At first glance, the numbers don’t compute.
Before COVID-19, the small church in northern Indiana averaged 80 in worship attendance. Since restarting in-person meetings, that number is around 30 or 35, at the most. When the economy suffered, so did the church budget. Early in the pandemic, its pastor says, the county had one of the highest rates of COVID-19 cases in the state.
But Plymouth Baptist Church (PBC) remained focused on its mission. It’s the mission that was highlighted at the 2016 North American Mission Board (NAMB) Send Luncheon as the basis for the launch of Send Relief, which proclaimed that, whatever the situation, every church can be on a mission to impact the world for the gospel.
And it’s the mission that led Plymouth Baptist to collect $3,500 on three separate occasions to start and continue a disciple making movement for more than 1,000 evangelistic pastors on the other side of the world.
There was no mention of Pakistan when Pastor Clark Harless, his wife Rachelle and their daughter, Kennedy, joined NAMB President Kevin Ezell on stage in St Louis in 2016. The occasion centered around Plymouth’s outreach efforts through its Community Changers ministry, with those efforts serving as the blueprint for the launch of Send Relief. However, within a few months, that nation, where 97% claim to be Muslim, began to occupy the church’s attention.
Executive pastor Doug Dieterly is a retired lawyer who served alongside his wife Debra as Baptist Collegiate Ministry directors at the University of Notre Dame for 15 years. He is also one of the two volunteer ministry staff at the church.
“In the late summer of 2016 we met for our Wednesday prayer service,” he said. “We had lost a lot of people due to the effects of the Great Recession, but were also worried our church would start looking inward instead of ministering outward. We asked for God to help us find a place to minister in the world.”
A few weeks later Plymouth had a visitor on a Wednesday night named Adam. Walking into the sanctuary, Adam heard the church praying for an opportunity to minister on the other side of the world.
“He knew of a missionary in Pakistan who had to flee the country because the Taliban had condemned him to death,” Dieterly said. “We started praying for that missionary and that if the Lord wanted us to start a ministry in Pakistan, God would bring him to our church.”
The next step came when the missionary – a Pakistani native PBC came to refer to as “Paul” – asked Adam about churches in the Chicago area he could visit. To this point Paul did not know Plymouth had been praying for him. When Paul arrived, he became interested in the Experiencing God literature being taught to church members. He and Dieterly developed a friendship based on commonalities – both men were lawyers as well as ministers.
Last November, Experiencing God celebrated 30 years since its initial publication. More than 8 million copies have been sold in the U.S., and it’s been printed in roughly 60 languages. However, Urdu, the official language of Pakistan, wasn’t one of them.
“Paul was authorized to translate it into Urdu and started doing so in May 2016,” Dieterly said. “He finished in March 2017 and was licensed to give those away.”
Around this time, Adam connected Dieterly with a Pakistani pastor and his daughter who wanted to be discipled. He did so through the Experiencing God curriculum via a Facebook messenger video every Saturday morning for 12 weeks.
The father and daughter asked if Dieterly could continue discipling them. Two weeks later, the pastor asked if Plymouth could provide the materials to train 15 pastors from nearby villages also asking for discipleship. The cost to do so would be $3,500.
That amount covered more than just Bible study materials such as Experiencing God. It assisted with travel costs for pastors to get to the training. It provided a secure building – one with an undisclosed location, concrete walls, no windows and one entryway.
The church prayed about it and held a garage sale in the parking lot. Members, including those meeting at an off-campus Bible study in a mobile home park, donated items. Carpenters donated tools to sell. One woman, a seamstress, provided three sewing machines.
“Afterwards we counted, and the money raised was $3,500, down to the penny,” Dieterly said. “It’s hard to believe, but true. It was a huge confirmation from God.”
In order not to attract attention, the money was sent in separate amounts. Pakistani pastors responded with pictures of church members in discipleship. Plymouth donated more money for a graduation service when members finished the materials. Dieterly gave a few words of commencement over a video call.
The excitement grew among pastors. In the fall of 2018, more desired training at the cost of another $3,500. Dieterly expressed that the church would do everything it could to help raise the funds.
“If God wanted this to happen, He was going to provide the money,” he said.
By mid-July of 2019, no money for the project had come in.
“One Friday evening I got a text while on a movie date with my wife,” Harless said. “It said I needed to call them as soon as I could, but I waited until the movie was over.”
Afterward, Harless made the call to an acquaintance who wasn’t a member of PBC. He knew PBC had been struggling financially and wanted to help with a couple of checks. It was completely up to the church on how that money should be spent. The amount from those two checks – $3,500.
“To the penny,” Harless said.
The pastor consulted with the church’s leadership. Plymouth’s water heater had just died. The roof needed repairs. The carpeting hadn’t been replaced since the Clinton administration. A lightning strike had taken out the sound equipment and computer issues popped up like gophers. Of course, the answer was clear.
“That money needed to go to Pakistan,” Harless said. “We took it to the congregation, and they said so in a unanimous vote.”
The cycle repeated itself. More pastors were trained; more churches were energized to share the gospel. A third request came for the materials available in Urdu. Two hundred pastors, it said, were ready to learn immediately. Again, Plymouth said they would do all they could.
That request came as Plymouth navigated the COVID-19 pandemic like any other church. Harless, Dieterly and Tom Keb, associate pastor of discipleship, are all at high risk. The church went to online worship, then began gathering together in the parking lot while staying in their cars. The church’s deacons, Harless said, stepped in to carry much of the ministry in that time.
Last fall Dieterly was contacted by a reader of a Texas newsletter that had included a one-sentence mention of Plymouth and its Pakistan missions outreach in a story. That individual had a family connection to the country and wanted to help, so they volunteered to donate $3,500.
Only recently has Plymouth started gathering together in person again. Coronavirus has kept the crowds down, but so has the brutal winter.
“COVID-19 isn’t the only conditions Hoosiers are navigating,” Harless said. “We had around eight inches of snow and ice, temperatures down to -4 degrees Feb.7.”
One of Plymouth’s ministry partners in Pakistan estimates that more than 1,000 people have been instructed through Experiencing God and Bible studies since August 2019 alone. Harless credited the church’s overall focus on missions, regardless of location and circumstance.
“Our church has in any and every way possible tried to make sure there’s a voice for the gospel in our community,” he said. “It meant coming up with interesting ways to reach out and changing practices in order to meet the challenges of COVID-19. It’s been an amazing season of growth.
“This ministry is more than meeting on Sunday. Our people know that, but now they have for sure seen it.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Scott Barkley is national correspondent for Baptist Press.)