March 2010

Two Burlington churches form one new fellowship

March 22 2010 by Norman Jameson, BR Editor

A Burlington church that drew closer to the grave with each member’s funeral is enjoying a rebirth after it merged with a young church.

The former Hocutt Memorial Baptist Church that was down to 15-18 senior adults on Sunday mornings is humming with new life and the patter of 40 children after it joined hands with Life Fellowship, which was meeting in temporary quarters off the interstate.

The newly formed New Life at Hocutt developed over several years. Pastor Jimmy Nickelston, 72, watched Hocutt Memorial succumb to the inertia that overwhelms an aging congregation in a changing neighborhood to which members do not relate.

In 2003 he asked Mark Stewart, pastor of a new, intentionally multi-cultural church in Burlington, about the possibilities of his church meeting in the Hocutt’s large, but nearly empty facilities. Nothing came of the conversation until 2008 when they met again at an associational meeting and suddenly the idea took root.

Nickelston, who has been pastor at Hocutt 11 years, said he knew everyone needed to tread softly. New Life Fellowship’s members were there in part because they did not want to be in a traditional red brick church. Hocutt members needed time to adjust to a big change in identity. 

“We took a year and shared the vision little by little,” Nickelston said. “They trusted me, knew I wouldn’t abandon them. Mark and I met and prayed. He shared with his people.”

The pastors exchanged pulpits, and then the churches shared a meal together, building relationships at each step.  

Put a ring on it
After “courting” for over a year, Nickleston said it was “time to make up minds to get married or not.”

BR photo by Norman Jameson

Jimmy Nickelston, left, asked Mark Stewart to consider merging Life Fellowship into Hocutt Memorial. It has worked well for both.

Hocutt voted 100 percent to merge and New Life approved with 93 percent. The churches started meeting as one in February, under the name New Life at Hocutt.

With the strength of a congregation 10 times larger, the church has been renovated with new carpet, heating and cooling systems, sound and roof.

Where silence reigned now the happy noise of children resounds.

There have been some “bumps” Nickelston said, with music being the primary issue.

“I could not stand the thought of closing this place down in this community,” Nickelston said. “It would have been the worst thing possible.”

Most of Hocutt’s members are still coming. Stewart, who is the pastor, with Nickelston his associate, said he lost several members of New Life Fellowship, which he understands.

The new church is multi-cultural and transgenerational, reflecting the county’s population: predominantly white and about one-fifth black. Stewart is black and Nickelston is white.

“Our heart in planting the church was to be cross cultural,” said Stewart, 38, who was featured about eight years ago in North Carolina Missions Offering materials, as he and white friend David Gordon were planting a multi-cultural church in Burlington, which became New Life Fellowship.

Gordon has since started a new prayer ministry, and is a member of New Life at Hocutt.

The interstate location of New Life Fellowship was not conducive to growth, or to community. Stewart sensed they had to move and the renewed offer from Nickelston was a godsend.

“To be real, you have a 72-year-old white pastor to ask a black pastor to lead a church in Alamance County?” Stewart said. “I had to believe God is in this.”

Stewart said the process was “right out of the book of Acts, where young men see visions and old men dream dreams.”

While leadership carefully picked their way through potential land mines, the clincher, Stewart said, was when Nickelston shared his vision at a New Life Fellowship deacons meeting at Stewart’s house.

“Our deacons just wept, and expressed a desire to be mentored by senior adults,” Stewart said.

He admits some of his church was concerned about the change, asking why they would want to go back into a traditional church. He said New Life already has a tradition and an order of service: “We just don’t write it down.”

When asked if they were going to sit in pews, Stewart said, “Folks, we sit in chairs that are bolted to the floor!”

Is Hocutt just trying to save their church? Stewart said Hocutt humbled themselves and if New Life would do the same, God might do something mighty. “Who are we to be proud?” he asked. “We have nothing except what the Lord Jesus Christ gives us.” 

“Our church was almost dead, now it’s come alive,” said Nickelston.

