Lessons in MasterLife

MasterLife Group 1978

MasterLife Group 1987

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.

Dr. John

The First Mission Trip To Brazil – Part 2

Cathy at Temple Baptist

Cathy and Bubba at Temple Baptist -Redencao

The name of the town in Brazil that the 30 missionaries from First Baptist Church, El Dorado chose to serve in 1986 is Redencao which means redemption. The purpose of our mission was to lead as many as possible to Christ that they might be redeemed. Our secondary purpose was to begin the building of 2 new churches for the work of Christ in the area.

Redencao Building Team

Redencao Building Team-partial

On our first evening in Redencao we attended the worship service at our host church, Temple Baptist Church led by Pastor Rosemar (Hose’ amar). He had visited and given testimony in our church in El Dorado months before, so we had already met him. Also in attendance were our mission hosts Johnny and Barbara Burnett, SBC missionaries living in Belem. Their son Brett accompanied them and would also serve as one of our translators. The church held about 150 people and was full of members and seekers each evening we had worship services. There were decisions by people to follow Christ at every meeting.

Morning Devotion

Morning Devotion – Hotel Lobby

We began each morning at approximately 6:30 AM with a devotion and prayer together. It was a good time to reflect on the previous day and commit ourselves to the work ahead. On at least 4 occasions and prior to our prayer time Bubba, Mark, Hess Hester, our Associate Pastor and I would go onto the streets of Redencao for a 2 to 3 mile jog. The locals who happened to be out those mornings and particularly the children, would look at us with amazement. The sight of Americans was rare, but to see a group of them huffing and puffing with exercise must have seemed extraordinary or even wierd.

All of us would usually go to the building sites in the mornings while the temperatures were more bearable. We would work together until the noon break for lunch. The evangelizing teams would take a short rest in the afternoon and meet our translators at 3 PM for our door to door visits. Cathy and I were on a team with another couple and we had 2 translators working with us. Our primary translator was Lorenz, a pharmacist with a very limited understanding of English. He would translate our testimonies to the people we visited and continue with his own conversation, inviting them to repent and receive Christ as Savior. An unusual Brazilian custom is that when one approaches a home, he claps his hands instead of knocking on the door. It is considered impolite to knock on a door. On one particular visit an elderly gentleman came to the door without a shirt. He stepped outside and following our witness , he suddenly ran around to the back of the house. I thought perhaps he had been offended. In a minute or two he returned with his wife and 2 children. He had put on his nicest shirt. All of them bowed their heads and repented to receive the gift of Christ for salvation! He said he didn’t want to make such a prayer without having on his best clothes!

On one particular afternoon of visitation Cathy and I accompanied Lorenz to 6 or 7 houses and were able to present our stories. We then stopped at a bar and pool hall in which 7 very rough looking characters were noisily playing pool. As we entered, the conversations suddenly ceased, and we weren’t sure what would happen next. The owner got 2 crates that Cathy and I used as chairs, and we presented our testimonies while seated. The pool players were quiet and respectful and before we left, we wrote all of their names on a larger list of all the people that had heard the gospel that day. Down the street from the bar was a grove of trees providing a shady spot for a family, and Cathy witnessed to them about the love of Jesus for all and especially His love for children.

Cathy sharing The Way with Children

Cathy sharing The Way with some children

Cathy, Bubba, his daughter Becky and I were invited one afternoon to visit a hospital owned by a physician Dr.Gerson and his wife Barbara, who was also a physician. They gave us a tour of the hospital and their adjacent home while Barbara prepared for us some very delicious refreshments. Bubba witnessed to Dr. Gerson through our translator Alberto, a Brazilian exchange student who attended Ouachita Baptist University. Dr. Gerson had never become a Christian although his wife professed a faith in Christ. In a very tender moment he repented and prayed for Christ to enter his heart and life. He told us through tears, “This is a moment I will never forget as long as I live!” He invited us to return on another trip to work with him in their hospital, which I was able to do in 1988. This account will be the subject of another post on this blog.

Dr. Gerson receiving the Word

Dr. Gerson receiving the Word through Bubba and Alberto  1986

A highlight of our witness in Redencao was a showing of the film Jesus produced by The Billy Graham Organization. It had been translated into Portuguese and was brought to Redencao by Alberto. We had chosen to show the film in the town square on a Saturday  night which is traditionally a time of gathering of the locals. Earlier that day we had a sound truck driving around the area announcing the showing of the film that evening. Since there was very little electrical power available, we had a gas-operated generator for the projector and a speaker system connected to Pastor Rosemar’s car battery. The screen was an 8 x 10 foot sheet attached to a wooden frame we had built. A phenomenon I wasn’t aware is when one projects a film on a screen like that, the movie can be viewed on both sides of the screen thus doubling the number of people who could see the film. A total of about 500 people saw the movie and heard in their native tongue the message of salvation. I know that was the first movie ever seen by many in attendance!

When our mission time in Redencao was completed, each one of us believed we had been faithful to go where the Lord had invited us and had experienced Him in a new and fresh way that we had not fully expected. The fields are truly white unto harvest and the Lord of the harvest is looking for workers. Upon return to our church and reflecting back, we believe that at least 200 decisions were made by people in Redencao to follow Christ by faith. Cathy and I were grateful to have been part of that team of believers and are confident we will once again meet our Brazilian brothers and sisters when Christ returns.

