By Gabriel Stovall
JONESBORO, Ga. — When it all began, Jeff Ware probably didn’t expect to see what he saw during the most recent Sunday morning worship at Mount Zion Baptist Church-Jonesboro.
A young man — somewhere around the 25-year old Ware’s age — got baptized. And while baptisms at the church are nothing new, this particular one was something special. Unique.
When Dawan McKinzie was dipped into the baptismal pool Sunday, it represented a potentially groundbreaking chapter in the life of Mount Zion’s ministry. McKinzie was the first person to be baptized through the church’s newest ministry effort. Let’s call it the open gym ministry.
It’s an appropriate name, considering Mount Zion’s basketball gym is the place where McKinzie and nine other young men between the ages of 18 and 35 gave their lives to Jesus Christ just before going to battle with and against each other on the basketball court.
It happened back in March during the church’s second bi-monthly open gym session geared toward the aforementioned age group which combines basketball, food, fellowship and the Gospel.
Ware was there on that fateful and faith-filled day when McKinzie, a member of Ware’s own family and eight others made a spiritually life changing decision. He had over a month to process it all. But seeing the culmination of it this past Sunday morning was almost surreal for him.
“It was definitely great to see,” Ware said. “When we had those 10 young men that gave their lives to God on our second time, that alone was big. You’re talking about 10 men. Ten. Not one or two. But 10 out of 15. That’s the biggest thing that’s happened so far.”
And ware said McKinzie was one of those who stood out from the beginning.
“Dawan came in with a great spirit already,” Ware added. “He came in and introduced himself during just our second time doing this. (Pastor) Gordon (Hutton) brought him in. And then he goes and gets baptized. It’s great to see him happy, and you can tell just by looking at him that it’s been a blessing to him.”
Since his salvation experience, now almost two months ago, McKinzie hasn’t missed much time hanging with his new family. In fact, this past Sunday — the same day of his baptism — he was back at Mount Zion worshiping God with his feet on the court.
At least that’s how Chris Reynolds, Mount Zion’s pastor, sees it.
“We don’t apologize for what we’re doing here,” Reynolds said. “We’re here to play basketball, but we don’t deceive anyone. We’re also here to tell them about Jesus.”
And it looks like the message is catching on. The first open gym session saw 17 attendees. The next one — the session where McKinzie and others professed faith in Christ — had about 15, but the 50 that came this past Sunday was the largest crowd yet, and it included about a dozen children.
It’s the kind of growth that causes Reynolds to start dreaming big.
“We started with meeting the felt need so that we could earn the right to address the real need,” Reynolds said. “The felt need is there’s nothing to do around here for 18 to 30, 35 year old guys on a Sunday night. And the real need is them realizing that Jesus is their answer. So now that we’ve met the felt need, we’ve built the trust, we’re expanding the Jesus part.”
Reynolds said that expansion includes possibly developing a children’s church component, giving the kids that come a fun outlet to learn about Jesus while the men play ball.
He wants to add more staff to facilitate what he hopes will be continued swelling crowds, and he also wants to diversify the way that Christ is communicated.
“It’s not just about Christ and salvation,” he said. “But it’s about Christ and your lifestyle. I want to help address the question that these young men may ask, okay, ‘If I accept Christ, how does that reflect upon me and how do I live that out in my lifestyle as a man?’ We’re looking at establishing it almost as a worship time. It’ll be non-traditional. We’ll focus it as a church community where we’re discipling people.”
A non-traditional approach to ministry wouldn’t be anything new for Reynolds and his congregation. Mount Zion is a Southern Baptist church of about 500 members affiliated with the Georgia Baptist Convention. Reynolds says 20 different nationalities worship and minister together while learning to not only embrace, but celebrate and do life together with every culture present in their church family.
That includes a Korean congregation which was planted and worships on the Mount Zion campus. It’s the kind of diverse, all-inclusive ministry Reynolds envisioned for the once predominantly White congregation when he became senior pastor 13 years ago.
The sports angle also isn’t unique to this ministry, as the church opens its gym up to kids age 17 and under on Fridays.
It also helps that Reynolds’ son Davis is a graduating football player at Eagle’s Landing Christian Academy in McDonough.
“Really it was Davis who came to me earlier this year and said, ‘Dad, there’s just nothing to do for this age group on Sunday nights,'” Chris Reynolds said. “So he suggested we open up the gym. I said, let’s try it, and we sent out some tweets and Facebook messages, and the people just started coming.”
Coming to play ball and coming to faith in Jesus.
Not surprisingly it’s that last part that Ware, tabbed by Reynolds as one of the chief leaders of this outreach effort, can’t wait to see flourish.
“We’re actually planting seeds here, so of course it’s going to grow,” Ware said. “We may have young preachers, pastors, evangelists, in here. You just never know. We’re planting a seed and God’s going to water it. And when you do that, you can’t put a limit on it and how God will grow it. As long as we’re doing God’s will it can go beyond anything we could ever imagine.”
WHEN: 2nd and 4th Sundays from 6-8 p.m.
WHERE: Mount Zion Baptist Church, 7102 Mt. Zion Blvd., Jonesboro, GA 30236
WHO TO CONTACT: For more information, contact Pastor Chris Reynolds at (404) 717-2787.