Their journey began in 1999, when Vaughan, executive pastor of adult education and missions at Thomasville Road Baptist Church in Tallahassee, Fla., and two others accompanied the church's former pastor to a Global Impact Conference. There they heard about adopting a people group, which at the time involved praying for them and corresponding with a missionary.
Over the years, the church began praying for about four different people groups, "and God always said 'no' to those -- we even took a couple trips to go and investigate," Vaughan said, but nothing ever worked out.
"Maybe this isn't what God wants us to do," he thought.
But then he met Daniel and Carol Jones*, leaders of the International Mission Board's engagement team in West Africa. They began talking with Vaughan about people groups in Africa.
On the Joneses' recommendation, the church began praying for about 10 people groups in Africa, but one group always stood out. Three years later the church took their first trip with the Joneses for a visit.
"We knew the second we got there that that was where God had been pushing us," Vaughan said.
Churches being missionaries
Vaughan and Curtis Clark, Thomasville's senior pastor since 2002, shared the story of how IMB training and plenty of prayer were important elements in their journey to embrace this UUPG, addressing more than 500 pastors and church members during an "Embrace the Ends of the Earth" breakfast hosted by IMB during the Southern Baptist Convention's annual meeting.
Tom Elliff, IMB president, pointed out that missionaries' effectiveness often is impacted by their ability to connect to U.S. churches, working together to do "a greater work" than they could apart. The role of IMB is to partner with and help churches reach the field, Elliff said. When he announced the Embrace initiative at the SBC two years ago, he said he realized "it was time that churches quit sending missionaries, but it was time for churches to start being missionaries."
"We realized that a church that would embrace an unengaged, unreached people group was not just one less missionary IMB had to send, it was one more that we had the privilege of sending," Elliff said. "And it was one more congregation that was becoming mobilized to reach the world."
Thomasville Road, which has a Sunday morning attendance of about 1,000, is a picture of an Embrace church, Elliff said. Clark said they have always emphasized to the church the importance of being a "Kingdom church" doing Great Commission work. Though the church understood that "intellectually," putting it into practice was another matter, Clark said.
"When we actually had to start sacrificing and sending people and going — and our people started going to reach people who'd never heard about Jesus Christ, didn't know anything about Him — that whole idea of being a Kingdom kind of church just really blossomed, because they saw what it looked like," Clark said.
Realizing that they alone were responsible for taking the Gospel to this people got church members "excited in a way that nothing else has," Clark said.
Though the church originally had "no idea what we were getting into," Vaughan joked, God helped them through the process because of their obedience. IMB personnel helped train the church in the Bible storytelling method, which they were able to apply numerous times in sharing with their people group. Learning to be ready to share the Gospel at any time not only helped church members overseas, Vaughan said, but "coming back home, it's training our people to do this every day in life."
At first, Clark admitted, they were worried about the financial aspects of traveling to Africa three to five times a year. "But when we began to do this, God began to open up finances, and finances have never been a problem for us," he said.
People in the congregation that Clark "would have never expected" volunteered for the trips and were some of the most effective workers. God also has raised a couple out of the church to be their full-time missionaries in Africa. The dream is coming true, Clark said; the church is partnering in a new way with IMB through its Global Connect initiative to send these missionaries for at least two years.
Clark told pastors contemplating embracing a UUPG that "if you want to get your people excited about missions, the most our people have ever been excited about missions is when they realize that 'hey, we are going to be missionaries to a group of people who would not hear in any other way,' and God has done some amazing things."
To learn how a church can embrace a UUPG, visit call2embrace.org.
Laura Fielding is an IMB writer. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).
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