Bobby Blanton’s recent visit to Moldova was his third in a four-year international partnership of two churches. The multi-level relationship between Lake Norman Baptist Church (LNBC) in Huntersville and Agape Church in Chisinau, Moldova, has become more relational than either church originally expected.
The Lake Norman church, where Blanton is senior pastor, works with a network of pastors in Moldova to spread the gospel by equipping leaders, providing jobs, ministering to orphans and delivering nutritious meals to families in need. But every layer of the partnership is rooted in disciple-making.
“Discipleship has been my focus in ministry this year,” Blanton said. As he prayed about what he should teach the Moldovan pastors during the Sept. 7-13 mission trip, his burden was to encourage these pastors in disciple-making.
The theme “was born out of what God has been doing in my life, and what I have been investing in our staff and church membership recently,” Blanton said. “We want to make disciples who will make disciples. So I tried to lay a foundation of what a disciple is and how a disciple is different from a simple believer. I tried to encourage those guys to invest themselves more narrowly into individuals who will make disciples.”
A group learns how to package food at Lake Norman Baptist Church in Huntersville.
Most of the pastors live in remote villages. Resources are very limited and economic opportunities are marginal. They have no Bible training so they appreciate every opportunity to learn and fellowship.
“Those guys are really the salt of the earth,” said Blanton. “I’m so humbled to be around those men. When I stand there and try to offer what little I can as far as teaching and training, I realize they have studied the Bible and they know the Bible. But I feel like I can give them a little breadth of understanding and how to approach some passages.”
In addition to the Bible teaching, Blanton brought two large duffle bags of men’s clothing for the pastors. The idea came from a woman at LNBC whose husband died this year. She wanted to donate his clothes to pastors in Moldova. “Those pastors just grabbed it up,” he said. “They had big smiles on their faces and were so pleased.”
Ron Hoppe is LNBC’s volunteer missions coordinator. He manages the Moldova partnership and other mission activities for the church. He is supportive of Blanton’s focus on discipleship. “The natural overflow of [disciple-making] will be increased passion and energy that is directed to missions. That’s the essence of being a disciple. Discipleship and missions are two sides of the same spiritual formation coin,” he said.
In September 2014 LNBC volunteers packed 70,000 dehydrated meals in cooperation with Feed the Hunger (feedthehunger.org), a ministry based in Burlington. Through a generous arrangement with FedEx, 40,000 of those meal packets were shipped to Moldova and were distributed by more than a dozen pastors and their churches throughout the year. The Biblical Recorder reported on this project in the April 11, 2015, edition and on BRnow.org, posted April 7, 2015.
“It is encouraging to us to see how something as simple as a meal packet was able to be used in a number of scenarios,” Hoppe said. “They’re not just handing out a meal. It is a tool for these pastors to reach out and to spread the gospel and to demonstrate the gospel in action in their communities.”
Pastors are using the meal packets to reach out to families, providing children and adults with much-needed nutrition in the poorest country in Europe. Sometimes teams from LNBC assist with special distribution events. The meals open many doors for building relationships, according to the pastors.
But the real work for the food ministry happens between mission trips, Hoppe emphasized. On Oct. 30-31 LNBC held a second pack-a-thon. More than 500 volunteers packed 125,000 meals this year, compared to the 300 volunteers who packed 70,000 meals the previous year. “I believe this increased volunteer participation is a reflection of being able to share with them how the meals packed in 2014 were being used and the impact they were having on ministries in diverse places,” he said.
Meals packed in 2014 were shared with people in the greater Charlotte area, in Greensboro and Siler City. The meals were used an outreach tool by a new church plant in West Virginia and most recently helped to feed families displaced from their homes as a result of the flooding in South Carolina. Other meals went to Moldova, Ukraine and Haiti.
“This is an initiative in which the entire church family can participate,” Hoppe added. He saw five-year-old children and 85 year-old adults working at the pack-a-thon.
“But the packing of meals is not the end of the effort; it is really just the beginning,” he said. Meals packed this year will go primarily to Haiti and Moldova. LNBC teams will be part of the larger distribution of meals to those who need both physical and spiritual food. The total cost of each six-meal packet is only $1.56.
As the meals were packed into shipping boxes, a slip of paper containing a scripture and the names of everyone involved in packing those particular meals was placed in each box. As the boxes are delivered and opened, those slips of paper will be returned to LNBC.
Everyone who packed the meals will get a report on where ‘their’ meals went. They will see photos and hear stories about how the food was used.
This is not an isolated effort according to Hoppe. “At Lake Norman in all of our missions efforts – whether they are overseas, local or somewhere in the United States – we’re focused on not doing events. We’re looking to form relationships and partnerships. That may be at the Charlotte Rescue Mission or in very modest facilities in Moldova. We want to journey with those partners.”
The journey includes other outreach thrusts. Hoppe said the leadership of LNBC asks, “In everything we do, are we really being effective, not just in relieving sort of a stress or a need that exists today, but are we considering how we can encourage and support the work so that it will go forward in an efficient way?” Simply doing charitable work is not acceptable. They want to see lasting change.
Adequate employment is a great need in Moldova. LNBC works with small business leaders to find gainful employment for men in a rehabilitation ministry center who are struggling with addictions. The church is partnering with a boot maker in a very modest facility with the goal of employing these men. Hoppe said, “This little boot making operation provides a few of the men with something meaningful to do and some basic financial support. They’re being productive and able to gain some self-worth. It also generates resources for that ministry and has the potential to expand the ministry.”
Another concern Hoppe discussed is the orphanage structure in Eastern Europe. It has been a significant part of the social order, but it is changing. “The orphanage system in Eastern Europe is breaking down,” he said. “Governments want to get these children out of the large, old facilities that need significant repair. Sadly, many of these kids are being returned to the families they were taken away from.”
When the children are between ages 15 to 17 the orphanage requires them to leave. “What happens to them when they are forced to leave?” Hoppe asks. “The system says, ‘we’ve brought you as far as we are going to bring you, and you are on your own.’”
Moldova is one of the leading locations for sex trafficking, he adds. Alcoholism is rampant. Suicide is at a high rate among young men. In response LNBC is developing a foster care system for Christian families in Eastern Europe and in the United States. “They need a solid family structure that is speaking the Word of God to them. At the end of the day if it does not center around the gospel, it’s not going to be successful,” Hoppe said. The long term goal is that orphans who go through the foster care system will get vocational training, be able to support themselves and to become independent.
The church has also embraced a strong conviction about adoption that the Moldova partnership has strengthened. He said, “At Lake Norman we have a very deep, deep commitment to supporting life – whether that’s through our local pregnancy center, or through families in our church who are actively involved in hosting international orphans. Sometimes the outflow of hosting is adoption.”
LNBC has a strong record of adoption both within the church and modeling adoption to others in their community. Many of the internationals their families adopt have special needs. They hope some of the children they are working with in Moldova will be adopted by families in the states.
Blanton said LNBC believes packing food, distributing food, adoption, orphan care and equipping pastors are part of disciple-making.