So New Life at Hocutt is more than a name; it’s a description. 

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3/22/2010 8:09:00 AM by Norman Jameson, BR Editor | with 0 comments

Pastor not superhero to save church

March 22 2010 by Dianna L. Cagle, BR Assistant Managing Editor

Michael Ester sees more church closings in the future “because the landscape is changing, and churches that fail to make some fundamental changes are dying.”

Ester, who is associational missionary for Liberty Baptist Association, said most churches are fooling themselves.

“Most of them know that they’re not growing but they don’t consider themselves as dying,” he said.

“They don’t seem concerned about it as long as it doesn’t affect the money.”

He knows change does not come easy.

“I hate if for these churches because it is a traumatic experience,” he said.

Trinity Baptist Church in Welcome, which was formed in 1981, recently disbanded. Ester said he’s working with another church now “but someone has thrown a wrench in it.”

For some it is hard to give up power, but they do see the loss.

In the 1950s Ester said one man might lead two or three churches.

The multi-bivocational pastor might be leading the way into the future, he said.

Trinity gave its building and assets to another church in the association.

“Most of them want to hang on,” said Ester, who celebrates his 10th anniversary at the association next month. “They are avoiding the inevitable. It’s going to come down to there’s six people in the pew.”

For those who grew up in that church and hung on all these years, it is hard to admit the problem.

“Our current buildings have been paid for by previous generations,” said Ester. “I think there’s a lot of churches right on the edge … where they have only a little money left.”

They might have $60,000 in the bank and between 10-20 people in the pews. Many think if they can pay for a preacher and lights they are set. “The problem is they are still in a hole,” said Ester.

That church has no Sunday School leaders, no children’s programs, no music leader.

“What’s their choice?” Ester said. “A preacher is not going to be the hero and suddenly you’ve got people. There’s nobody that dynamic.

“If he’s that dynamic he’s going to a bigger church.”

Ester said this is a growing trend.

“These new church starts, they don’t really realize how much money it takes,” he said. With property and buildings costs easily skyrocket into the millions.

“They think they can do it themselves,” he said.

“I’ve seen churches that are dying and so they have this mentality that they need a young man whose inexperienced to be a pastor of people who are not there.”

Hiring a pastor to attract young people sends a bad message to the congregation that might be over 50.

“They are setting themselves up for a church fight or disappointment,” he said. “(The pastor’s) not the magic bullet. They are going to have to sit down and think about their vision.”

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3/22/2010 8:05:00 AM by Dianna L. Cagle, BR Assistant Managing Editor | with 0 comments

Southview sells, stays on as renter

March 22 2010 by Norman Jameson, BR Editor

Southview Baptist Church in Charlotte was born in 1965 from an unconventional conception. No coroner has penciled in the date of its inevitable demise, but the patient is being kept comfortable.

Administrator of comfort is Joe Denson, Southview pastor since 1976 whose retirement three years ago was simply not accepted by the church. He left on a Sunday and members rescinded his retirement on Wednesday.

BR photo by Norman Jameson

Joe Denson led Southview Baptist Church in Charlotte to sell its building, where it continues to worship rent free.

Now Denson pastors a congregation of about 30 regulars in a building they’ve sold to another church. Iglesia Pentecostal Ebenezer bought the facility for $750,000 and Southview holds the 30-year note with a 10-year privilege to use the facility rent free. Income from the mortgage and member gifts keep Southview operating — helped by the fact that Denson receives no salary.

Southview peaked in membership at about 180 around 1985.

Then the neighborhood changed, people aged, young people married and left. “We just did not have the drawing power to keep them or to bring in too many new ones,” said Denson, X-ray honest with the perspective of age and longevity.

He will be 77 April 18 and has been pastor of Southview since 1976.

Southview actually and literally was owned by two families who started it. When Denson led an 18-month drive to get the property legally transferred into the hands of the church, those families left.

Denson came to Southview from his role as education director at his home church, Wilmont Baptist Church, a thriving 300-member congregation with its own school.

Nineteen attended his first Sunday at Southview.

