WARREN – “The past 15 months have been an amazing journey that has been nothing short of exciting,” said Jeff Hessinger, associational missionary for Bartholomew Baptist Association (BBA) in southeast Arkansas.
The journey for Hessinger and his wife, Errin, started when they relocated from Orlando, Fla., to Arkansas in July 2018 to serve as the new associational missionary and ministry assistant for BBA.
“Several months before our Arkansas transition, we got down on our knees as we have done in the past and earnestly prayed,” said Hessinger. “We reminded the Lord that He has the deed to our lives and that we would serve Him in any way and anywhere.”
The Hessingers hoped to find a rental house once they arrived, but lived in the associational office and used the disaster relief shower trailer for the first seven months they were in the state.
“Boy, November and December were chilly in the shower unit for a Florida family,” Hessinger said with a smile.
The Hessingers felt God calling them to revitalize the BBA.
“Like so many other Baptist associations, the BBA needed radical change on how we operated and a fresh wind of God to blow upon us as a network of 25 churches,” said Hessinger. “There was tremendous disunity; income was at an all-time low; little or no associational ministry was happening and ministry priorities were split between the two counties.
“The best way to describe the association is that it was rusted and busted,” said Hessinger.
To start, BBA sold its office building, and the Hessingers worked out of their home. The Hessingers decided to function as missionaries rather than office personnel.
“We average 3,000 miles a month doing work in the BBA,” said Hessinger. “And after completing our first year of ministry, I can say we have experienced God’s favor on our labor. As I was expecting, we were going to a group of pastors and ministry leaders who were hungry to see God restore broken relationships, strengthen churches and get back to doing healthy kingdom work.
“As the missional leader, I knew we had to have something special bring us together – a project to unite us,” he said.
In November 2018, BBA bought a 45-foot yellow school bus. Hessinger said numerous pastors in the association worked for hours to transform the “old, yellow cheese wagon” into what he calls the “Gospel Bus.” The new bus is painted bright purple with a lime green stripe and white lettering.
“It’s a Jesus party on wheels!” said Hessinger.
The Gospel Bus is filled with inflatables, generators, a sound system, yard games, Bibles, tables and chairs, and it trailers a huge grill.
“All the funds to create this massive purple ministry resource were donated by individuals and churches who caught the vision of getting outside the walls of our churches and taking the gospel to our communities,” said Hessinger. “No Bartholomew Baptist Association budgeted money was spent.
“We made evangelism fun again!” he said.
Every church in the BBA hosted the Gospel Bus for an event.
“All summer, we held one-day Vacation Bible School (VBS) events and block parties – nearly 30 in all – throughout both counties that supplemented several multi-day VBS events,” said Hessinger.
In Hermitage, 250 people attended the VBS event, and 48 people came to faith in Christ. The rural small-town churches had more than 2,500 people attend VBS events, breaking the previous record in 2003 where attendance totaled 1,900.
BBA culminated the Gospel Bus summer with a children’s camp called Camp Go! More than 100 campers attended, and 33 children and students were saved.
“This summer we had more than 170 men, women, boys and girls invite Jesus into their hearts,” said Hessinger.
According to Annual Church Profile reports, BBA’s baptisms have increased by more than 40 percent over the past two years, and income is up more than 25 percent from 2018.
“Last year’s BBA associational theme was ‘Better Together,’” said Hessinger. “Our focus was to be drawn together in unity as churches and ministry leaders.”
Along with the Gospel Bus, BBA has started several new ministries, including Seniors with a Purpose (SWAP) ministry for senior adults throughout the churches and led by Sanders Brooks, pastor at Northside Baptist Church, Monticello.
BBA now hosts youth ministry events to help smaller churches reach students. During the summer, the association started a summer intern ministry to invest in the next generation’s leaders. BBA hired six summer interns – three high school students and three college students – to help with Camp Go! and the VBS events.
“We are investing in the next generation as we focus on kingdom expansion, and young people are engaging culture and communities alongside ministry leaders and making a significant impact,” said Hessinger.
In early September, the executive team of Delta Baptist Association (DBA) approached Hessinger and asked about the possibility of DBA merging with BBA.
“Both associations had warm conversations regarding the merger and unanimously voted in their respective annual celebrations to merge,” said Hessinger.
DBA will share Hessinger as their associational missionary for six months as the two associations work through merger details to be completed by July 2020.
“We humbly desire to welcome and labor alongside our brothers and sisters in kingdom work, combining our resources for Great Commission purposes and maximum kingdom impact,” said Will McKay, pastor of First Baptist Church, Monticello, at the BBA annual celebration.
McKay also suggested the new association be called Southeast Arkansas Baptist Network.
“Messengers at both annual celebrations were excited about their future ministry,” said Hessinger. “Our new theme as we merge together is ‘Better Together 2.0.’
“We are in some of our best days as we humbly join together from the Ouachita River to the Mississippi River to sacrificially reach the southeast region of Arkansas with the gospel,” he said.
Contact Sarah Davis at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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