"The winds were blowing and the rains were coming in," recalled children's minister Ginger Owens.
By the time opening day registration began, in addition to the 500-plus preregistered children who were present, another 200 children and their parents stood in the torrential rains to register at the door. The final total involved in the study of God's Word that week approached 800.
Tropical Storm Debby, despite dire predictions, bypassed the Florida Panhandle city.
Still not out of danger on that first VBS morning, the television station adjacent to the church announced tornadic activity moving through the downtown area. Quickly a strategy to safely shelter the children was developed. Yet, the wind and squalls never came, prompting the local meteorologist to say there was no reason to explain why the storms had dissipated over the city.
"But we knew," Owens said. "We were on our knees praying. It was the first day of VBS and we were studying God's amazing power over nature and so we truly experienced it that Monday morning."
Nearly a decade ago, the church considered discontinuing the annual VBS for lack of workers -- even with a three-day event. But when Owens arrived, she asked to give it one more opportunity.
With her dynamic personality and people skills, she sought to change the mentality of the congregation to view VBS in a different light.
"It's not a children's ministry. It's a church-wide event," Owens told them. The workers responded -- 254 volunteers last year -- and staff was assigned "hands on" responsibilities.
Elaborate productions were staged in the sanctuary. Even Pastor Craig Connor rode his Harley through the church one year.
With that shift, church members actively distributed registration forms to their co-workers, neighbors and friends, handing them out in stores and places of business. Registration forms were given to six local schools -- places where church members had already conducted a prayer walk. Yard signs in members' yards encouraged neighbors to come.
One church member enlisted five families among co-workers. Another family was approached by a neighbor with a special needs child, compelled by their yard sign.
"We educate our folks to reach beyond the walls of the church and that it is their responsibility to invite their friends, co-workers and neighbors," Owens said.
The community has responded.
One year Owens asked Crystal, the drive-through attendant at the local "Dan-D Donuts," to bring her grandchildren to VBS. At the end of the week, one of them accepted Christ as Savior.
Last year, the church identified 124 unchurched children among those in attendance.
Not only is VBS a church-wide effort, but Owens and other church leaders have initiated intentional evangelism as a core value of the week. Last year's VBS resulted in 14 children baptized.
Nine-year-old Tyler Hendley was one. He attended VBS with other children from the government-sponsored after-school program that provides summer daycare for low income communities.
"This was something he wanted to do," his mother Stefanie Hendley said. "They do a lot for the kids here" including providing backpacks and school supplies. Each week Owens reads Bible stories and "loves on the kids" in one of two such programs.
In past years, First Baptist leaders intentionally worked to reach and assimilate VBS prospects. Trained FAITH participants visited every family, took goody bags and exemplified basic growth principles by enrolling families in Sunday School.
While parents graciously responded to the church visitors, few of the families ever returned to church except to attend VBS the following year.
Last year, in an effort to more effectively reach unchurched families, parents were invited to a weekly parenting seminar held on Sunday mornings. The seminar was located in a classroom easily accessible from the church's parking garage -- even if it meant temporarily moving an adult class that had met there for 20 years.
Throughout the parenting class, the group became closer, forming a nucleus of a bonded small group.
According to Carol Daniel, minister of adult education, careful attention was given to every detail of the parenting class to retain adults as well as children. "We looked at where it was going to be, how we can make it convenient and user-friendly."
Their attention to details paid off in September when 90 percent of the class was transitioned into the newest Sunday School class in the young adult department.
The church also sponsors other outreach activities for the community, including a fall festival that draws more than 2,000 to the downtown church and an annual wild game festival to attract men.
As a result of this evangelistic fervor, this past year 168 people were baptized by the church -- placing it 21st among all Florida Baptist churches.
Owens and Daniel work hand in hand, said the children's leader. "We believe in family ministry, not just children's ministry."
Daniel concurred, "Every ministry we do here partners with evangelism and is aimed at outreach. We are trying to think outside the church to the community."
Barbara Denman is director of communications for the Florida Baptist Convention.
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