But he and Edith, his wife now of 54 years, came to pastor Southview and have been there 34 years, through the rise and fall of the church’s life cycle. He feels fortunate for his church’s situation.

Without finding a buyer, the church would have had to close by now, its members disbanded. Instead, he said, “We have the best of everything — the church is still intact, the church is being used by more people than ever and the congregation has a place to stay. We’re not merged, not disbanded and it’s going like it ought to.

“The Lord had to have worked this out because it’s too good for someone to have put together.”

“To be truthful, we just don’t have that much to offer,” Denson said. “We’re almost a maintenance church, with very loyal people. One of the reasons I stayed is because so many of these people would never go to another church.

“They would never go. When you get 80 years old and all, they’re stuck in their ways.”  

The new congregation remodeled the rooms, and performed delayed maintenance on the structure. A black congregation also uses the building, beginning at 7 a.m.

Denson’s group meets at 10 a.m. and the Hispanic congregation that owns the building meets at 5 p.m. A Korean church met in the facility for 10 years before disbanding.

Because the Hispanic pastor is not yet credentialed by his denomination, Denson officiates at the weddings of those members.

Denson, a Wake Forest University grad, said if the church holds its last service before the mortgage it holds is paid off, proceeds will be invested with the Baptist Foundation for missions.

A fan of the pastor’s school sponsored by First Baptist Church, Jacksonville, Fla., which he has attended for 24 years, Denson was shocked in January when the church’s pastor Mac Brunson, formerly a Baptist State Convention of North Carolina president, presented him the Homer Lindsay Award for a Lifetime of Ministry.

“It was a total shock,” Denson said. “I was so surprised the only way I could describe it would be like playing Bingo without a card and still being told you won.”

But Denson said for the next four days at the conference, “it was like being a rock star.”

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3/22/2010 7:59:00 AM by Norman Jameson, BR Editor | with 0 comments

Stuggling congregations lack hope, purpose

March 22 2010 by Dianna L. Cagle, BR Assistant Managing Editor

Palmerville Baptist Church, a church plant in 1886, closed its doors Easter 2009 with 17 members, the same number of members that began the church and the same day it started.

“It was becoming too much from them,” said Hal Bilbo, associational missionary for Stanly Baptist Association. “Members have joined other church fellowships and gave their property to the association.”

Palmerville was a mission of Ebenezer Baptist Church, now Badin Baptist Church. 

“It was only a couple of miles from church but it was a different community,” he said.

That community once boomed with a general store, a school, and a post office. Bilbo said a plant closure in Badin contributed to the church’s membership decline. Leaders (deacons ranging in age 79-84) made the decision to close in 2008 because “it could no longer maintain the properties.”

The church building and its cemetery were given to the association. The church is building a $100,000 cemetery fund to provide perpetual care. The fund is managed by the N.C. Baptist Foundation.

“Our plans are to use it for a community center,” said Bilbo who mentioned the chapel might be used for weddings or a future congregation if the community builds back up around it.

In Bilbo’s five years as associational missionary, this is only the second time he’s seen a church close.

“The first one the pastor actually owned the property,” he said, but he was in bad health. The church tried another pastor but “it just didn’t work.”

Bilbo said that only 10 of the 60 churches and two missions in his association are growing.

“That’s not a great percentage,” said Bilbo, who considers six of the churches to be in critical shape. “They are in survival mode. It’s a challenge to help these struggling churches.”

Some are aging congregations and are not reaching new people. Some have “lost their purpose,” he said. “They’ve operated as a support group for each other and do fine in that respect. It’s just really tough for them to go forward.”

Seventeen have bivocational pastors.

“We’ve had a church to ask another church to move in with it,” he said, but that hasn’t happened yet.

A blended family like that “presents a unique set of challenges,” Bilbo said.

Associational leadership is available to the churches. Bilbo said the association has offered clinics and he and others are willing to meet at the local church to talk with leaders.

“Hopefully those who come in to help will inspire and be a little contagious,” Bilbo said. He sees a lack of hope in the struggling churches.

