By Grace Thornton
The Alabama Baptist
When Josh Burnham became pastor of Bethel Baptist Church, Odenville, four years ago, he realized they needed to get rid of something — and quickly.
“We’d had a debt since 1998 that was not overwhelming us, but definitely limited our desire to reach the nations for the gospel,” he said.
So one Sunday, Burnham got up in the pulpit and issued a simple challenge.
“I said, ‘If God has been generous to you, let’s be generous as we give,’” he said.
And through that call, Bethel Baptist paid off about $800,000 in debt in less than three years.
But they didn’t stop there.
The next month, instead of paying their normal debt payment, they took that money and looked for a way to use it to show love to the community.
“Creatively, I thought it was symbolically important to take every penny of that next building payment, which would’ve been last November,” Burnham said. “We wanted to celebrate what God had done and give it away. We had things we could’ve used it for, but we didn’t want it to stay within the walls of the church. We wanted all of it to go to reaching St. Clair County, [the state] or the nations.”
He had heard of other churches who had blessed their community by paying off medical debt, but when he reached out to a local organization, he discovered a campaign was already in place to take care of that in the Birmingham area.
‘Heart of the church’
So Burnham looked to the local school system and uncovered another way to show love to their community — to pay off the schools’ debt for the students on a free or reduced lunch.
“We wanted to connect the idea that we’ve paid off our debt, let’s help pay off the debts of others because Jesus has [paid] our debt,” Burnham said. “We did it just because we felt like God was leading us to do it, no strings attached.”
They didn’t expect anything in return, but they began to receive notes from principals and others in the community saying thanks.
“It ended up being a way the community saw the heart of our church — that we love them, that we want to see St. Clair County come to faith in Jesus Christ because He is what they’re longing for,” Burnham said. “God isn’t asking us to give to hoard for His kingdom — He’s asking us to give to make a difference. We want to see Kingdom growth. For us, this is a small reminder of where our emphasis should be.”
Not too far down the road, Valley View Baptist Church, Leeds, felt God leading them to do something similar. Back in the fall, the congregation paid off the loan they took out in 2015 to renovate their fellowship hall.
“The completion of payment comes a full year ahead of the initial payment schedule,” said Pastor Wesley Braswell, noting they celebrated during their worship service Feb. 23.
‘Need to bless others’
Some of the money they put into the debt payoff came from the sale of a parcel of land across the road from the church. But they did something else with the proceeds from the land, too — they gave more than $11,000 to support six local, regional and international organizations.
“We felt like God had blessed us with that land and blessed us with the sale of that land, so we needed to use those proceeds to bless others,” Braswell said. “Our mission statement is ‘Building relationships with our community to discover hope in Jesus Christ.’”
With that in mind, they gave funds to some organizations they felt were working to accomplish the same mission — the International Mission Board, Alabama Baptist Children’s Homes & Family Ministries, two other children’s homes in the area, a local crisis pregnancy center and Leeds Outreach, a ministry providing food and other resources for those in need.
“We want to provide hope to those around us, to extend the hope that is only found in Christ,” Braswell said. “We felt it important to use a portion of those proceeds to do that, and we wanted to follow in obedience to the Lord.”
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