PIONEER, Calif. (BP) — Beetles attacking 150-foot ponderosa pines in the heavily-forested Sierra Nevada mountains provide a ministry opportunity for Sierra Baptist Church, where Eugene “Gene” Overstreet has been pastor for 22 years.
Downed trees that had died in a matter of weeks from a drought-induced bark beetle infestation caught the eyes of Sierra Baptist men, who saw the potential for ministry. After the infested trees were professionally felled, Sierra Baptist’s men cut the timber into 16-inch sections, split the sections into stove-sized firewood, and loaded it on pickup trucks to give to the needy.
A tree 150 feet high and “a good size around” might yield three cords of wood, Overstreet said. Many people in the Pioneer, Calif., area only have a wood stove for heat, and typically need a cord of wood a month or more to heat their homes in the winter, “depending on the stove.”
In an area with limited employment and an abundance of senior citizens, the church’s firewood ministry is for some a survival need, the pastor said. Men and boys between the ages of 10 and 91 participate.
It’s a picture of the Cooperative Program at work, Overstreet told Baptist Press.
“The men work together, each doing something that leads to a shared goal: bringing God’s love to those who need to hear of it, and in this case, to feel it,” Overstreet said, referring to the warmth of the fire as well as the warmth of God’s love. “That’s what the Cooperative Program does. It supports the whole program of what Southern Baptists are doing throughout the world, and we do it together.”
The Cooperative Program is the way the Southern Baptist Convention’s more than 47,000 churches work together to fund missions and ministries in the U.S. and globally.
“I believe the Cooperative Program is the best way to do our work,” the pastor said. “It supports all our missions work rather than dividing it up, and we do it together.”
Overstreet teaches Sierra Baptist about missions through videos and guest speakers, some of whom stay at the church’s missionary house. As a result, church members have learned to live missionally.
“They come and speak, and our people get to know them. This and the videos we show [help] with missionary support and with the knowledge of what missionaries do,” he said. “We try to share Jesus with the people around us. We need to be involved in our community, to be a witness for the Lord and hopefully reach people for Christ.”
Through its support of the Cooperative Program, the church of about 100 Sunday worshipers adds international outreaches to its local ministries.
A major local outreach is the church’s annual community Fourth of July Carnival in the local park. The church provides free hot dogs, hamburgers, soft drinks, popcorn and snow cones to about 400 people each year. Bounce houses, a water slide, a dunk tank, face painting and other games are provided. Other attractions are watermelon-eating and donut-eating contests, and a fire department engine for children to explore.
“We feel this is an opportunity to touch many in our community,” the pastor noted. “Vacation Bible [School] is another way. Each year about 100 children are touched for Jesus by about 50 workers.”
The church gives a monthly donation to and conducts an annual fundraiser for the local pregnancy center.
In other community outreaches, members volunteer at the pregnancy center, retirement homes and the church’s onsite food bank distribution ministry twice a month. When people come home from the hospital and when there is a death in the family, members are quick to respond with meals. Several church members are trained SBC Disaster Relief volunteers. Two of them recently returned from the Houston area where they helped with hurricane recovery.
The church provides meeting space to weight-loss and Narcotics Anonymous groups, serves as a Red Cross disaster shelter and is an official election polling place.
It’s a way to reach out to the community,” Overstreet said of the community’s regular use of the two-story wooden church. “As they become comfortable coming to the church for another reason, they’re more open to worshiping here on Sunday.”
Reaching beyond its community, Sierra Baptist gives 14.5 percent of undesignated income to missions through the Cooperative Program, plus 5 percent to Mother Lode Baptist Association.
Other financial outreaches include an annual 2.5 percent donation — plus $3,000 for road maintenance — to the Jenness Park Christian Camp retreat center of the California Southern Baptist Convention (CSBC).
Sierra Baptist sends $4,200 a year to mission outreaches in Latvia in partnership with the CSBC. Over the last 12 months the church has also given a total of $30,409 to Southern Baptist seasonal missions offerings: $13,144 for the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions; $7,728 for the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for North American Missions and $8,083 for the California State Missions Offering.
“I’m amazed a church our size does all that,” Overstreet said. “It’s way beyond the ordinary. It’s been that way since I’ve been here.
“One of the reasons we continue to do well, I believe, is because when we give, God blesses and He brings more people here because we’re willing to give and to share,” the pastor noted. “That’s very important, I think.”
Overstreet wants the church “to grow people and to reach people.” The importance of a church’s health became vividly clear to Overstreet when he recently injured his finger.
“The Lord used that to remind me of the importance of the health of the whole body,” Overstreet said. “The healthier the individual parts are, the healthier the whole body can be and the better the body can function.
“I can get by without my finger. I can do stuff without it, but not as well. The Lord reminded me how important each individual body part is, and that we can do better ministry when we’re all healthy.”
Enter your email and every Tuesday we'll send the latest news, interviews, and resources directly to your inbox.