“Hope does change your whole perspective towards things,” he said.

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3/22/2010 7:56:00 AM by Dianna L. Cagle, BR Assistant Managing Editor | with 2 comments

Congregational health center installs new leader

March 19 2010 by Norman Jameson, BR Editor

A parade of friends and colleagues from past ministries helped to install Bill Wilson March 18 as second president of the Center for Congregational Health during a service at United Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church in Winston-Salem.

Wilson, who has been on the job since September 2009, was most recently pastor of First Baptist Church, Dalton, Ga. He succeeds Dave Odom, who led the Center’s founding in 1992.

The Center for Congregational Health is one of four departments in the pastoral care division of Wake Forest University Baptist Hospital, which North Carolina Baptists help support.


Monica Rivers, a Center board member and college professor, said the Center offered a “profound ministry” in its services to churches.

Sharon Engebretson, interim vice president of the division of pastoral care, said the Center is evidence of the hospital’s “quality and Christian caring” nature.

Milton Hollifield, Baptist State Convention executive director-treasurer, told participants that North Carolina Baptists have long believed in the important impact of ministry through attention to “body, mind and soul.”

North Carolina Baptists established Baptist Hospital in 1923 he reminded them, and the Center for Congregational Health “is one way of continuing the original purpose.” Baptists continue to support and endorse the Center for Congregational Health because “God is honoring his servants” there who are “impacting churches for the glory of Christ.”

The Center for Congregational Health offers several services, the highest profile of which is their training of pastors for intentional interim work and conflict resolution in churches. “The crisis is hard to overstate,” Wilson said in his response to nearly 40 speakers, many of whom voiced just a line.

He quoted 20th century Christian writer Corrie ten Boom who said the storm is around us, but it is not within us.

“But friends, it is around us,” he said. In “days filled with anxiety for many” it “has never been a better time to be God’s people,” Wilson said, encouraging participants, most of whom are involved in ministry.

“We do our best work when conditions are roughest,” he said. “We’ve never been more needed. What we’re talking about has never been more timely or strategic.”

Wilson friend and colleague Steve Scoggin, president of CareNet counseling services, also a department of the pastoral care division, compared participants and those churches and individuals helped by the Center to a quilt and said the represented a “diverse group of dispersed tribes, loosely stitched together by the Center for Congregational Health.”

In the family of servants, and those served, he said, “all are stitched together and united by the Cross of Christ.” Bo Prosser, from the national Cooperative Baptist Fellowship which also contracts for services from the Center, said he often meets people in his travels who are “former ministers.”

Now they are selling insurance or cars or teaching school or are in other professions. The Center, Prosser said, helps churches and ministers preserve relationships “which are at the heart of calling in Christian ministry,” and helps those who are too close to being “former ministers” find “encore callings.”

To access ministries of the Center for Congregational Health visit or call (336) 716-9722.

(EDITOR’S NOTE — In the April 10 issue, look for a feature length story on Bill Wilson.)
3/19/2010 6:27:00 AM by Norman Jameson, BR Editor | with 0 comments

State Dept. highlights religious violations

March 18 2010 by Adelle M. Banks, Religion News Service

The State Department issued its annual human rights report March 11, noting religious freedom violations in countries ranging from China to Iraq to Saudi Arabia.

The report on 194 countries called 2009 “a year in which ethnic, racial, and religious tensions led to violent conflicts and serious human rights violations.”

The State Department said “no genuine freedom of religion” exists in North Korea and Cuban law permits punishment of “any unauthorized assembly of more than three persons, including those for private religious services in private homes.”

The report said religious minorities continue to face “escalating discrimination and persecution.” In Iraq, for example, despite the government’s public calls for tolerance, attacks on places of worship by extremist and insurgent groups limited their ability to practice their faith.

In China, repression of Tibetan Buddhists and Muslim Uighurs increased, the report said. Non-Muslims are prohibited from expressing their religion publicly in Saudi Arabia.

