Galesburg, Illinois, is an All-American town if there ever was one. Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Carl Sandburg was born here and, as a first-grader, future president Ronald Reagan romped around the town’s Silas Willard Elementary School. The National Railroad Hall of Fame is in Galesburg, as is a site of the famed Lincoln-Douglas debates. In 1957, the National Civic League even made it official by granting Galesburg the coveted All-America City designation.
Galesburg is also home to Bethel Baptist Church. Bethel’s senior pastor, Scott Wilson, is undeniably an All-American guy. He wasn’t even available for comment for this story because he was serving an Air National Guard stint.
But as All-American as the town, the church and the pastor may be, Bethel takes seriously its charge from Mark 16:15 to go into all the world and preach the gospel.
“It’s just what we do.”
Missions are an integral part of Bethel’s DNA. The church, which draws about 550 worshipers weekly, supports 20 full-time global missionaries. And each summer for nearly two decades, Bethel has sent short-term missions teams to work alongside missionaries, most often in Mexico. The teams also have served in South America, Asia, Africa and Europe.
“It’s just what we do,” said Rick Stufflebeem, Bethel’s director of children and family ministries who also leads the church’s missions efforts. “Missions are a top priority here.”
That priority was solidified several years ago when Bethel faced a budget crunch. Examining cost-cutting measures, church elders made a critical decision: They would not cut the missions budget.
“We are called to fulfill the Great Commission,” Stufflebeem said. “We knew the missions budget was one area we have to leave alone. I believe God is blessing us through that.”
Today, the church allocates 20-25% of its budget to missions. Some is earmarked for short-term missions teams. Traditionally, a team participant raises his or her own money for the trip. It’s a barrier that often causes potential participants who’ve felt called to service to miss out. That barrier rarely exists at Bethel.
“We try to take that burden away from those who want to serve,” Stufflebeem said. “If it’s worthwhile for us to do, it’s worthwhile for us to budget. Everyone at Bethel has a financial stake in the game, even if their stake is minimal.”
“Bethel is not a travel agency.”
Missions teams’ makeup helps this culture to endure. Of the usual 20-member teams, about 60% are teens. The church is raising up missionaries from a younger generation who not only maintain Bethel’s missions focus but take it with them as they mature. Many teenage trip participants have gone on to serve in ministry full time, and a greater number are serving as church volunteers.
“The team members who come here develop confidence as they share their faith,” said Converge missionary Jami Strandberg, who serves in Guadalajara, Mexico. “They also develop unity within their own team and with the Mexican church helpers. Their faith in God grows as they see him transforming lives for his glory through them, and that helps them develop a greater understanding of God’s global mission.”
A few months ago, Stufflebeem received a Facebook message from a recent high school graduate in Mexico. The two first met 12 years ago when a Bethel team was serving there at a kid’s club. Recently, a young lady who attended a kid’s club in Guadalajara several years ago served at Bethel’s summer camp.
“Bethel is not a travel agency,” Stufflebeem said. “We’re not going to fly somewhere, take a bunch of pictures, come back and then be proud of ourselves. Our top priority is to help build relationships.”
Those relationships extend to Strandberg and the other full-time time missionaries Bethel supports, many for nearly two decades.
“When we adopt a missionary it’s like being married to them,” Stufflebeem said. “We support them financially, but also through encouragement and by working hand-in-hand with them. We established many years ago that, when possible, we would support our missionaries in person.
“God’s called them to a very difficult job,” he said. “A big encouragement to a missionary is to say, ‘What you do is important, and we are here to support you.’”
Learn how your church can play a role in fulfilling the Great Commission by taking part in short term missions projects alongside a Converge missionary.
Mickey Seward, Contributing writer
Mickey Seward is a freelance writer and editor. He served as Converge's director of communications from 2017-23.