Florida Baptist Witness — January 26, 2012
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Romanian pastor & Anglo church planter partner for ministry in S. Florida
Margaret Colson

Sojourn Church like ‘a fish bowl ... in an ocean’ pastor says

HOLLYWOOD (FBC)—Looking beyond the fishbowl of his local church into the vast ocean of spiritual lostness in South Florida, the experienced and visionary Romanian pastor tossed out a lifeline of support to a young, struggling Anglo American church planter being pummeled by wave upon wave of crises.

The day that Florin Vancea, pastor of New Life Romanian Baptist Church, first met church planter Matt Peavyhouse, he knew he “wanted to help this young man with whatever I can.” Peaveyhouse, his wife Amber, and three children, relocated from Brandon to South Florida in February 2010 with the vision to plant a church to reach the significantly unchurched population there. Vancea was the first pastor he met in South Florida.

The Romanian pastor, who immigrated to America in 1996 and moved to South Florida in 1999, “has a heart for church planting. He has a heart to see the ethnic church give to help others,” said Peavyhouse, a “Nehemiah” church planter, which is a program jointly funded by the North American Mission Board (NAMB) and the Florida Baptist Convention.

Although he knew starting a church wouldn’t be easy, little did Peavyhouse anticipate the onslaught of challenges he would face. With an October 2010 launch date, Sojourn Church quickly welcomed about 60 people in its upbeat worship services. Yet, circumstances would quickly take a turn for the worse.

The owner of the facility being rented for the church plant unexpectedly cancelled the rental agreement, forcing the infant congregation to move out immediately. A major financial supporter for the church plant unexpectedly cut its support. When Sojourn Church began to meet in a home, the local police responded to complaints of parking congestion on neighborhood streets. Sixty people dwindled to 20 in just a few devastating weeks, and the attendance numbers threatened to go even lower.

“We were floundering. Everything seemed to be going against us,” recalled Peavyhouse.

“The connections we had made through advertising, block parties and other efforts were lost; they were gone.”

Just when the days seemed their most bleak and Peavyhouse was tempted to give up, pastor Vancea stepped in with his spiritual and practical lifeline.

To Peavyhouse one truth is clear, “If it weren’t for New Life Romanian Church and pastor Florin Vancea, our church may not even exist.”

New Life Romanian Baptist Church is the recent result of a merger of two existing Romanian Baptist churches in the area—Bethel Romanian Baptist Church, where Vancea had served as pastor since 1999, and First Romanian Baptist Church.

The merger of the two Romanian churches meant that one entire church facility was left unoccupied.

What had originally started as an invitation for Sojourn Church to meet in the fellowship hall of Bethel Romanian Church on Saturday nights quickly became a generous gift of allowing the young church start to use the unoccupied church facility entirely rent-free.

“This partnership makes a strong statement in South Florida!” explained Daniel Egipciaco, NAMB urban church planting missionary in South Florida. “The key here is theKkingdom mindedness of the Romanian church and Pastor Florin.”

On Palm Sunday of this year, both congregations had a rebirth of sorts. New Life Romanian Baptist Church held its first service as a merged congregation in the former First Romanian church facility. Just a few miles away, Sojourn Church held its first service in the facility of the former Bethel Romanian church.

Today Sojourn Church meets for corporate worship on Sundays in their new church facility. Then during the week church leaders fan out into the community to take the Gospel to where people are and to disciple those Who have made professions of faith.

Because such a high percentage of those who live in South Florida are unchurched and many live lifestyles contrary to biblical teaching, Sojourn Church has learned to accept people “as they are, love them with grace, and pray that the Holy Spirit brings the change that only He can bring,” said Peavyhouse.

The church planter has been inspired and encouraged by the generosity of Vancea, and he continues to learn much from the experienced pastor whenever the two interact. “Florin has a real heart to reach the lost,” he said.

For Vancea, such assistance to a young Anglo church seems natural. “I wanted to be faithful to the Great Commission,” he explained.

No one church can reach every person in a particular community, acknowledged Emanuel Roque who works with Florida Baptists’ Leadership Ministries Team. “That is why He unites His churches to better serve their communities while fulfilling the Great Commission. By serving together there is a powerful testimony of God’s love and grace.

“Where Jesus’ love is actively working through His people in unity of heart, mind and purpose, people are attracted and the gospel is shared in word and deed,” Roque explained.

An ethnic church, according to Vancea, is much like a fish bowl set down in an ocean. “The fish bowl has its own life but in many ways is isolated from the rest of the ocean. We can see the rest of the ocean but can’t impact it.”

One specific way for an ethnic church to impact the world beyond its own particular ethnic group is to partner with an Anglo church. Further, he said, “It’s only fair that we help English-speaking churches because they have helped us.” With his feet firmly on the ground in South Florida, Peavyhouse also looks to Florida Baptists’ Urban Impact Center for advice, training and encouragement.

The Urban Impact Center was established in South Florida as a branch office of the Florida Baptist Convention in an effort to strengthen existing congregations to more effectively start new churches and evangelize their unique communities.

“The connections made through Urban Impact have been profound,” he commented.

Far from the days when Peavyhouse was ready to give up on his vision to reach South Florida with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, today his dream continues to expand. “One day I’d like to be a part of helping plant churches up and down the I-95 corridor.”

Along that corridor are three South Florida counties—Miami, Broward and Palm Beach—comprising one of the most challenging missions fields in the United States with an estimated population of seven million persons— a figure that includes undocumented foreign nationals—who represent more than 175 nationalities and dozens of languages.

Those individuals, said Peavyhouse, need desperately to hear the transforming Gospel of Jesus Christ.

“The Gospel changes things,” Peavyhouse said.