Revitalized SW Fla. church embraces growth, diversity

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As with any 100-year-old church, First Baptist Church of Immokalee has seen its share of ebb and flow. But after a period of trouble and decline, the revitalized congregation has found new growth, a sense of stability and diversity that more closely mirrors its Southwest Florida community.   

“We knew we had to go in a different direction than we had been in the past,” said long-time Deacon Bill Bethea. “We had gotten to the point where we needed to change our methodology while at the same time keep the message the same–the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

The church has evolved from a predominately Anglo senior adult congregation to one that is intentionally reaching young families, African Americans, Hispanics and Haitians.

“We have increased in attendance, bringing in young couples, young adults under the age of 30 and children as young as six months,” said Bethea. “It’s been amazing.”

A key ingredient in that growth was the calling of 25-year-old Timothy Pigg as pastor, who offered “youthfulness and energy” to the struggling congregation, said the deacon.

They found in him “a spiritual maturity and scriptural insight that surprised us in a 25-year-old,” Bethea added.

Pigg and his wife Jessica came to the church after he completed his degree at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. Members of his new congregation came to his ordination at First Baptist Church of Naples, where his father, Doug, serves as executive pastor.

When he arrived, Pigg said the makeup of worship services was 85 percent Anglo and 15 percent other ethnics. Now he estimates the composition to be 60-40 percent; and hopes soon will be “equal of all races.”

The church added Hilario Perez, a young Hispanic man who had come to know Christ as his Savior in the church, as associate pastor who leads young adults in Bible study on Sunday morning and student ministry on Wednesday nights.

The church is aggressively reaching out in the predominantly agricultural community in a variety of ways.

Recently, the church began a Spanish ministry, led by bivocational pastor Raul Puente, who distributed more than 600 fliers in neighborhoods and Hispanic businesses.

The location of the past year’s fall festival was moved from inside the church building to a “trunk and treat” activity in the parking lot, a switch the pastor believed it would help reach out to non-churched people. Over 1,000 people attended and 300 pounds of candy were distributed, Pigg reported. Additionally hundreds of photos were taken of the youngsters that are being delivered to homes of children, another way to connect with families.

Pigg, who had played football in high school and coached while in seminary, began coaching the sport at the local school, building relationships with players and parents. At least two students have accepted Christ as a result of his witnessing.

Baptismal waters have stirred with new Christians ten times since Pigg’s arrival, the pastor said.

In February, the church will hold block parties in migrant neighborhoods working with other Spanish-speaking congregations, distributing hygiene kits and disposable cell phones for the workers to make contact with loved ones back home.

The church will also partner this summer with seven area churches for a community wide vacation Bible school to be held at First Baptist Church, which has the largest facility in the city. “Our goal is not to grow this church, but to get the gospel out in the community,” said Bethea.

While so many changes can easily result in conflict in other congregations, long-time church members relished them, said Benny Zipperer. “If its good changes that bring glory to God, I’m in favor of sharing the gospel with more people.”

Prior to Pigg’s arrival at the church, an intentional interim pastor, Gary Merkel was invaluable in paving the way for the congregation to make changes toward a new direction. His role cannot be missed, said Pigg. “He was an encourager to our people who were nursing fresh wounds from darker days.”

“We now have the vision to see the gospel planted in the hearts of people both in this community, Southwest Florida and beyond. We are determined to be a ‘Word-centered’ people with worldwide impact from here in Immokalee.”

 

by Barbara Denman, Florida Baptist Convention, January 27, 2016

 

 

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