In New England, church finds new life

Baptist Press
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Posted: Feb 25, 2011 6:15 PM
In New England, church finds new life
EDITOR'S NOTE: The annual Week of Prayer for North American Missions in Southern Baptist churches will be March 6-13 in conjunction with the 2011 Annie Armstrong Easter Offering, with a goal of $70 million to help pay the salaries and ministry support of 5,000-plus missionaries serving in North America under the SBC's North American Mission Board. For more information, go to www.anniearmstrong.com.

WORCESTER, Mass. (BP)--"How did we come to Pleasant Street? To put it into one word: God."

This is how North American Mission Board missionary Noel Williamson describes nearly every aspect of his journey to Worcester, Mass., to lead Pleasant Street Baptist Church.

The challenges for Williamson and his family in moving to New England from the southeastern United States were many, ranging from church issues and safety concerns all the way to the frigidly cold weather and abundance of snowfall. Yet despite the obstacles, the call remained strong on Williamson's heart.

"It had to be a God thing," Williamson reiterates. "I wouldn't have chosen this place, so I know that God chose it for us."

As a student at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., Williamson felt an unexpected call to the New England area. In response, he and his wife Shelley began spending time every summer in mission trips serving New England communities. One summer in particular, God's hand began moving the needle specifically to Worcester and the dwindling community at Pleasant Street Baptist Church.

"The last summer we went to work with a church planter," Williamson recounts. "Part of my rent in staying in the trailer of the former pastor was to preach at Pleasant Street several times over that summer."

By summer's end, the small congregation asked the Williamsons to come on board. With much prayer and counsel, the family made the decision to follow God's direction toward revitalizing the dying church.

When they arrived, the Williamsons found the situation at Pleasant Street dire. The once-active church now sat in the middle of a crime-ridden, drug-infested neighborhood.

"The neighborhood changed and the church stopped preaching the Gospel," Williamson says. "When you quit preaching the Gospel, the church is going to die."

The congregation had dwindled down to only five members and, with a lack of members to help with upkeep, the building itself had begun to fall apart.

"From the first day I got here I was wondering what we got ourselves into," Williamson says. "We questioned ourselves quite a bit at first. You've got this kind of honeymoon phase where you know you're going to do all these great things, and you get up here and you think, 'Oh my goodness!'"

Despite their surprise and subsequent apprehension about the future of Pleasant Street Baptist Church, the Williamsons continued to move forward as leaders, praying for God's provision for the church.

They prayed for a team of leaders to step forward, for the congregation and community to grow in and around the church, and for hands to help in refurbishing the building. Steadily, they began to see God's faithfulness in answering each prayer.

To help with the restoration of the building, the Williamsons began recruiting mission teams from outside Worcester to come for a week at a time. Not only did these teams bring vital manpower, they also brought the kind of motivation the Williamsons needed to continue.

"What got us through those first few months was just the prayer and support from the mission teams," Williamson notes. "They came and really brought some much-needed encouragement."

With new life breathing into the building, the Williamsons set their prayers on building a team to lead and grow a congregation. Almost immediately, they met Lawrence Flood, a volunteer for the soup kitchen that rented space at Pleasant Street. Flood became involved with the church and the Williamsons, serving as a local guide to reaching the community.

"Lawrence came on board and taught me a lot about the city of Worcester," Williamson says. "We have nothing in common except Jesus Christ and probably wouldn't have become friends if it wasn't for working here at this church. You know God put this together."

Flood brought in fellow team member Neil Sweeney soon thereafter in a most unexpected way.

"Neil was standing outside his house, right across the street from the church, contemplating suicide. Lawrence went out, talked to him and invited him to church," Williamson recounts. "He came and his transformation has been amazing!"

"I had no hope whatsoever," Sweeney recalls. "But I went to the church and I just said, 'Wow.' It was the most incredible day I ever had in my life."

Sweeney now teaches a men's Bible study each week, as well as serving with mission teams and community outreach.

Along with these two, a young couple from Alabama, NAMB missionaries Matthew and Kathryn Nunnelley, came to Pleasant Street after answering an ad for help issued by the previous pastor some four years earlier. Now, Matthew leads the youth and the worship team while Kathryn heads up the children's ministry and community outreach, such as a baby boutique for the local pregnancy resource center.

"It's very important to have a team," Williamson says, "and I didn't put this team together. God put them together and I couldn't imagine us without this team."

The value of such a team has not been lost on the Williamsons in their work at Pleasant Street. The church has seen steady growth over the last four years, with more than 100 now meeting for worship and Bible study each week.

Along with the growth of the church, the community outreach ministries are booming, with service to the homeless and partnerships with pregnancy resource centers providing many evangelistic opportunities for the congregation. Williamson hopes to continue these types of ministries at Pleasant Street; plans already are under way for more scheduled baptism services and possibly even an Arabic church plant in the community.

Though some might consider the steady growth at Pleasant Street to be a huge success, Williamson himself looks elsewhere to measure the success of his time in Worcester.

"Is success having a hundred people come each week?" he asks. "Would I consider that a success? Well, I consider success obedience to God and that's what we're trying to do."

As he and his family continue walking in obedience at Pleasant Street Baptist Church, Williamson looks forward to seeing God's faithfulness in the community and the greater New England area.

"I don't know if people realize it or not, but God is moving here in New England and I think He's going to do something amazing," Williamson says. "I would just love to be His humble servant and get to keep being a part of it."

Sara Shelton is a writer for the North American Mission Board. To view a video about Noel Williamson and missionaries like him, visit the video gallery at www.namb.net.

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