Reaching the world from Keystone Heights

by Karen L. Willoughby, posted Tuesday, February 02, 2016 (6 years ago)

KEYSTONE HEIGHTS, Fla. (BP) -- A sense of safety and security marks Keystone Heights, an idyllic southern town halfway between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico.

It's nearly equidistant northeast to Jacksonville and southwest to Gainesville but, unlike those two cities, has never felt the devastating impact of a full-force hurricane. A pervading sense of peace and tranquility is enhanced by the area's many lakes and Spanish moss-covered oak trees, a low crime rate and the community-held belief in the importance of family.

Though 20 churches in Keystone Heights serve the population of about 1,400 -- up 4 percent in the last five years -- it is Trinity Baptist Church where more than 600 gather for Sunday morning worship. James Peoples is nearing his 22nd anniversary in the only pastorate he has ever held.

Trinity Baptist Church pastor James Peoples
Photo by Pam Saxon
He was 27 and his wife Jeannie 21 when the church, then 10 years old with about 200 members, called him as pastor. Peoples said he credits the growth of the church to God's blessing and to "being faithful to what the Lord has called us to do here, teaching His Word, teaching people to live it out and share it with others."

At the beginning of Peoples' pastorate, Trinity was giving about 4 percent of its undesignated offerings to missions through the Cooperative Program, the way Southern Baptists work together to support the work of state conventions and the Southern Baptist Convention's global mission causes. Over time, Peoples led the church to increase CP giving to 10 percent.

"God has called us to make disciples," Peoples said. "We see giving to the Cooperative Program as an integral part of helping us as a local church fulfill the Great Commission.

"It's not just giving," the pastor said. "We're going. We're praying. God is calling out pastors and missionaries from our fellowship. We're involved in sending short-term mission teams."

One family from the church serves in Poland with the International Mission Board. Peoples recently returned from Romania and Haiti. A team is getting ready to go to Cuba.

CP giving, Peoples said, "helps us all to be a part of something so much bigger than what we are and can do by ourselves."

"There is so much work to be done in our state -- Florida just surpassed New York as the third most populous state in the nation -- but there is so much more to do throughout the world," he said.

Now in his second one-year term as president of the Florida Baptist State Convention, Peoples was on the search committee that recommended J. Thomas Green as the state convention's executive director. Green told them from the beginning he wanted to increase giving to global outreach to 51 percent of receipts from Florida Baptist churches.

"There was very little pushback against this shift to sending more Cooperative Program dollars out of the state than we keep in the state," said Peoples, who has traveled across the state with the executive director as Green shared the CP story and explained his reason for the changes. "It has been amazing.... There had been this continual slide in CP giving from the churches over the previous seven years that went beyond the economic downturn, but now our churches are excited and getting more engaged. They're responding to this shift to give more to missions beyond our state borders."

Peoples credits the smoothness in the transition in part to Green's longevity in Florida; he had been in the state for 19 years as pastor of First Baptist Church of Brandon when he was called as the state convention's executive director. "Trust builds over time," Peoples said.

Longevity has been a factor in Trinity more than doubling its percentage of CP giving. Peoples said the increase flowed out of a shift from being inward-focused to outward-focused.

"At first, it was, 'We're a church plant ourselves; we're only 10 years old,'" Peoples said. "Now the church sees great benefit in all that God is doing globally through [the] Cooperative Program and sees CP as a key component of our disciple-making strategy."

He credits the change to "consistency and encouraging your people and challenging and motivating your people; keeping opportunities before the people. That helps change the mindset."

Trinity has grown steadily, and currently is helping sponsor three church plants in the North American Mission Board's Send cities of New Orleans, Denver and San Francisco.

"It is very beneficial to our church to be part of church planting," said Peoples, who serves as NAMB's Florida ambassador. "We see great Kingdom value in that we're part of the financial, strategic, emotional and prayer support for these new church plants.

"Church planting in these SEND cities is very difficult work," the pastor said. "Sometimes they feel all alone. Beyond finances, we send them encouragement; we send them teams. It's a win-win for us and for that new church."

Peoples said he anticipates Trinity will become a sending church sponsor for an additional church plant in the near future.

Local ministries include volunteering and financially supporting Answers Resource facility for women and Lake Area Ministries, the local food bank. Trinity also is active in New River Baptist Association's disaster relief ministry.

Ministries through sports and to families with special needs are other ways Trinity is reaching out to make inroads in the community.

"Special needs ministry is a growing area where families are looking for some support," Peoples said. He knows the need, he said. His 15-year-old daughter has Down syndrome and autism.

"Our goal is to place all people in the best environment available to be taught the Gospel of Jesus Christ at whatever level they can manage," Peoples said, indicating much positive feedback from families assisted in this ministry. "Ministering to those families is critical too, as life is challenging caring for someone with special needs."

Peoples praised God for extending the church's reach.

"God is doing something special at Trinity," he said. "We have a good mix of families of all ages and who love Jesus and want to help others love and serve Jesus as well. We're sharing the Gospel. Our goal is to see them saved and growing in discipleship so that they become fully on mission in their life as well."

Karen L. Willoughby is a national correspondent for Baptist Press. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists' concerns nationally and globally.
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