. But when I was 17, I realized that just going to church wasn’t enough.”
Bishop, in his testimony said the “Bible says you can’t do it alone. Accepting Jesus Christ is the only way.”
Herb Hartso, the other half of the Strength Team, bent a straight steel bar into a fish by placing the bar on his head and using his hands to shape the steel for his first feat of strength. Next, he ripped a full-sized phonebook in half.
“I want to share the Gospel with you very clearly,” Hartso told the crowd. “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life. But the gift has to be received.”
Hartso ended the performance by leading in a prayer for salvation.
Later as the sun rose and more people arrived at Iglesia Bautista Santuario de Adoracion, one of the volunteers, Lymari Rios, remembers how last year, at her mother’s urging, she attended a block party at the same church. There, the woman from Puerto Rico and her two sons heard the Gospel for the first time.
Soon, Rios made a profession of faith and was baptized.
As block party guests nibbled on nachos or made appointments to visit the Florida Baptist mobile dental clinic in the coming week, Riveira was willing to share her Christian testimony with anyone who would listen.
“I am a new person; my life is different, better,” she exclaimed, a smile brightening her face. “I want others to know God.”
Pastor Riveira affirmed Rios’ young faith and evangelistic enthusiasm. Games, face-painting, music, inflatables and a community health fair attracted community residents to the party, but still, Riveira emphasized, “At the end of the day, the main thing is to present the Gospel.”
Block parties, a mainstay of Southern Baptist community outreach for years, “still work,” said GOBA’S Cheyney. Such outreach, he believes, is a non-threatening way for unchurched individuals to wander onto a church campus for a few hours of fun and to meet church members. From there, the Gospel can be shared, and lives can be transformed.
Follow up is a key to the long-term success of a block party, according to Cheyney. Poised to build on the relationships begun at their block party, Riveira’s church, predominantly Hispanic, hopes one day to launch an Anglo congregation.
“We are taking their names so that we can follow up with them,” Riveira said.
In the Tangelo Park community in Orlando, a sense of hopelessness can creep into even the most optimistic of individuals. Jobs are scarce, and times are tough.
For two young adult brothers, their sister and her two young boys, that hopelessness was replaced by a newfound hope in Christ. At a Saturday morning block party on the grounds of Tangelo Baptist Church, Florida Baptist staffer Maxie Miller shared the Gospel with the three young adult siblings. All three prayed to receive Jesus as their Savior.
“They were very comfortable in knowing they’d rather go to heaven than Hell,” said Miller, smiling as he heard rap music wafting through the wind at the outreach event.
“If you’re going to reach young people, you have to reach them where they are,” he explained about the non-traditional choice of music.
Pastor Andrew Pollard plans to follow up with the trio, encouraging them in their Christian walk. “We are going to build on this event,” he said.
Already providing food and clothing to community residents once a month as well as counseling services and anger management classes, the church seeks to do even more.
“We are committed to focusing outward into our community,” emphasized Pollard.
Clapping, laughing, hugging, swaying to the music, individuals gathered on a sunny Saturday afternoon represented a unity of spirit in the midst of a rich diversity of cultures.
About 18 months ago, New Covenant Fellowship Baptist Church, which meets at Freedom Middle School in Orlando, was launched as a second-generation Haitian congregation, according to pastor Charles Jones. Yet, God had different plans.
Today the young congregation has grown to about 300 people, representing about a dozen nationalities. At the Saturday afternoon Crossover block party, free haircuts, music and snacks beckoned community residents to the school property as church members from Haiti, Barbados, Grenada, Puerto Rico, the Bahamas, Curacao and even more countries joined together in a multicultural welcome.
According to Jones, at the young church plant, an individual’s cultural or religious background pales in significance to that person’s relationship with Christ.
“What matters most here at Covenant is seeing people being saved,” he emphasized.
To that end, he urged all Covenant church members to do their part in inviting friends and family members to not only church services but to the Saturday block party.
“Everyone knows someone who is not comfortable in the established church,” said the pastor.
At day’s end, the church had welcomed more than 100 to their block party, with two individuals making professions of faith and 15 people being identified as prospects.
