“From little acorns big oak trees grow,” the saying goes. Over the past couple of decades, a small church near Baton Rouge, La., has been faithfully growing missional “oak trees” that have taken root and are ministering across the United States and around the world.

Nestled in a community of 13,000 people in Zachary, La., The Plains has just under 400 members, with about 260 people attending worship services on a typical Sunday. Founded in 1832, the congregation had seen only five of its members directly engaged in missions work over its first 140 years. Since the mid-1990s, however, it has sent more than a dozen men and women to seminary and on to vocational ministry roles across the United States and around the world.

Today, The Plains members are planting churches in Brooklyn, N.Y., Chicago, Ill., and Eugene, Ore., and its international reach extends from Taiwan to Peru. In addition, since 1982 hundreds of its young people have participated in dozens of short-term mission trips to Jamaica, Mexico, Belize, Haiti, Ukraine, Scotland, Portugal, and France.

A Missions Ethos Emerges

Dr. Jeff Machen, an orthodontist who has headed the missions committee at The Plains for nearly 20 years, says there is nothing particularly remarkable about the congregation. He describes it as “basically a country church. Its roots are agricultural, blue collar; just a bunch of good, hard-working, God-fearing people.”

But the mostly theoretical view of missions at The Plains (which joined the PCA in 1981) began taking more flesh-and-blood form when Kathleen Mills went to Brazil as a student missionary in 1965. There she met her husband Mallory Davis, whose parents were missionaries.

Another key development occurred in 1991 when Richard Bailey became the church’s first full-time youth pastor. A veteran of short-term mission trips himself, Bailey set out to offer the young people opportunities to expand their spiritual horizons and deepen their appreciation of God’s work in other parts of the world through regular mission trips.
“I wanted them to see a community of believers in other countries and young people just like them who love the Lord but were [culturally] a lot ‘different’ from them,” Bailey explains. “I always chose locations where we got to interact with the locals. Concrete and mortar—helping to build a house or a school—were part of the trips, but not the real purpose. The purpose was to expose our kids to the culture and to always be asking them, “What difference can the gospel make here in the lives of these people?”

In 1992, Campbell Silman, a preacher’s kid, was sorting through his own spiritual convictions when he joined Bailey on a trip to Reynosa, Mexico. One impromptu discussion with the group has stuck with him ever since.

“We could see the filth and decay of the garbage heaps, and Richard asked us to compare that with the filth of sin and the people’s need of the gospel in their lives. It was a vivid illustration that has remained with me.”

Moved to Ministry

A number of The Plains members have gone into full time ministry later in their lives, including Brad Beier and Jeannie Gunter Hildebrand.

Brad Beier, who with his wife, Shannon, is now planting a church in a multi-racial neighborhood near the University of Chicago, was on the same trip with to Mexico with Silman and recalls those images. “We saw poverty like I had never seen before. When we got back to Zachary, my eyes were opened to students who were different from me, and I started thinking about how I could help them.”

Beier graduated from Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Miss., and engaged in inner city ministry in Baltimore, Md. before moving on to Chicago, meeting a number of mentors along the way.

 “This became something I aspired to do. These were people who weren’t just talking about ministry. I saw what they were doing and rubbed shoulders with them—real-life examples of ministry in action.”

Jeannie Gunter Hildebrand, now a mother of two, assists her husband, Chris, with the Brooklyn Church Project, an initiative to plant dozens of new congregations in the New York City borough of nearly three million people in 80 neighborhoods. She views herself as a product of missions work at The Plains.

Hildebrand grew up in a Catholic family in Zachary, but had grown up with young people who were members at The Plains. When she was 15 years old, she began attending the youth group. “It was the first time I had heard the Bible read and expounded upon. As I heard the Scriptures presented in a clear way, I fell in love with Jesus—and I guess I fell hard. People at The Plains really ministered to me. They reached out to me, offered their hospitality, and made me feel like part of the family.”

The congregation’s role in Jeannie’s life became particularly important when in 1993, at the start of her senior year of high school, she and her parents were involved in a tragic car accident. Both her father and mother, Carroll and Diane, died. Jeannie herself suffered serious injuries that required numerous surgeries. People in the church provided great spiritual and emotional support, and came to her aid again in 1995 when her sister, Christine, was killed in a separate accident.

“The Plains played a pivotal role in my life at those times. They came around me and my two brothers, but especially me. The Plains became family to me when I didn’t really have one; they became a source of strength,” Jeannie recalls. “They stayed with me through the years.”

How to Launch Leaders

So, how does a congregation go about producing a procession of Christian leaders? Is there a formula or how-to procedure to follow? Not according to those who have been most closely involved.

Dr. Andrew Silman, former pastor at The Plains who now serves as senior pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Brevard, N.C., admits, “Richard Bailey was a really good hire.” Bailey’s work as youth pastor served as an important catalyst, Silman notes. However, “The Holy Spirit worked a true Holy Spirit-imparted movement and revival in the hearts of the young people. They had volunteer prayer meetings that were intense, not only in the church but also at their school. The teachers at Zachary High—even ones who were not necessarily Christians—commented to me several times about what outstanding young people they were.

“It has been a joy to see how [they] have prepared themselves, many of them going into seminary and into various kinds of ministry. God brought about a genuine revival among our young people—Richard and I were instruments in the process, but more than anything, we were bystanders watching the Holy Spirit working in their lives.

“We did start an annual mission conference at the church for the first time, where they learned about God’s work around the world and got to interact with actual missionaries; that may have had some role in the stirring of their hearts. But this was not programmed—it wasn’t orchestrated, humanly speaking. The movement on the part of our young people did not need a lot of prompting—it just came about naturally or, perhaps, supernaturally.”

Woody Markert served as senior pastor at The Plains from 1995-2008. Markert says that having people like Richard Bailey and Wilmer Mills (who has taught the communicants class since 1980) has been a great asset at The Plains, men who serve as role models for the young people they minister to on a regular basis.

“Richard has had a tremendous impact on the young people, and also has served to keep missions in the collective consciousness of the church leadership, always seeking to hold the missionary enterprise in front of the people. Wilmer, having served in Brazil, has had great influence as well, setting an example and walking the talk about missions, fitting it in naturally during the course of normal conversation. I think it’s important to have credible people who are willing to give the rallying cry for missions.”

So how does a congregation go about cultivating such a fruitful mission-oriented culture?

Bailey, who is now raising funds to join a church-planting team in Perth, Australia, suggests one factor. “We are a ‘light blue collar’ congregation where the goal in life is not to get out … and make as much money as fast as you can. Sadly, I know of kids in some…churches who were discouraged from going on the mission field, even short-term, because it would get in the way of law school or medical school or the university. We have a culture of mission at The Plains reflected in a positive and supportive attitude toward men and women who want to go and do ministry things.”

Dr. Silman, who would welcome such a movement in his own congregation, believes there is only one way: “God has been faithful to work in that congregation, and all we can do is ask Him to work in a similar way in our own churches.”

Robert J. Tamasy is vice president of communications for Leaders Legacy, Inc., an Atlanta-based ministry to business and professional leaders. He comments on everyday issues from a biblical perspective at www.bobtamasy.blogspot.com.