Compassion over cathedrals

Marvin Olasky
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Posted: Aug 18, 2005 12:00 AM

LEESBURG, Fla. -- Some churches want their sanctuaries to be cathedrals. A church here had a better idea.

 Located about an hour's drive northwest of Orlando on a main street that also boasts a McDonald's, Subway and Ace Hardware, the First Baptist Church of Leesburg (pop. 15,596) sports a standard denominational look: columned portico, steeple and lots of people -- an average attendance of 2,200 during the winter and 1,400 during the summer.

 By the early 1990s, some church members wanted to build a larger sanctuary so the church would not need two (now three) worship services on Sunday morning. Senior pastor Charles Roesel, though, insisted that the church should spend the money on building a Ministry Village with homes for abused children, battered women and men who wanted to turn their lives around, along with a free medical clinic and other facilities to help the needy.

 Since Roesel had been preaching about such "ministry evangelism" for a decade, church members embraced his vision and donated $2 million to construct seven buildings smack by the steepled church. (Some churches want their ministries of compassion to be geographically separate from and financially unequal to their worship functions, but First Baptist supports Christ's teaching that loving our neighbor belongs in the same sentence as loving God.)

 The buildings now house a women's care center decorated in feminine shades of beige and green, with 18 beds for women "tired of being who they are," and a men's residence decorated in utilitarian cinderblock and linoleum, with 30 beds for those determined to overcome past addictions.

 A pregnancy care center has 35 active and regular volunteers who offer counseling and support, ranging from nutrition classes and maternity clothes to adoption assistance. A community medical care center provides free care to 6,000 of the 8,000 low-income, non-insured residents in the church's region.

 On the church grounds are also a benevolence center that helps people with emergency food, housing and clothing needs; a residential group home that provides long-term shelter for emotionally troubled children; and a children's shelter that provides emergency housing for endangered kids. Director Myra Wood, formerly an investigator with the Florida Department of Children and Families, notes that some of the children had "slept in a corner with animal feces," but the shelter offers them quilts on their beds and orderly lives.

 The church emphasizes what Roesel preached one Sunday early this summer: that the commandment "You shall not murder" also condemns those who do nothing when they could have saved or transformed a life. Roesel states that God requires such effort, so "any church not involved in ministry is guilty of high treason and spiritual disobedience."

 Not everyone likes the Leesburg approach. Some pastors argue that churches should emphasize worship only, with other Christian groups handling social ministries. Given the theological splits that emerged a century ago, some conservative evangelicals fear creeping social gospelism and worry that emphasizing social ministries will inhibit evangelism and church growth.

 In response to those concerns, First Baptist stresses its experience and its own strong, biblical preaching. Before the new focus, the church added about 30 members a year through baptism, with new members typically the children or relatives of those already in the church. Now (to use one measurement of growth), the church regularly baptizes 200 to 300 persons each year.

 Overall, the church and ministries budget has increased from $180,000 annually in 1979 to $5.5 million now. Sixty percent of the budget goes for the ministries in their seven buildings and for a Christian school.

 First Baptist has produced a good film about its experience, "The Touch," and is urging other churches to go and do likewise. It's great that Christian compassion is making a difference not only in big cities, but in places like Leesburg. Once again, as Christians from the gospel writers through Walker Percy have shown, we're seeing how goodness can leap out of stables, small cities and other unexceptional surroundings.