The student group acted as the demolition crew to begin the remodeling of their own space.
Established in 1895, Franklin Baptist Church is located in Franklin, AR less than five miles south of the retirement community of Horseshoe Bend. Franklin is the oldest settlement in Izard County with a population of 190.
Pastor Jeff Hawkins and his wife, Gail, arrived at Franklin Baptist Church (FBC) in June of 2018. Even though their new community was small, the couple still believed that God could do amazing things. “One thing I’ve told the people is God likes to do big things in small places, just like Jesus was born in Bethlehem. And so, my prayer has been, ‘God do big things in this small place’,” Jeff said. And that’s exactly what God has done, just not in the way that the Hawkinses envisioned.
As they prayed for growth, Jeff and Gail anticipated that God would send adults who would ultimately become active church members who faithfully tithed as well. But that’s not how God chose to answer their prayers. Instead, God sent students. In an area where 80% of the population are senior adults, Franklin Baptist’s student ministry exploded from 10 students to more than 40 in just three months. Eventually the students outnumbered the adults. “God didn’t send us full oak trees, but instead sent us these little acorns that we needed to nurture and disciple as we helped them grow,” Gail said. “It’s just an incredible responsibility that God has given us. We love teenagers, and we know this is our mission field.”
Less than two years later, FBC was impacted, like so many other churches, by the effects of COVID. The church experienced a dramatic decline in attendance and in giving. Post-COVID, the finances became so tight that the church was only meeting 60% of budget. They stopped spending money on the students, stopped their Wednesday night meals and became very selective about where money was spent. Then two of the church’s three air conditioning units stopped working, which meant they could no longer use those parts of the building. It would take $8000-$9000 to replace both units. Things were bad enough that Jeff approached the leadership team about the possibility of moving him to part-time because they couldn’t afford to pay a full-time salary. Jeff says he led the church in praying that God would provide for their needs.
Gail serves as the part-time ministry assistant for the Rocky Bayou Association. Through her work with the association, she made connections with many of the area churches. One of these churches was Ash Flat Baptist Church (AFBC) in Ash Flat, AR. A relationship was formed when one of FBC’s youth began serving for several months with Ash Flat’s food pantry. Gail went with the student to serve each week and eventually a relationship was established.
Last summer, Ash Flat wanted to host a Vacation Bible School (VBS) but lacked the needed workers. The church contacted Gail and asked if she could bring some students to help run the VBS. So, Gail loaded up the bus and took 15 students to help lead VBS. Close to 15-20 kids showed up that week. There were no salvation decisions, but the very next week Rocky Bayou hosted a day camp. And on the first day, two of the kids that had come to VBS at Ash Flat the week before made professions of faith at the day camp. “And you know, just, hearing the word at Vacation Bible School and then following up with that day camp, their hearts were very, very tender and that was just a sweet, sweet time,” Gail said.
The two churches continued to build a relationship and members of Ash Flat approached the Hawkinses offering to help them with their student ministry. Gail said, “They came to us and said, ‘We know you have a thriving ministry, but you don’t have any money. We have money, but we don’t have any youth so we would like to help support your student ministry.’” So AFBC began contributing financially to help support the student ministry of FBC. They also supplied food from their food pantry to help feed the students on Wednesday nights.
Most of the students they serve come from unchurched families that they pick up with their bus ministry. They found that feeding these students not only gets them in the door but also helps meet a real physical need. “That’s just a ministry that God has given to Franklin Baptist to be able to meet their physical needs so we can meet their spiritual needs,” Jeff said. Ash Flat was helping to meet this need. At the same time, other families from sister churches also began to support the ministry with food and money.
In addition, AFBC helped introduce the Hawkinses to another church partner. They connected FBC with a church from out of state who had a wealthy member who passed away and left a large sum of money to be used to help other churches and mission projects. Each month a committee from this church would meet to decide where the money would be spent. They had heard about FBC’s student ministry and decided to help them with their needs.
Someone from the church called, offering to help. They told the Hawkinses to “think big.” Gail says they had a hard time knowing what to ask for. To them thinking big meant asking for $1000. But they were told to think even bigger. They were asked to make a list and told that the committee would go through the list and do what they could. So, they submitted their list and the gifting church decided to give FBC $60,000. This money was used to replace the air conditioners and to provide half of the pastor’s salary for two years as well as supporting a part-time student pastor’s salary for one year.
The generosity didn’t stop there, however. Just a few months ago the church called again to ask if there was anything else that FBC knew they needed. The student ministry had started growing again (from 10 to 25) and they needed a space in the church to call their own. So, they asked for help creating a youth room. “We did our homework and found a place in our church that we could convert. We told them for $20,000 we felt like we could do a first-class youth room and they never even flinched. They approved it, sent us the money, and we are probably less than 30 days away from having our room completely ready to occupy youth,” Jeff said.
The new youth room will hold up to 60 students. There is a place for games, a lounge area, a snack area, and a full stage with a sound system. Most of the items have been donated. The labor, except for drywall work, was done for free by three men in the church. FBC also hosted a fundraiser and raised $1200 by selling spaghetti suppers. This money will be used to purchase a ping pong table, foosball and basketball game.
Pastor Jeff calls this the height of Baptist cooperation. He points out that Rick Hassell, association minister for Rocky Bayou, has done an excellent job building a cooperative spirit among the churches of the association. Individuals who are not members of FBC have offered their help. Local churches approached them to say, “we want to help you.” Then a local church put them in contact with another church from out of state. In addition, Hawkins says that most of the people who drive the church bus for their bus ministry live in Horseshoe Bend. First Baptist in Horseshoe Bend allows FBC to park their bus on their parking lot during the week which alleviates an extra trip into Franklin to pick up the bus.
“We are just so excited. This is not anything we’ve ever advertised. We’ve not asked anyone for help,” Jeff said. “I think people see God at work here and they just want to join in.”
Jeff and Gail are quick to give God the glory and to thank Him for all that’s happened. As they remain committed to work together to reach students, the members of Franklin Baptist Church continue to see God answer their prayer to do big things in a small place. “Because of FBC’s faithfulness to God’s call to nurture and love on His ‘little acorns’, God is now blessing us with oak trees (young families and adult growth).”