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Domestic Missionaries Aim to Save Dying Churches

c. 2006 Religion News Service WAYLAND, Mich. _ The remains of 18 soldiers and civilian contractors were scattered across a farmer’s field in Afghanistan, lying amid the wreckage of a helicopter crashed by a sandstorm. The Rev. Tim Mattison’s chopper had narrowly escaped the same fate. Now, having returned to the scene to recover the […]

c. 2006 Religion News Service

WAYLAND, Mich. _ The remains of 18 soldiers and civilian contractors were scattered across a farmer’s field in Afghanistan, lying amid the wreckage of a helicopter crashed by a sandstorm.

The Rev. Tim Mattison’s chopper had narrowly escaped the same fate. Now, having returned to the scene to recover the bodies, Mattison, a military chaplain, bowed his head and led a prayer for the fallen comrades.

“I prayed for their families,” Mattison recalled, his mild voice conveying little of the scene’s horror. “I wanted to ask for God’s help for them back in the states.”

Half a world away from the country where he served for more than a year as a chaplain with the Army National Guard, Mattison sits in a sparsely furnished office at First Baptist Church here. His life here as interim pastor to a struggling congregation would seem to have little relation to the grim realities of Afghanistan.

But Mattison believes he was called by God both to console grieving soldiers in the desert and quietly support the few dozen members of First Baptist.

As a missionary for Michigan-based Continental Baptist Missions, Mattison is part of an army of ministers sent forth to start and save churches across America.

Their mission? To plant new congregations and try to preserve faltering ones.

The nonprofit agency also sends out missionary builders who help buy property, hire architects and erect new buildings at half the normal cost or less of traditional church building.

Like other CBM missionary ministers, Mattison relies on the donations of churches and individuals to support him and his wife, Dawn. But he doesn’t doubt for a second God called him to this tiny church without so much as a paid secretary.

“It’s a biblical principle: the strong help the weak,” said Mattison, a soft-spoken and friendly father of four.

CBM’s mission is simple: “re-churching North America,” according to its president, the Rev. Bill Jenkin III.

“We know we’re not the only ones doing it, but there are some pockets of our country where there are no gospel-preaching churches,” said Jenkin, a CBM church-planter since 1983. “Or there are areas growing so rapidly that there are just a lot of unchurched people.”

CBM was founded in 1942 in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula as Hiawatha Land Independent Baptist Mission. In 2002, it opened a new $1.3 million headquarters in Courtland Township outside Grand Rapids.

The ministry has aided close to 200 congregations in its nearly 65-year history. CBM missionaries rely on the donations of churches and the promises of faith to start churches and hope they flourish.

“Our idea of promotion for a church planter is to get himself to a place where he works himself out of a job,” Jenkin said.

Mattison, a Michigan native who has served churches in Washington, Ohio and Maryland and has worked for CBM for seven years, figures it will take him about two years to get First Baptist in Wayland back on its feet.

The church founded in 1958 had seen its membership dwindle from a high of 250. He arrived there on Easter Sunday after returning from Afghanistan last August. He went to work quickly, economizing costs to erase a deficit and making the church more visible in the community.

“Part of what I’m doing is just teaching people how to organize a church and have a general plan,” Mattison said.

About 45 people now attend on the average Sunday. Members say they expect the rebound to continue thanks to Mattison.

“Since he got here, things are going great,” said Ella Schwander, 74, one of the church’s founding members. “I think there’s unity again. People are pulling together.”

Mattison looks to the future with confidence. “We’ll get the church up and running and see what the Lord has in store for us next.”

CBM missionaries currently are in various stages of developing about three dozen new congregations from Alaska to Florida. Typically it takes about 10 years to take a church from a small Bible study to one with its own pastor and building, Jenkin said.

Contractors and volunteer builders are hard at work putting up church buildings in Iowa and New York, with new jobs scheduled two years out. More than a dozen missionary builders and close to that many full-time volunteers set up in recreational vehicles and put up new churches with the help of the local congregation.

Help sometimes comes from other churches as well. Volunteers from two local churches are helping build a new church in Iowa. Another church that is being converted from an old synagogue in the Bronx is also in the works. But the mission really is not about putting up structures, said a ministry leader.

“The builders, anytime they have an opportunity to share the gospel,” said Dallas Putnam, CBM’s director of building ministries, “they lay the hammer down, sit down with somebody and share from the Word of God.”

CBM made a world of difference for Ashley Baptist Church of Belding. The church had a healthy congregation but its former building dating from 1863 was “a complete disaster,” said the Rev. David Oliver.

The church could not afford to built a new structure and called on CBM for help. The agency sent a general contractor to oversee the project and a series of volunteers to help swing hammers along with Ashley Baptist members.

Within two years the congregation had what Oliver calls “the nicest-looking church building around.” It’s worth close to $3 million but cost less than one-fourth of that to build, Oliver said.

“Their involvement was absolutely essential,” he said of CBM. “We would have got something done, but it wouldn’t be anywhere near the quality. It was just a tremendous answer to prayer.”

KRE/JL END HONEY

(Charles Honey writes for The Grand Rapids Press in Grand Rapids, Mich.)

Editors: To obtain a photo of Tim Mattison, go to the RNS Web site at https://religionnews.com. On the lower right, click on “photos,” then search by subject or slug.

Jenkin in 11th graf and below is CQ