DALTON — When Ernesto Mendez looks across his congregation, he sees preachers. Sunday mornings they sit under his teaching at Iglesia Bautista Nueva Vida. Evenings consist of presenting the gospel to groups that will soon become self-sufficient churches.
That’s the plan, he explains in the North Georgia Baptist Association building in Dalton.
“We’re calling the locations ‘preaching centers’ where will start meeting,” he says. “We dedicated one in June, Bethel. Our second dedication occurred in July, for Maranatha. Another came for the preaching center named Emmanuel, in August.”
The dedication service for September's preaching center moved to Oct. 2 due to a scheduling conflict. The fifth center dedication takes place Oct. 5. Going beyond North Georgia Association's traditional territory, one center is slated for Chattanooga.
Each month since June, another preaching center begins its work led by a member of Iglesia Bautista Nueva Vida. Mendez disciples the men leading the preaching centers as they become more comfortable as leaders. That comes, primarily, on Sunday mornings when they attend Mendez’s church as members. But, discipleship continues through the week by remaining in touch.
Sunday evenings mark the preaching center gatherings. Through partnerships with each other such as revivals, Mendez foresees as many as 50-70 new converts. The process incorporates more discipleship and baptisms from that point. Eventually, these preaching centers evolve into self-supporting churches.
The seventh preaching center will be dedicated in December. Immediately thereafter, plans are to begin the process all over again with seven more identified preaching centers.
“The preaching centers are the starting point,” Mendez says. “Some don’t have buildings yet, but they do have land. Bob Bagley, our associational missionary, made pulpits for the centers.”
Mendez extends appreciation to individuals like Bagley and churches in helping provide needs for the centers.
“Mt. Rachel Baptist Church donated mobile units for the preaching centers until they can build their own facilities. Two units are doublewides. They bought them from the school system ten years ago and don’t need them anymore.”
With the process still working itself out, only one of the mobile units has land on which to rest at this point. Other temporary locations serve for the time being. The evening services, says Mendez, vary from the traditional Sunday morning worship time.
“They will feel a little more like a small group Bible study,” he points out. “The pastor will lead the time together and focus on a presentation of the gospel.”
Local missions over the years
Bagley and Mendez arrived in Dalton within five years of each other. Bagley marks 30 years with the association this year, while Mendez came to the area in 1991. First Baptist Dalton established Nueva Vida in 1980 after a tremendous response to an outreach to local Hispanic children. Mendez continued that spirit of missions, becoming instrumental in the establishment of several more Hispanic congregations in the association.
Their work together and Bagley’s leadership in connecting those efforts with the Georgia Baptist Convention (now Georgia Baptist Mission Board) resulted in his being named Associational Missionary of the year in 2004.
Having helped build up Hispanic churches in Ellijay, Chatsworth, and Calhoun, Nueva Vida maintains a strong local presence. The church provides counseling to more than 50 people completing probation requirements through the court. Members participate in the Dalton Public Schools summer lunch program, making sure as many as 300 children are fed. Literacy classes provide adults an opportunity to learn to read.
In addition to the preaching centers, Mendez and Nueva Vida look to soccer as the next large-scale outreach effort. Fed up with the fights and cursing that seemed connected to local soccer matches, the Christian Soccer League was founded in 2005.
From its inception, the league grew to 20 male teams and ten female teams. The increase brought the need for more field space. Until that happens the planned children’s league remains on hold.
Every Saturday, Mendez testified in a brochure outlining the league, an average of 300-400 people show up to each current field. To meet future needs the 103 acres acquired by the church near Old Dixie Highway needs to be developed further. The final goal includes 10-12 soccer fields and three buildings for indoor activities such as volleyball and basketball. A picnic area would rest near a creek and walking trail surround the whole property.
When the Great Recession hit, many of Dalton’s Hispanic population left along with the flooring and carpeting jobs that dominated the area. As the economy has returned, though, so have the people. Mendez sees the opportunity, and doesn’t want to miss it.
“The Lord put all of this on my heart,” he explains. “Our goal is to win the Hispanic population for Christ. We want to take away the number of people who don’t know Jesus.
“We want to reduce lostness in Dalton. We invite other churches to help us do this.”