Michigan church replant launches fruit basket ministry to build ‘bridge to the community’

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PETOSKEY, Mich. —Children’s Missions Day, an annual missions emphasis promoted by Woman’s Missionary Union, has the potential to generate missions projects that reach far beyond a single day.


Such projects can be as practical as assembling and distributing fruit baskets to show appreciation to military veterans, firefighters, law enforcement officers and others in a local community. At least that’s the case for True North Community Church in Petoskey, Michigan.


This year’s Children’s Missions Day, held on Saturday, Feb. 15, is designed to prepare the next generation to reach people with the gospel of Jesus Christ – both today and in the future.


For Rick Bristol, a North American Mission Board church planter at True North Community Church, participating in a partner church’s Children’s Missions Day project led him to launch an ongoing community outreach program through his own congregation. A WMU leader at Orchard Church invited Rick to speak at Orchard’s CMD because he is a military veteran and their project focused on honoring vets for their military service.


In addition to speaking at the event where the children assembled fruit baskets for veterans, he was asked to find an appropriate location to distribute the baskets. Contacting his county’s Veterans Affairs office, he offered to deliver the gift baskets. Rick noted that the VA official’s immediate response was something like: “Absolutely, the vets need all the Jesus they can get!”


Based on the success of that experience, Rick approached his True North congregation about continuing the fruit basket ministry on a weekly basis. “I said, ‘Hey listen, church, this is something we did for the Orchard. We used the WMU there, they had a Children’s Missions Day and then I was able to give the baskets out.


“’I think we could do it here. I think it’s something we could do fairly often. I want to try it once a week. Can we make seven baskets a week?’” he recalled asking. “They said, ‘Yeah, let’s go ahead and do that.’ So that’s what we did. We came together and it’s been a growing process and a learning process.”


According to Jeff Urban, a service officer for Emmett County Veterans Affairs, “We definitely respect and honor our veterans but to actually have something given to our veterans like a fruit basket, it’s not very common so they’re delighted and surprised all at the same time. It definitely gives them a little warm fuzzy there when they get it.”


A strong Christian witness


Sharing fruit baskets is one of several ministry projects that Rick and his wife, Katie, have launched over the past couple of years. Their primary ministry efforts are aimed at replanting True North Church after the previous congregation gradually had declined to only six active members.


As a former Navy chaplain who also worked with the Marines, Coast Guard and Army National Guard, Rick has a heart for fellow veterans. Katie, who grew up in northern Michigan, realized from phone conversations with family and friends back home that there was an urgent need for a strong Christian witness in the region.


Spiritual surveys in northern Michigan that Rick reviewed showed about 50 percent of residents in 2000 had no religious affiliation. That number had jumped to 75 percent by 2010. Another decade later, “the trend lines are not going in the right direction,” he acknowledged.


“Pretty much when you keep hearing, ‘I wish God would send somebody to them,’ there’s that point where you have to realize that’s God telling you to go there,” he said.


In response, he concluded his military career and they partnered with NAMB as church replanters. Changing the tiny congregation’s name from Agape Baptist Church to True North Community Church, they gradually are engaging the community and nurturing new growth, including a thriving children’s program coordinated by Katie.


“I am definitely called to work with children. It is a natural thing for me,” she said. “Probably my God-given talent is to work with kids so that’s how I can share the gospel.”


“I have a passion for what we’ve done but it’s not an easy work,” Rick pointed out. “The replant nature is to be able to take the people that were willing to say, ‘Hey, we want to try something new’ and to honor what had happened before but at the same time refocus and rebirth.”


As a result, the Bristols and their growing congregation continually are looking for new avenues of ministry and spiritual impact. Rick said one of his first goals as a replanter was “looking at turning our building inside out” to help meet community needs.


Ministry effort quickly expands


That’s where the church’s fruit basket ministry comes in. Besides taking baskets to the VA office to “recognize the sacrifices of the former military members,” Rick said the church quickly expanded the community appreciation initiative to include law enforcement officers and firefighters.


Contacting Fire Chief Al Welsheimer, Rick explained that True North “just wanted to show our appreciation for your men and women that are willing to run into a burning building to save a life. Can we give you these baskets to show how much we love them and how much we’re praying for them?”


Expressing appreciation for the church’s initiative, Welsheimer said, “I think one of the important things is it really shows the kids at a young age the importance of sharing and giving back. It’s not all about getting things; it’s about giving back to your community. As we know, that’s what Jesus did. He gave back, He gave everything.”


Along with the firefighters enjoying the fruit baskets and the affirmation, Welsheimer said they often pay the church’s gift forward by sharing any extra baskets with “people that aren’t so fortunate or elderly people that don’t get out to get fresh fruit on a regular basis.”


Describing the ministry of affirmation and appreciation to community servants as “kind of this neat bridge to the community,” Rick said children in the congregation color pictures and write thank you cards each week to include in the fruit baskets.


Hands-on missions experience


Involving children of all ages in the project provides them a memorable hands-on missions experience, Katie said. “They learn that when they’re helping others like that, they’re spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ,” she explained. “They have a certain happiness and joy when they do these cards.


“It’s not only helping the person you’re serving,” she added, “but it really is fulfilling your love that God instills in you.”


Of course, there have been a few glitches along the way. Rick admitted that part of the learning process included eliminating glitter and glue from the card-making process after the first attempt “took four hours for the glue to dry.”


“We said, ‘Okay, that can’t work,’” Rick chuckled. “What we got was some really good glitter unicorns but not necessarily something that conveyed Jesus’ love specifically.”


Finding a practical solution, he opted to design stock cards tailored for each community service group that the children can personalize with handwritten notes and artwork. The cards’ pre-printed messages range from “Jesus loves you” to “Thank you for your service” along with contact information for True North and an invitation to visit the church.


Besides honoring veterans and first responders, a church member asked Rick about making baskets for young women at the local crisis pregnancy center. “I was like, ‘Absolutely, we have no problem showing Jesus’ love to whoever you want to.’”


Noting that the women frequently receive donations of diapers, bottles and pacifiers for their babies, the center staff told Rick that “a little basket of fruit for them is kind of a nice thing because it’s showing an appreciation specifically for them.”


Affirming the ministry’s personal touch, Rick concluded, “We’re Jesus’ church and He wants us to be known for His love.” At True North Community Church, sometimes that’s as simple as sharing a basket of fruit in Jesus’ name.

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