The department noted that several countries with “generally strong” human rights records had been home to religious freedom violations in 2009, citing the recent ban on construction of minarets in Switzerland as an example.

“Discrimination against Muslims in Europe has been an increasing concern,” the report said.
3/18/2010 5:19:00 AM by Adelle M. Banks, Religion News Service | with 0 comments

In Mumbai, keyboard becomes gospel catalyst

March 18 2010 by Tess Rivers, Baptist Press

MUMBAI, India — “I’ve rarely found anyone who said they didn’t want to learn the piano,” the seminary music professor said after arriving in Mumbai, India.

Dorothy Atcheson*, who teaches at one of the Southern Baptist Convention’s six seminaries, led a team of six women into Mumbai’s communities and slums to teach keyboarding and, in the process, share the gospel.

BP photo

Two young girls in Mumbai, India, learn the skills to sight read music with both hands and, in the process, learn of the Gospel through classic hymns of the faith.

Atcheson has pioneered a program at her seminary by which non-musicians can teach piano using a resource she developed called “The Keyboard Mission.”

Using Atcheson’s method, students can learn to play simple melodies in three to five sessions, while the words of the songs teach biblical truths.

“By the end of five days, they can play ‘Jesus Loves Me,’ ‘Amazing Grace,’ ‘Pass Me Not O Gentle Savior’ and ‘Jesus Loves the Little Children,’” Atcheson said.

She has been using keyboarding as a bridge to sharing the gospel cross-culturally for several years, including three earlier overseas trips. The idea for the program came to Atcheson several years ago.

“The president of our seminary kept talking about (sharing the gospel cross-culturally),” Atcheson recalled. “(The) music (department) was not involved in (that). So I began praying. The Lord told me, ‘Well, you play the keyboard. Use it ...’”

From there, Atcheson wrote The Keyboard Mission, linking musical concepts with biblical truth: As keyboarding teams present the material, they also present the gospel.

Atcheson had used the material exclusively with unbelievers in other countries, with the team venturing out on the streets and inviting people to take piano. A number of students came to know Christ.

In India, however, the focus changed as church leaders invited various church members to the classes.

At first, this was frustrating.

“In my mind, we were not doing what we came here to do,” Atcheson said.

BP photo

In Mumbai, India, a student receives keyboarding training using classic hymns that convey the basics of faith in Christ.

However, as the teaching began, the reason for the changed focus became clear to Atcheson, and she modified her original plan. “Some of our team continued to teach church members, but I selected a few students and offered them two full days of training,” Atcheson recounted. “Then they would be equipped to go to other churches and in turn equip others to do the keyboard ministry.”

Using this reproducible approach, Atcheson hopes that the piano training and, more importantly, the seeds of the gospel will spread to other churches and eventually to unbelievers.

“The text teaches itself,” Atcheson said, “and the hymns ... can explain the gospel.”

Churches that do not have a skilled musician can use the material for equipping and outreach, Atcheson added.

Pastor Murali* agreed. He leads one of the small churches where Atcheson’s team worked; he now wants those who received keyboard lessons to share their training with others in the slum.

“That is the plan of my heart,” Murali said.

A member of Atcheson’s team, Ann from Goldston Baptist Church, has used the program successfully in a number of other countries. Ann had never played at all when she went on her first trip.

“Now,” Atcheson said, “she’s studying with me at the seminary.” Agni* is one of the young men in Murali’s church who studied with Ann. Although Agni knew how to play by ear, he wanted to learn to read music, and Murali was confident he could easily pick up the skills.

“We had the most fun with him,” Ann said. “He will sit down and work and work and work. ... We’ve already told him that he will one day make a very good musician for his church. It is exciting to see the Lord use someone like (him) ... to advance to that degree.”

Another team member, Bekah of Wakefield Baptist Church in Wake Forest, noted the importance of equipping believers through keyboard training.

“It’s been great to equip a lot of women who haven’t felt they had a place or something of quality to give the church,” Bekah said. Sabeena* and Rabia* were two such examples. Sabeena is a 17-year-old girl; Rabia, a 57-year-old pastor’s wife. Both studied with Atcheson’s team in Mumbai.

