By Ken Walker
TYLER, Texas (BP)--"I've never seen this many churches come together," said R.J. Holt, one of three Southern Baptist youth pastors in Tyler, Texas, whose initiative has yielded more than 1,000 professions of faith.
Students from 137 congregations accepted Christ as Savior and Lord during a "Fish the Planet" outreach led by evangelist Ken Freeman Feb. 25-March 2 in the east Texas city.
"The most amazing thing has been the cooperation of the body of Christ," said Holt, minister of student ministries at Colonial Hills Baptist Church. "We reached more people in the course of a week than in all the things we've done before."
Next up: "Fish the Planet Too," two rallies in April and May also to be led by Freeman.
"I'm getting phone calls from parents saying, 'What have you done to my child?' and 'Thank you,'" said Kenny Cargill, associate pastor of students at suburban First Baptist Church of Whitehouse. "They talk about how things are different in their home because of this."
The "Fish the Planet" outreach began with a brainstorming session involving Holt, Don Allensworth of Green Acres Baptist Church and Cody Bishop of Sharon Baptist Church.
Meeting last fall, they dreamed of reaching 16,000 teenagers in a 30-mile radius of the city, Holt said. The three decided to try a citywide "Disciple Now" weekend and challenge participants to invite friends to a youth rally the following week.
They enlisted 32 churches from 16 different denominations to hold discipleship weekends Feb. 23-25. The teaching came from "Share Jesus Without Fear," a book by Bill Fay published by LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention.
The 1,900 students involved in the discipleship weekend invited unsaved friends to attend the meetings featuring Freeman. His talks drew an average of nearly 2,700 a night, peaking at 5,900 the fourth evening.
Officially, counselors recorded approximately 960 first-time decisions for Christ. There were another 340 decisions, primarily recommitments to follow Christ.
But Cargill, who oversaw recording of names to make sure churches followed up with converts, believes many more didn't get registered.
"We're hearing constantly from kids who said they went forward but nobody has contacted them," he said. "We've had students coming from classes who say they've been talking to others who have accepted Christ, but nobody recorded their decision."
Cargill said 50 percent of the converts were students who had no previous church involvement. Of the 40 decisions linked to First Baptist, for example, 30 were invited to the rallies by church youth, he said.
Some were so eager they checked a box that they wanted to accept Christ and another for recommitment. They thought the latter meant being totally committed, Cargill said.
Church youth groups will be the key element in encouraging these new Christians to find fellowship within the body of Christ, he said. In addition to youth groups, members of school Bible clubs and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes have been enlisted in the effort.
"One of the keys to Fish the Planet has been student involvement, students talking to their friends and helping reach them. It's going to take some time," Cargill said.
"Looking back, it's one of those things that's just sinking in," he added. "Every week we hear about a new discovery, another student's decision, or meet another kid who was touched."
Bryan Timi, youth pastor at the nondenominational Grace Community Church, said Fish The Planet energized his group's spring break mission trip to New Orleans the week of March 12.
Forty students from Grace Community did street evangelism and other projects, such as serving dinner and cleaning at a homeless shelter.
"This one is more lively," Timi said. "Share Jesus Without Fear has given students a lot more freedom about sharing their faith. That really prepared us for this trip."
The soul-winning material also helped shy teens to be bolder about sharing their faith, he said.
But for him, the most stimulating phenomenon has been watching students come alive as they see their peers' lives changed.
"As a youth pastor, you can teach it and teach it, but when students see it happen they get excited," Timi said. "One of the challenges of Fish the Planet was owning your own faith, instead of your parents' faith. Many said they had been living based on their parents' beliefs and wanted to make that commitment themselves."
Timi credited the Baptist trio who formed the outreach with keeping the focus on Christ instead of denominations.
When he originally met with Holt, the Baptist youth minister promised Timi that Fish the Planet wouldn't be a "Baptist thing." Some other key churches also helped sell that concept, he said.
While the Baptist youth pastors played a key role in organizing and raising the $65,000 needed to stage the event, Holt said the steering committee avoided mentioning any "labels."
"There was almost a sense of pride that people didn't know who did this," Holt reflected. "Our agreement was we weren't going to go on unless God opened the doors."
Freeman, who also spoke at nine school assemblies that week, said he knew God was doing something special when he saw numerous conversions and renewed vows to follow Christ at a rally the night before the first public meeting.
"I would rate it one of the most powerful events I've ever been associated with," the San Antonio-based evangelist said. "One night 80 kids were saved from a school where I had spoken earlier."
Freeman, author of "Rescued By The Cross," a book that exhorts people to move beyond the past, said he believes there were several reasons for the rally's success:
-- Churches shedding denominational jealousies and coming together to spread the gospel.
-- Numerous prayer meetings before the event.
-- Creative promotion. Students throughout the area wore orange T-shirts advertising the rallies at school, along with spreading awareness via antenna balls, stickers and luggage tags.
The evangelist said he believes students across the nation are hungry for God.
"Kids are living in fear; they don't think they're safe," Freeman said. "They're thinking, 'Maybe this Jesus thing can work for me.' I'm definitely seeing a new hunger and I think the doors are opening."
Students' testimonies from Fish the Planet are posted on the Internet at www.ftpstories.org.
Used with permission.