A wrong turn, a lesson learned on Georgia trip
ROME, Ga. — As I made a right turn on…
ROME, Ga. — Julie Trujillo has traveled to Honduras and Peru to help with medical missions.
She has flown to Panama to evangelize.
The 45-year-old Christian was looking for her next chance to share Jesus in Latin America when she learned about a door-knocking campaign in Rome — the small town in northwest Georgia, not the Italian capital.
“We don’t need to go to Central and South America to see people who are lost. America is lost.”
“We don’t need to go to Central and South America to see people who are lost,” said Trujillo, a member of the Haverhill Road Church of Christ in West Palm Beach, Fla. “America is lost.”
COVID-19 travel concerns prompted Latin American Missions — sponsored by the Forrest Park Church of Christ in Valdosta, Ga. — to cancel its international mission trips last summer and again this summer.
“It would just be very hard to take 30 to 50 people down there and do a successful campaign because of curfews and testing,” said Austin Fowler, the organization’s director.
Instead, Latin American Missions partnered with the House to House/Heart to Heart School of Evangelism — a ministry of the East Ridge Church of Christ in Chattanooga, Tenn. — to organize the recent American Mission Campaign.
The Oak Hill Church of Christ in Rome is a 250-member congregation known for feeding the hungry and welcoming thousands of neighbors to watch Fourth of July fireworks from its property. That congregation hosted the campaigners.
“The world starts next door,” said Matt Wallin, an Oak Hill deacon who serves as director of promotions for House to House/Heart to Heart, an evangelistic publication mailed to as many as 2.4 million U.S. households each month. “A knock could change everything.”
About 150 Christians knocked on 2,475 doors in this town in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, about 65 miles northwest of Atlanta. The domestic missionaries talked to 1,097 residents, including 367 who asked for prayers, Bible study or food.
“We’re going to prove that in the United States of America, you can still evangelize.”
When not canvassing neighborhoods, the campaigners studied soul-winning techniques with Rob Whitacre, the evangelism school’s director.
“We’re going to prove that in the United States of America, you can still evangelize,” Whitacre said. “There are still souls that need to be saved.”
Given the ongoing pandemic, each participant received a mask and was urged to wear it in any scenario where it seemed appropriate.
Whitacre encouraged the door knockers not to make an issue of masks — or no masks — and to avoid political discussions, so that as the apostle Paul said in 1 Corinthians 9:22, they might “become all things to all people” and save some.
In what’s sometimes called “post-Christian America,” numbers tell part of the story.
The ranks of the religiously unaffiliated — or “nones” — have grown from about 5 percent in the early 1970s to at least 30 percent in 2020, according to Ryan Burge, an Eastern Illinois University professor who conducts religion research.
Among Churches of Christ, the estimated number of men, women and children in U.S. pews has dropped by 14 percent — or 231,247 souls — in the last two decades, according to a national directory compiled by 21st Century Christian.
Specifically, the 2003 directory put the fellowship’s total number of adherents at 1,656,717. The latest count via the Nashville, Tenn.-based publisher’s online fact sheet: 1,425,470.
“We’ve become keepers of the aquarium rather than fishers of men,” Whitacre said.
“We’ve become keepers of the aquarium rather than fishers of men.”
Before launching the House to House/Heart to Heart School of Evangelism three years ago, Whitacre preached for the Willette Church of Christ in Red Boiling Springs, Tenn.
Attendance at the Middle Tennessee church hit 300 during Whitacre’s 11 years with the congregation. He baptized about one-third of that number, he said, citing his family’s passion for reaching lost souls.
“If you don’t practice it, you shouldn’t be preaching it,” said Whitacre, a 1997 graduate of the Southwest School of Bible Studies in Austin, Texas.
Now a member of the Jacksonville Church of Christ in Alabama, he emphasizes the need for Christians to make contacts and create opportunities for Bible studies. That congregation has converted about a dozen people to Christ so far this year, he said.
“When my family is home … we’re evangelizing,” said Whitacre, who presents evangelism seminars at Churches of Christ across the nation about 40 weekends per year. “We’re having people in our home or meeting with them for dinner somewhere or having a Bible study with them because that’s the most important part of evangelism.”
But he’s frequently on the road, often joined by his wife, Nicole, and their two children, Hannah, 22, and Jared, 18.
Knocking on a door and expecting someone to show up at a gospel meeting that night might have worked in the 1960s.
Not anymore, Whitacre said.
Still, he believes connecting with neighbors — through door knocking or other means — can help build relationships and open the door for Bible studies.
“Too many believe we can solve our problems with programs and missions,” he said. “There’s no magic formula. It’s Bible studies. It’s worked since Acts 2.”
Part of the challenge, as Whitacre sees it, is convincing Christians that America can be saved.
He leads an annual mission trip to Jamaica and said it’s much to easier to raise money for foreign works.
“Money just pours in,” he said.
But he warns, “Our local churches are dying. If we don’t change directions and do it soon, there won’t be any funds to send (overseas) because we won’t be here.”
Trujillo, the Florida church member, and her son Micah, 20, drove 700 miles to participate in the Georgia campaign.
“I do struggle with the feeling that it’s too late for America,” she said. “But after listening to (Whitacre), I’m definitely energized. God can do anything, and it does take people who are willing to go.”
The Trujillos teamed with Ted Okolichany, a member of the St. Augustine Road Church of Christ in Valdosta, Ga., to knock doors in Rome — a town with three winding rivers, and seven hills, just like its European namesake.
Like his teammates, Okolichany, 61, had made multiple mission trips to Latin America.
But he said he was just as eager to spread the Good News closer to home.
“I’ve been in some neighborhoods where dogs will get sicced on me, and I almost got hit by a rake to get out of a yard, and different things of that nature,” he said of past experiences. “But I think in today’s climate in America, people will be more receptive to somebody coming in and offering them what the savior of the world can give them.”
Scott and Melissa Cain brought their three sons — Walker, 16; Tanner, 13; and Hunter, 12 — with them to Rome.
The entire family knocked doors.
“It went very well,” Scott Cain, who preaches for the Mercedes Drive Church of Christ in Vance, Ala., said after the first day.
His wife added, “Anybody that we got to speak to was happy to speak to us.”
Melissa Cain said the experience reminded her that evangelism at home is just as important as mission work abroad.
“I think a lot of times we want to send money overseas because that’s the easy thing to do.”
“I think a lot of times we want to send money overseas because that’s the easy thing to do … instead of digging in and getting into the work at home where it starts,” she said. “I often get in my own way in evangelism, and I wonder if it’s like that for a lot of people.
“If we could just get out of our way and get to work and just be about the Father’s business, we’d be better off.”
BOBBY ROSS JR. is Editor-in-Chief of The Christian Chronicle. Reach him at [email protected].
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