A few days into the training, Sabeena told Atcheson, “I always wanted a talent to use for God.... You have come ... and now I have a talent I can share with my church and with others for the Lord!”

Rabia was equally excited.

“She laughed at herself a lot,” Bekah recounted. “She says she is 57 years old and this is the first time she’s ever done anything like this. “(These women) are becoming equipped to go out and share the gospel. They are being empowered to go out and have an impact in their community,” Bekah said.

For Atcheson, this is music to her ears.

*Names changed.

(EDITOR’S NOTE — Reported by Baptist Press’ international bureau.)

Related item

Guest column: Gospel green light in a Mumbai red-light district
3/18/2010 5:11:00 AM by Tess Rivers, Baptist Press | with 0 comments

Snow pushes Dobson church to webcast service

March 17 2010 by Dianna L. Cagle, BR Assistant Managing Editor

With six-year-old Daniel belting out a solo, and 10- and 12-year-old sisters, Lydia and Samantha working the technology, a church in Dobson aired its service online during inclement weather Jan. 31.

“We had a great day,” said Andy Atkins, pastor of Fairview Baptist Church. “It blew us away.”

Expecting 10 to 15 people to log in to view the service, the church instead had 65.

“We were amazed,” Atkins said.

Figuring most log-ins had at least two people watching, Atkins estimates 130-140 people were able to view services that Sunday.

“And it was free,” said Atkins. “That was the best thing.”

Atkins not only preached but he played the piano as he led his family — wife, Tracy, and three children — along with a neighbor from across the street, in worship.

Atkins said the church had never tried before but said it was easy to use.

Despite a winter of bad weather, Jan. 31 was the first service Fairview cancelled. One Sunday they limited services to one, but with 30-plus inches of snow, “believe it or not,” they had not had to cancel before that day.

The family rehearsed the day before to check equipment and options on Atkins said his mom and dad as well as some college students helped by watching and giving feedback about what was working and what wasn’t.

“It turned out to be something big,” he said.

Lydia has been running Mediashout at the church to display lyrics during worship services. She used those skills to display lyrics during the feed. Samantha served as chat-room administrator.

Atkins said the church uses to notify church members of announcements, including letting members know where to log on to view the service Jan. 31. He knows not everyone has the ability to log on but Atkins indicated that it was nice to gather as much of his church family as he could even on a snowy, stay-off-the-roads day.   
3/17/2010 9:21:00 AM by Dianna L. Cagle, BR Assistant Managing Editor | with 1 comments

Christ-followers emerge from Mormon area

March 17 2010 by Adam Miller, Baptist Press

PROVO, Utah — Drive an hour south of Salt Lake City down Interstate 5 and you enter a different world, says North American Mission Board missionary Mickie Kelly.

Mickie Kelly is a North American church planting missionary in Payson, Utah, a 97 percent Mormon city where evangelism is a sensitive work requiring a balance of “getting under their skin” and appreciating the culture of a deeply steeped Mormon community. See video.

“People think I’m exaggerating when I tell them the kinds of things that go on here,” said Kelly, a church planter in Payson, Utah, near Provo. “The spiritual darkness is like a blanket that you wear every day.”

Around the well-kept homes and clean-cut families of Payson, a spiritual drawstring tightens under the influence of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS).

“Salt Lake City is 47 percent LDS,” Kelly said. But, he added, the number doubles to 95 percent for Provo, which is home to the LDS-funded Brigham Young University and the LDS Missionary Training Center.

“People have left Salt Lake to move here and get away from the infidel, non-members, or Gentiles as we might be called,” Kelly said. “In Utah County, the culture is Mormon — every news channel, every billboard, everything they do is done to promote the church.”

Originally from Oklahoma, Kelly and his wife Lorenda planted a church in Idaho, where they first experienced the grip the LDS has on its members.

