During the 5 year pastorate of Dr. Mark Coppenger in the mid-1980’s at First Baptist Church in El Dorado, there was a renewed emphasis in personal evangelism and discipleship. Our evangelistic efforts were fueled by the Southern Baptist program called Continuing Witness Training (CWT), and those trained in this method of evangelism met once weekly at the church. We would go into the community in teams of 2 in a door to door fashion to introduce the gospel to those who had never received Christ as Savior. As we improved and perfected this outreach, the Arkansas Baptist State Convention scheduled a state-wide training session for CWT in our church. Pastors and leaders from all over the state came to First Baptist to be trained in personal evangelism and leaders from our church became their teachers. It was both refreshing and a little intimidating for us to be training pastors who were seminary trained and some of them had years of experience in vocational ministry. On the final evening of the training we went into the community in teams to witness door to door. I don’t remember how many people in the community received Christ as Savior that evening, but I believe there were 8 people saved that night.
In addition to evangelism, the church instituted the discipleship program called MasterLife into the ministry of First Baptist. There were training sessions in various home groups of 8-10 people who were discipled using the material designed by Dr. Avery T. Willis. Dr. Willis and his wife had served as missionaries for 14 years with the International Mission Board in Indonesia. They returned in the late 1970’s to work for the Southern Baptist Sunday School Board (now LifeWay Christian Resources). During that time he developed the MasterLife material which was translated into 50 languages and used in 100 countries. That material is still being used today for the glory of God.
In 1987 Cathy and I had a MasterLife group that met for 2 hours in our home every Sunday night for 12 weeks. The photo above was made one night when all the members of our group were present except for one couple, Greg and Jan Booker. The Hegi’s, Joe and DeAnne were in their 20’s and the youngest members of the group. There were 3 couples who were in their late 60’s and 70’s and are now in glory. Tommy and Cleo Reeves; Ed and Lorene Rogers and Jim and Lila Johnston all added so much wisdom and maturity, and we were all blessed by their testimonies and faithfulness to the Lord and to our group. Bob and Sarah Merkle are still active in their ministry at First Baptist and remain wonderful friends to Cathy and me and great examples as Christian witnesses.
As we studied God’s Word and prayed together during those meetings, God knitted our hearts together in special ways and gave us new insights into ourselves and into each other. Tommy and Cleo Reeves lived on Madison Avenue about 2 blocks from our family home, and we had known each other since I was a small boy. I had bought many suits and shirts through the years from Mr. Reeves who owned and managed B. W. Reeves Clothing Store. By the time we were meeting, Mr. Reeves had been a deacon at First Baptist for over 50 years. During one of our sessions, Tommy was bemoaning the fact that he was becoming blind as a result of a progressive medical problem. He voiced his frustrations and anger at God for allowing this terrible affliction to occur since he had been so faithful. Seated next to him was Lorene Rogers who had lost most of her effective vision several years earlier and when Tommy finished speaking, she quietly but firmly rebuked him for his self-pity. She reminded him God was not finished with him, and he could serve the Lord in different and even greater ways if he would submit to His power and enablement. It was a very touching moment for all of us, and months later Tommy would confess her rebuke of him that evening was a major turning point for his acceptance of his blindness.
One Sunday afternoon during those days, I was preparing to teach a lesson that evening on personal witnessing to people who were lost. I was reminded by the Holy Spirit I had a patient in the hospital who had just undergone a major operation for a malignancy, and I wasn’t sure of her salvation. I had known Mildred Bell since early childhood because she and her husband lived next door to my favorite Aunt Lilly Mae Smith, and Mildred was the mother of my good friend W.I. Bell. W.I. became a well-known photographer in El Dorado and had taken some of the most treasured photos we have of our children and family. That afternoon I left my study and went to the hospital to witness to Mrs. Bell. She was alone in her room and had recovered enough from the operation to be able to understand the things for her from God’s Word. As I pulled my chair to her bedside, W. I. arrived for his afternoon visit and stood behind my chair. As I was telling Mildred how much God loved her and He wanted to enter her heart, W.I. was saying, “That’s right Mother. Listen to John Henry and do what he tells you.” It was as if he was cheering for her and praying at the same time. Finally in a very tender moment with tears in her eyes, Mildred bowed her head and asked the Lord Jesus to save her and become the Lord of her life. There was rejoicing with tears in her hospital room that afternoon, and the Word says there was a great celebration in heaven.
Later in the evening at our MasterLife group, I was able to give testimony when the Master takes control of your thoughts and your life, the results will bring glory to Him alone, and He will bring life into those who are spiritually dead and light into the lives of those living in darkness.