During the 5 year pastorate of Dr. Mark Coppenger in the mid-1980’s at First Baptist Church 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 at our church. Pastors and leaders from all over the state came to First Baptist to be trained in 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 whom had years of experience in vocational ministry. On the final evening of the training we went into the community in teams to witness. I don’t remember how many people received Christ as Savior that evening, but as I recall 8 people were saved.
In addition to evangelism the church began a discipleship program called MasterLife. There were training sessions in various home groups of 8-10 people who used the material designed by Dr. Avery T. Willis. Dr. Willis and his wife served as missionaries for 14 years with the International Mission Board in Indonesia. They returned in the late 1970’s to work for the Sunday School Board (now LifeWay Christian Resources). He developed the MasterLife material which was translated into 50 languages and used in 100 countries. The same material is being used today for the glory of God.
In 1987 Cathy and I had a MasterLife group which 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. Joe and DeAnne Hegi were in their 20’s and were 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 added so much wisdom and maturity, and we were all blessed by their testimonies and faithfulness to the Lord. Bob and Sarah Merkle are still active at First Baptist and remain wonderful friends to Cathy and me.
As we studied God’s Word and prayed together each week God knitted our hearts together in special ways and gave us insights into ourselves and into each other. Tommy and Cleo lived on Madison Avenue about 2 blocks from our home, and we had known them for years. I had bought many suits and shirts from Tommy who owned and managed B. W. Reeves Clothing Store. By the time of our meetings Tommy had been a deacon at First Baptist for over 50 years. During one of our sessions Tommy was bemoaning the fact he was growing progressively blind as a result of a medical problem. He voiced his frustrations and anger at God for allowing this affliction to occur since he had been so faithful. Seated next to him was Lorene Rogers who had lost most of her 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 and months later Tommy would confess her rebuke that evening was a major turning point for his acceptance of the blindness.
One Sunday afternoon 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. Mildred was also the mother of my good friend W.I. Bell. W.I. was an excellent photographer in El Dorado and had a very popular studio. He taken some of the most treasured photos we have of our children and family. I was so convicted that afternoon I left my study and drove 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 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 wanted to enter into 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, and the Word says there was also a great celebration in heaven.
Later in the evening I was able to give testimony at our MasterLife group when the Master takes control of your life, the results will bring glory to Him alone. He will bring life to those who are spiritually dead and light into the lives of all who are in darkness.