“Out here it costs someone to come to Christ. It doesn’t just cost them a trip to the lake or a couple of beer drinking buddies or a card game,” Kelly said. “It costs them everything. They lose their families, they lose their homes, they lose their businesses, and so really at the same time that you invite someone to come to Christ you’re thinking, ‘Do I need to start a refugee ministry?’”

The Kellys say Utah is a daunting place to plant a church, but God has been faithful to bring several residents out of the LDS and into the Kellys’ new work — Crossings Church.

“I often pray asking God to take the word I’ve spoken and just seal it in their hearts, wake them up at night, don’t let them sleep for weeks until they get real with God,” Kelly said. “This whole thing is a testimony to God’s sovereignty. Prayer has taken on a whole new meaning to me. It’s my strategy.”

From front porch conversations at night to chats at the local Wal-mart, the Kellys are making the true Christ known and people are receiving Him. Crossings Church has grown from three members to nearly 80 in Sunday attendance.

For more than a year NAMB church planting missionary Mickie Kelly, left, had been praying for Aaron Vickery to accept Christ. Now the former high-ranking LDS member is an active member of Crossings Church, where Kelly is church planter/pastor. See video.

Within the first few months of their arrival, the Kellys realized they were in another country with its own culture, customs and way of receiving outsiders. Within the first week, the couple was able to share Christ with 10 LDS members who had come to their house during the evening to ask them why they were there.

“Many of them were hearing for that first time that Jesus wasn’t just a man like them,” Kelly said.

And there were people like Aaron Vickery, a former high-ranking, lifelong member of the LDS whose family had fallen to pieces and who knew the LDS teaching was wrong.

“I knew what they believed was wrong, but I didn’t know what to believe,” Vickery said. “Mickie heard about me when he was in Idaho and when he moved down here he called me up.”

After several months, Kelly and Vickery spent all night talking about the gospel. By morning Vickery had accepted Christ and wanted to join the church, which, at the time, met in Kelly’s basement.

“It took me a long time. We’d been through Bible studies, and week after week these spoke right to me,” Vickery said. “I finally decided it was time to accept the Lord.”

For many in the area, it’s still a long shot to get them on the front steps of a Christian church, but Kelly keeps praying and making Christ known. “The whole thing makes me say ‘Wow,’” Kelly said. “It’s been the hardest thing I’ve ever done because you can’t just go invite people to church. It’s all been through prayer and conversations and watching God grow the church. It’s been a ‘wow’ just to see Him move.”

(EDITOR’S NOTE — Miller writes for the North American Mission Board. To view a video about Mickie Kelly and other missionary and chaplain ministries through NAMB and its state partners, visit and click on the “Missionary Focus” gallery or visit
3/17/2010 9:07:00 AM by Adam Miller, Baptist Press | with 0 comments

11th-hour salvation places judge in heaven

March 17 2010 by David Ettinger, Baptist Press

ORLANDO, Fla. — It’s a salvation story of epic 11th-hour proportions. Its cast includes a respected judge, a wife desperate to see her husband come to faith in Jesus Christ and a Southern Baptist pastor who spoke the right words at just right time.

Bob Wattles of Orlando, Fla., was a longtime Orange County circuit judge who won both praise and criticism for his rulings but was always respected for acting according to his deeply held principles. At age 62, Wattles made his greatest decision of all, giving his life to Christ just eight weeks before losing his battle with cancer on Sunday, Jan. 24.

So, how did his end-of-life miracle come about? First, some background into the judge’s spiritual condition.

“Bob grew up in a Christian family, but I don’t know if he ever established a personal relationship with Christ,” said Patricia Strowbridge, Wattles’ wife of nearly 15 years. “As he grew older and because of the requirements of his job, I think whatever bit of relationship he had really got squashed down to the point that he drifted so far away that he was unable to surrender any part of his life to Christ.”

Her husband’s choice not to accept Christ weighed heavily on Strowbridge.

