PLATTSBURGH — Members of First Baptist Church are ready for whatever the future has in store for them, and a new pastor has come on board to help guide them along the way.
The Rev. James "Jim" Horton Jr., 59, sees much potential in the church he officially started serving on Sunday, the start of a three-year term as interim minister.
Though church membership is currently on the "low side," with about 31 active members, Horton said he found that, during a February meeting with about 15 congregants, "it was almost universally they were wanting to find a way to go into the future and have the church as a body go forward.
"To do that is a huge challenge in our cultural times," Horton said. "And so part of what I do is help educate the church on the nature of the times that we're in, help the church work (toward) a process to help discern what God wants this church to do at this time as compared to what it used to do back in the day. I'm here to help guide the church through a process of discernment."
The Oak Street church had been without a full-time pastor for about two years, said Ronald Shaffer, chairman of the Pastoral Search Committee.
Horton was sent with his wife, Grace, to Plattsburgh through Interim Ministries of the American Baptist Churches of USA to help the church address five developmental tasks as it works through their pastoral transition.
"My goal and my purpose here is to help the church discern for itself what God wants for it, what specific kinds of ministries, what specific kinds of things in worship, what specific forms of discipleship," he said.
"We're going to do it through a process. People are going to enjoy it. It's actually going to be a blast."
BORED TO TEARS
Horton's family moved around a lot when he was growing up, but they eventually settled down in Bethesda, Md., in the '60s.
His church background spans several denominations. His parents started out as Methodists, but when they couldn't find a Methodist church where they lived in Austin, Texas, they decided to attend an Episcopal one.
"And so wherever we moved from that point — to Pennsylvania, then to Maryland — we were in Episcopal churches," Horton said.
During his teenage years, he said, church was important for mostly the social purposes.
"You discover that there's a God ... but at the same time there was something that I was not experiencing, not getting, and I found, for myself, that the liturgy — at least the way it was being done — just bored me to tears, and so it was like, 'Hmm, OK, you know you do this, you go through the motions, but where is the encounter with God or is there an encounter with God?'"
Horton graduated from high school and set off for college in Austin, but with the exception of Christmas and Easter, he stopped going to church. He eventually returned to Maryland to work as a newspaper pressman.
"During that time, I had an encounter with Jesus that just changed everything," Horton recalled.
PASSION FOR JESUS
In 1977, a God-ordained run-in with an former girlfriend led Horton down a path that deepened his interest in the Christian faith.
"She had a conversion experience with a charismatic Southern Baptist Church," he laughed, adding that it was kind of an oxymoron.
"Months later ... I was in a restaurant, and I was thinking, 'I'd like to see this girl again,' and I walked out the door, and there she was on the doorstep.
"And so she tells me she's become a Christian, she's speaking in tongues, she's doing this and that," Horton said.
He got her number, and she invited him to a Wednesday night covered-dish dinner and prayer meeting at the church.
"It was at that prayer meeting that I discovered people that had a passion for Jesus, a passion to know the Lord and a real joy in their life because of it. They were just excited and thrilled about knowing God, experiencing God's presence, and this was something totally foreign to my experience.
"I gradually discovered that what they were enjoying was what I wanted."
GIFT OF TONGUES
He started regularly attending prayer meetings and then Sunday morning services. A member of the church gave him a book written by Episcopal priest the Rev. Dennis Bennett, called "Nine O'Clock in the Morning," which detailed his experience receiving the Holy Spirit. As Horton read it, God was working on his heart.
"For myself, the big issue in my life had been that I could not be a Christian because it was too hard, and I didn't know any different that God wanted to empower me," he said.
The next night was the prayer meeting, so Horton went.
"Well, I wanted this baptism in the Holy Spirit thing," he said. "And they said, 'Hold on, you've got to be saved first,' that is, you've got to accept Christ first."
The next week he returned for prayer. The group leader asked for prayer requests, and a woman said she'd like to be baptized in the Holy Spirit.
"And the group leader asked, 'Well, anybody else?' And I said, 'Yeah," Horton recalled. "So we prayed, and she and I both, in that meeting, received the gift of tongues, which opened the door to an incredibly powerful experience."
Horton found an increased desire to study the Bible, and eventually decided to attend Valley Forge Christian College, an Assembly of God school in Phoenixville, Pa.
He graduated and went on to Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wynnewood, Pa. Since 1991 he has pastored churches in Ohio, Massachusetts, Maryland and all over New York.
He's excited to have landed in Plattsburgh.
"Actually, I am getting a privilege of working with this church to fulfil my vision of helping the church as a group go forward. I'm really interested in helping the church meet God in such a way that they want to serve God as God calls them to it, and that's really my passion."
Shaffer said the Plattsburgh church is also anxiously looking forward to the process.
"What's taken place since we have been involved with this program (Interim Ministries), looking at it and everything, there seems to be a little more of a rejuvenation, so this is what we're praying and hoping will take place, that the members will build up their strength again. We have to," he said.
Shaffer said he's grown with the church and suffered through the losses.
"This is what we need, and we see this with Jim. A lot of the members are saying, 'If God wants this church to go (forward), then we have to be willing to get in there and do the work that needs to be done."
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