For Jones, such results are better than money in the bank.
“It would be a sad story for me to get to heaven and I have accomplished nothing,” Jones mused. “But I leave money. I leave fame. I leave a lot of stuff here. But when I get to heaven, I have nothing to rejoice over.”
“God’s Kingdom is what matters most,” he emphasized.
The sound of sneakers squeaking their way across a gym floor, basketballs bouncing off backboards, and referee whistles shrieking the action to a standstill may not sound like the Gospel being preached. But, for leaders at First Baptist Church, Central Florida, those sounds mean one thing: an opportunity to meet their neighbors and potentially share the life-changing Gospel of Jesus Christ.
“We are bringing the Gospel to them,” said Melvin Adams, who helped lead a basketball clinic for men and older youth in the community surrounding the church.
Retired from the Harlem Globetrotters, Adams shared the story of his difficult upbringing, sprinkled with humor, to make a connection with the largely unchurched basketball players.
The Saturday basketball clinic was just one component of a multifaceted Crossover outreach into the community. Throughout the week, the church also coordinated a mobile dental unit, held a senior adult friend day, and conducted a block party at nearby Poppy Park.
To passersby, Poppy Park looks like any other park—and it is. But to church planter Kevin Adams, the park is a ripe location for ministry—especially among youth. As pastor of Kirkman Community Church—a ministry effort of First Baptist Church of Central Florida, the Florida Baptist Convention, GOBA and NAMB — Adams’s main goal is “to reach people,” he said.
The youth of the community are familiar with Adams and his church, as the group has been visiting the park every Sunday and Wednesday for the past year. But Saturday was extra special as the Strength Team was on hand.
When the Strength Team took the stage, the crowd of youth—and a smattering of adults—began to grow. Hartso asked for two small children as volunteers to test the authenticity of the steel bar Bishop planned to later mold into a fish.
Bishop raised the children above his head while they clung to the bar. He whirled them around like a helicopter.
“My favorite trick was when he turned the bar into a fish,” Maurice Small, 18, said of Bishop and the team. “This was really inspiring for people.”
Small, who started attending the service in the park three months ago, said he was recently baptized by Pastor Adams at Kirkman Church which meets bi-weekly on Sundays at nearby Eagles Nest Elementary School.
“I knew about God, but I didn’t know I could be saved,” he said.
When the Strength Team gave an invitation for salvation at the park, 15 of the boys responded.
Adams said the block party is a shot in the arm for the church plant which has struggled attracting supporting members, but doesn’t lack youth in need of the Gospel.
Pastor Enrique Sanchez, of Iglesia Bautista de la Trinidad, knows what it means to meet people where they are. The non-descript building that acts as the community’s church served merely as a backdrop to the Crossover event.
White tents filled the small yard, covering several folding tables. On each of the tables were organized piles of used clothing, food, shoes and office supplies—and each and every item was free of charge.
“All the clothes and food were donated from people in the community,” Sanchez said.
As the Strength Team began its performance on a dirt stage, the 100 people meandering around crowded close. Bishop and Hartso began sharing the Gospel.
During the Strength Team’s salvation invitation, about 25 people—mostly all adults—raised their hands to accept Christ.
The turnout was a “big blessing,” Sanchez said.
But getting people to simply attend the event was never the primary goal, Sanchez said. Rather, the mission was “to share the Gospel,” he said.
“We prayed for people to receive Christ,” he said. “One person is a victory. We have 25 who received Christ.”
Through amazing feats of strength and through quiet conversations, in English and in Spanish, from church members of Hay Vida en Jesus and Shenandoah Baptist Church, the Gospel was shared during a block party in a community that is becoming predominantly Hispanic.
The two congregations share the church facility on Sunday mornings, and they also shared responsibility for hosting the block party that resulted in two professions of faith.
Pastor of Hay Vida en Jesus since March of this year, Carlos Mendez, along with Shenandoah pastor Keith Norris, circulated through the crowd, looking to build relationships that could lead to life-changing relationships with Jesus Christ.
Margaret Dempsey-Colson is a writer for the Florida Baptist Convention. Amanda Sullivan is a correspondent for Florida Baptist Witness.
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