“This was a heartache to me for many, many years,” she said. “At the very end of his life, I didn’t know where his relationship was with the Lord, and this was very troubling to me because I felt that, with cancer winning the battle, my children would look at me and ask, ‘Is Dad in heaven?’ I would never be able to lie to my children; if they saw doubt in my eyes, it would break their heart. I prayed so hard that he would find a way of surrender to Jesus Christ.”

Bob Wattles

As Wattles’ cancer continued to spread, Strowbridge knew she needed outside help. She called on Randall James, a pastor at First Baptist Church in Orlando and chairman of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee. James also is a former chief-of-staff for four Orlando mayors and had known Judge Wattles for about 16 years.

“Patricia called me because she knew I had been treated for cancer for the past 23 years,” James said. “She asked me if I would speak to her husband and I told her I would be honored to.”

While James wanted to encourage Wattles not to give up his fight against cancer or succumb to self-pity, he knew that the judge had a far bigger need.

“During our very first conversation, I posed the question, ‘Do you know for sure that if you died tonight you would be in heaven?’” James recalled. “The answer was something to the effect of, ‘I hope so.’”

James knew what he had to do next.

“I told him, ‘You can have the same assurance that your wife and I have that we will one day be in heaven. It requires a relationship with Jesus Christ.”

James then shared with Wattles what he calls the “ABCs of evangelism.”

“I said to the judge, ‘A, admit you are a sinner; B, believe that Jesus died on the cross and that His blood paid your sin debt; and C, confess Jesus Christ as Lord.’ I told the judge we don’t have to do anything to earn our salvation, but that Jesus made it as simple as possible. We don’t have to write a check, join the church or even be baptized; we only have to accept Jesus into our hearts.”

With that, James extended an invitation.

“I said to the judge, ‘Because accepting Christ is so simple, what do you have to lose, brother?’ I then prayed the prayer of salvation and asked him if he had accepted Jesus into his heart and he said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘Welcome to the Kingdom of Christ.’”

That conversation took place at a prayer and healing service at First Baptist Orlando last November and the timing could not have been better.

“When Randall said to my husband, ‘... what do you have to lose, brother?’ a complete change came over him and he said, ‘You’re right, and accepted Jesus into his heart,’” Strowbridge said.

“Right after that, his condition began to grow even worse.”

Just six days before Wattles went home to be with the Lord, Strowbridge invited James to the house to speak with the judge once more. “When Pastor Randall left that evening, he gave me a hug and said, ‘Your husband is well with the Lord,’” Strowbridge recounted. “That gave me a lot of encouragement because Pastor James was the last person my husband had a coherent, lucid conversation with. When he woke up the next day, he could no longer speak intelligibly [because the cancer had entered his brain]. By the weekend, he had lost all coherence.”

For James, that final visit with Wattles was a sweet time of fellowship between two children of God.

“We reconfirmed his salvation and talked about heaven,” James said. “We chatted about a few other things, then I got down on my knees at his bedside. He ... reached out his hands and I took hold of them.”

It was a familiar sight to James.

“His fingers were completely swollen, and I knew why. They were swollen from the chemotherapy and the steroid that helps build strength following chemo treatments. So I took his two swollen hands, prayed with him and gave him a kiss on the cheek and walked out.”

Six days later, Wattles lost his battle with cancer.

“I am so glad that his pain and suffering is over,” James said. “He is at peace with Jesus.”

On Thursday, Jan. 28, James had the opportunity of giving the message at Judge Wattles’ funeral at First Baptist, which was attended by nearly 1,000 people, including about 60 Orange County judges. James was bold in sharing the plan of salvation.

“We are all just visitors and aliens on this earth,” James said. “If we want to have eternal life with God the Father, we must turn from our sins and confess our faith in Jesus Christ. This is how we can be sure that we will spend eternity in heaven. I know that this is where Bob is right now and that he wants everyone in this room to be where he is now.

“In fact, Bob is more alive now than ever.”

(EDITOR’S NOTE — Ettinger is a staff writer and editor at First Baptist Church in Orlando, Fla.)
3/17/2010 9:01:00 AM by David Ettinger, Baptist Press | with 0 comments

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