COVID-19 / Fellowship! Magazine

A Teachable Moment – How a North Carolina church’s international ministry carried on during quarantine

By Jennifer Colosimo

Jason Payne grew up with international mindfulness as a way of life. With two volunteer English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers for parents, his passion for the global sojourner was intrinsic by the time he was an adult. It’s no surprise he landed at a church where international ministry was important, too. It makes even more sense that he eventually answered the call to exercise that passion alongside the congregation as director of international programs at Forest Hills Baptist in Raleigh, N.C.

Since 2013, Payne has leveraged his eagerness to soak up knowledge and works to connect people across language barriers, serving a much greater goal in God’s kingdom.

Established in 1978, the international ministries at FHBC were already doing some pretty exciting things when Payne jumped on board, including ministering to refugees and touching international neighbors through outreach programs and their English language classes and Sunday morning ESL Bible lessons. Payne has been able to build on that, using community connections with local universities and nearby churches to spread the Gospel through learned, spoken word. Together, they’ve ignited an environment where young students, families and adults can make friends, feel confident and—it goes without saying (pun very much intended)—learn to talk to each other.

But then March 2020 happened, and the COVID-19 pandemic changed the way we all connected. And what’s more fascinating about the FHBC story is how it grew that international ministry once the world shut down.

At first, it meant no more in-person classes and potentially a closed door to education, community and outreach. That wasn’t going to work—not for a congregation passionate about staying connected with their international neighbors, and certainly not for the teachers who value the relationships with their students so much. The result? The class calendar stalled for only one week, before they were back up and running, with more teachers and students than before. 

It’s also worth noting that no secret weapon was deployed to find this success. No magic formula or groundbreaking strategy was developed. No, it was simply a church and a community who answered the call and pushed on, trusting God to make it happen. The adaptations looked similar to many other churches with worship services recorded live and posted on Facebook and YouTube, a congregation staying connected via social media. As for the language classes, they went virtual too.

“When March came and none of our teachers wanted to stop, we prayed and had to think about how we were going to do that,” Payne said. “I paid attention to what other people in our community, including Wake Technical Community College and North Carolina State University, were doing and started exploring those ideas.”

One teacher had already met with her students via Skype, but both teachers and students needed to adjust to a virtual platform. When Payne discovered the low cost and user-friendly platform Zoom, he took it to the International Ministry Leadership Team and support staff, spent three days in training and launched their first class on March 22—reopening virtual doors just days after the pandemic had closed them.

“We have such gifted and generous servants of God in our church and when we expressed that we needed teachers, they responded,” Payne said. “Since it was mid-semester, we contacted our existing students, who then contacted their friends, and then folks on other platforms found out about us. Classes have grown ever since.

Previously, the International Ministry would host in-person classes like this Wednesday English Culture and Conversation class, where this visiting scholar from North Carolina State University is participating in the oral production that would open this multi-level English class.

English language learners and those looking to connect know that they can get what they need here. Each person is at a different stage in their faith journey, and moving our classes to Zoom has provided a way to connect together in a way that makes sense—it meets people where they are, and as a result, we’re actually thriving.”

“We praise our sovereign God for working in this omnipotent way,” Payne added. “Our story is truly a story of how God provides. When the pandemic shut everything down, we put out some feelers to see what our options would be. Of course, there were ups and downs, but God brought us through it, and all of a sudden, mid-pandemic, we had enough teachers for six classes on Wednesday nights, covering beginner students to those in our fluency classes.”

Payne referenced a common Christian thought process in their journey to digital—one that that requires us to prayerfully seek God about doing the hardest thing we’re able to do and the most crucial task we can find. For Payne, that meant God was calling him to face challenges that were beyond what he could handle.

“I’ll be the first to admit, I knew nothing about Zoom before this,” he said. “But God provided. He gave us the knowledge, and the ability, and we went after it.”

Now—right in the middle of a pandemic—this ministry is reaching more than 160 people representing 30-plus countries, speaking an impossible-to-count number of languages, with students who have joined class while in 14 different countries—a global outreach in every single Zoom call.

“We’re excited about our international mission because, by the grace and provision of the Lord, we’ve been able to accomplish our goal of leading people to Christ through language,” Payne said. “It began with a Bible study for Lebanese and Palestinian children and families in the school across the street 42 years ago, and now, due to the pandemic, we are truly a global ministry with so many doors left to open.”

Payne is currently attending Moody Bible Institute for a Master of Arts in global ministry design—a perk for FHBC’s international ministry, as the congregation’s plans for the future include keeping the digital platform alive, hoping to mesh those in-person classes with their international attendees in hybrid classrooms, no matter where in the world they are.

“Here’s something cool,” Payne said. “When God brought us 10 teachers to be able to offer six classes, we knew that he was preparing us for something big. I don’t know what it is, but I love the saying that, ‘God doesn’t call the equipped. Instead, he equips the called.’ God has called us, he’s equipped us, and he’s preparing us. We are excited to see what comes next.”

The International Ministry at FHBC ministers to international neighbors through outreach programs, English language classes and ESL Bible studies, as well as using connections through local universities and nearby churches to spread the Gospel through learned, spoken word.

his article appeared in the Winter 2020-21 issue of fellowship! magazine, the quarterly publication of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Read online here and subscribe for free to fellowship! and CBF’s weekly e-newsletter fellowship! weekly at www.cbf.net/subscribe. 

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