Dr. John

Bubba, Becky and team thanking God for spiritual fruit

Bubba, Becky and team thanking God for the spiritual fruit

The First Mission Trip To Brazil – Part 1

Brazil Mission Team 1986

Brazil Mission Team

Dr. Mark Coppenger became the pastor of First Baptist Church in El Dorado in 1983, and as a young and enthusiastic pastor he brought fresh changes to the church. The former pastor Dr. Don Harbuck had served the church well for 29 years, but seemingly in the last few years of his service the church had become complacent and lost some earlier zeal for soul winning and missions. One of Dr. Coppenger’s priorities was to re-focus the church on personal evangelism, and a few members began receiving training in door to door witnessing using the program Continuing Witness Training (CWT). It took about a year before the changes began bearing fruit but those involved remained faithful. Along with other changes, a greater personal involvement in short-term overseas missions occurred. At that time the Arkansas Baptist Convention had a cooperative effort with the Southern Baptists in Brazil, and that partnership was called the Amazon-Arkansas Partnership Mission. Our church began making plans for its’ first mission trip to Brazil scheduled for August, 1986.

Cathy and I had never been on an overseas mission trip either separately or together and were convinced that this was the Lord’s will for us. Our children were old enough for us to be away from them for the 10 days necessary to make the trip. Our church was combining forces with members of Three Creeks Baptist Church to go far down the Amazon into the state of Para to a small town named Redencao (Hay’ den saw). We began having planning meetings in April, and by this time there were a total of 30 people committed to make the trip. The purpose of our mission was to begin the building of 2 churches in Redencao and to send teams doing door to door evangelism. In addition to Cathy and me, my brother Berry Lee (Bubba) and his youngest daughter Becky made plans to go. Years before Bubba had made a mission trip to Panama where he did medical mission work to the Kuna tribe on the San Blas Island. The photo above shows the entire team and includes Lowell Snow, the pastor of Three Creeks Baptist and 4 of his members.

As part of our preparation for evangelizing, each of us wrote our personal testimony of salvation which was translated into Portuguese and printed on a single sheet with English on the front and Portuguese on the back. Each missionary had multiple testimony sheets for distributing in airports, in shops, on the streets and in the homes we were to visit. In our planning meetings, we had people with experience in Brazil  tutor us in the language, customs and cultural differences we would encounter. Those meetings helped also in bonding the team and giving us opportunities to commit ourselves in prayer for the work the Lord would have us do.

Cathy and I wanted a few days of rest and to spend with her mother before leaving for Brazil, so we drove to Fort Lauderdale with Mary K and Ginny. On the way down we stopped in Kissimmee to briefly visit Cathy’s sister Nancy and her husband Norman and to see their beautiful new law office that Norman had designed. John Aaron was already in Fort Lauderdale having spent several weeks working with his Uncle George (Cathy’s brother). Those days of being together at Gram Young’s ocean-front apartment were both fun and relaxing for all of us.

The plane trip from Miami to Belem, Brazil was particularly memorable for me. I had flown overseas only once years before, but because I don’t particularly enjoy flying, I had more anxiety than I should have. Cathy still tells how I looked during that 6 hour flight, and I’m sure it was the way she describes it. She said I just sat there looking straight ahead without talking much and having a white-knuckled grip on the arm rests. I couldn’t close my eyes for very long because my inner ear would give me the strange sensation that the plane was in a slow climbing bank to the left. I remember the large plane (Boeing 767) was packed with returning Brazilian tourists, and the cabin was hot and loud with excited Brazilian children having experienced a trip to Disney World. I kept thinking if we had an in-flight emergency we would be surrounded with people with whom we couldn’t communicate! It was not a fun experience for me, but we finally touched down in Brazil, and I think I was somewhat surprised we made it!

On arrival in Belem at 3 AM, we were met by a Mission Board member who assisted us in getting boarding passes for the next leg of our trip to Redencao. At 7 AM we boarded a much smaller twin-engine plane for the trip to Redencao which took another 3 hours. As we flew down the beautiful Amazon with nothing in sight but the rain forest, I asked the flight attendant what we would do if we developed engine trouble. He said we could not land in the trees because they were as tall as 200 feet, and it would not be wise to try to ditch in the Amazon because of the piranhas! He left the solution to my imagination. At this point I was too tired to imagine.

The runway at the Redencao airport was a dirt runway and we landed safely in a massive cloud of dust, but at last we on the mission field. The Magnum Hotel was clean and new and the 30 members of our team completely filled it. I believe we were the first guests and were told our safety was assured since the owner was the local Chief of Police. Our first meal was in a locally well-known bar-b-que which Brazilians call a churrascaria (shoe ras’ ca rea). They bring to your table a large sword-like device holding beef, chicken, sausage and a meat called picanha which is the hump of a Brahma bull, all deliciously barbecued. We cautiously ate the meat and rice but found it wonderful. We were made aware of the risks of developing gastroenteritis (“touristas”). After a much-needed nap, we dressed for our first encounter with our Brazilian hosts when we went to the evening church service at the Temple Baptist Church ( Templo Da Igreja Baptiste).  To be continued–

Dr. John