By David Gunn
Sunday morning. A group of new members gathers in a classroom at Peace River Baptist Church, Punta Gorda, Fla. Over the past six years the church’s attendance has more than doubled, so frequently recurring classes for new members are necessary. Pastor Jim Stultz, who teaches the class, stands before the group. He produces a small unlabeled metal can and passes it around from person to person. “Who can tell me what’s inside the can?” Stultz asks. The new members know by the can’s weight that it’s full of something, and they assume that it’s some kind of food, but they can only guess as to its identity. “Corn?” someone ventures. “Green beans?” another volunteers. Maybe one of them is right, maybe neither. In fact, just about anything could be inside the can. Since the label has been removed, the new members have no way of knowing what it contains.
“Names don’t matter to God,” Stultz disclaims. He’s more concerned with “what you are on the inside, [whether or not you are] a believer in Jesus Christ.” But for us mere mortals who lack the advantage of omniscience, names and labels can be very important! While God was quick to assure the prophet Samuel that “the Lord looks at the heart,” He made equally clear in the same breath that “man looks at the outward appearance” (1 Sam. 16:7). So there is value in self-identification. It lets other people know what’s “inside the can.”
Recognizing this, Jim Stultz set out to communicate his church’s identity to his congregants. The “new members” classes go a long way toward conveying key doctrinal distinctives, and the weekly expository sermons express the church’s commitment to the centrality of God’s Word, but something more was needed to capture and communicate the stream of Christian tradition in which Peace River Baptist stands. “Many of our new people had no idea regarding the heritage or ministry of the Regular Baptist movement,” Stultz explains. So, in an age when words like Baptist and heritage are often treated with contempt, he decided to preach a sermon series on precisely that: Baptist heritage. Specifically, the heritage of the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches. The series comprised three messages preached in Peace River’s evening services: “The History of Baptists in America,” “The History of the GARBC,” and “The Mission and Ministries of the GARBC.”
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