God has been moving in Panama, Illinois. There hasn’t been some miraculous sign or miracles or healing, but God has been moving.
Grace Fellowship Baptist Church was planted several years ago as a mission from Sorento Baptist Church, and before that another Baptist church had been planted in Panama as a plant from the Baptist Church in Donnellson, IL. Each time, God moved in the hearts of people that there needed to be a Baptist Church in this community. There were good days. I look on the wall behind the baptistery and I see evidence of a great ministry back in 1965. At that time Roger Ellsworth was the pastor when he was only 16 years old. The evidence that I speak of is a map of the community with color coded dots all over it. This young 16 year old preacher left behind evidence that he strategically canvased the entire community to share Christ with every household there. Those were good days, but times change, and for one reason or another the church declined, and at some point they closed their doors.
Time passed, and people from the community and the surrounding areas again felt the need for a Baptist Church in Panama. Doug McCracken and others began as a mission from Sorento Baptist Church. Esther Williams, Doug’s daughter recalls that the days that they were a mission were some of the best days she remembers there. Eventually, they constituted as a church and called themselves Grace Fellowship Baptist Church. Again, there were good days, and there were days of decline. Changing demographics and culture have caused many rural churches to decline. This is common and sad. About three years ago, Grace Fellowship voted to closed their doors as a church.
The remaining members still had a heart for the community. They desired to serve it through a clothing ministry and a food pantry; however, these types of ministry take a lot of labor, and they did not have the laborers to keep going. They have also maintained a ministry to the children of Panama. On Wednesday nights, several children from the community come to fellowship in a safe place and study the Bible. However, they longed to see a church come and be planted there once again. For a while Calvary Baptist Church in Hillsboro tried to help out. They would send a preacher and some musicians to try to get something going, but that too came to an end.
In September, 2016, Joe Lawson, Director of Missions for the Rehoboth Baptist Association contacted Jerad File, pastor of Woburn Baptist Church to see if he had interest in planting a new church in Panama. Jerad’s position in Woburn is bivocational, and he had been working full time in addition to pastoring the church. Jerad was very interested in the challenge, and in the opportunity to put more of his time into ministry. Jerad met a few times with the church planting team of the Rehoboth Association, and eventually met the remaining members of Grace Fellowship. It seemed clear to all who were in attendance that the time was right, and Jerad accepted the commission from the Rehoboth Association to work to plant a new church in Panama.
Beginning October 1, Jerad began visiting the community of Panama. He would visit the Nu Way Deli regularly to eat meals and to meet people in the community. He has come on Wednesdays to participate with the children’s ministry that had already been going on and to meet the children and their families. And lately, Jerad has also been doing door to door work within the community delivering homemade cookies and inviting people to come to their first services.
The new church will be called Redeemer Baptist Church of Panama. While this is a new church, it is clear that God has already been at work in the community. Once again, God has placed the need for a Baptist Church on the hearts of many people in the surrounding area. The first service that will launch Redeemer Baptist Church will be November 27, 2016. Since Jerad pastor’s two churches, the primary worship time for the new church plant will be at 6 pm. Since the date for the launch is the first Sunday of advent, the worship will use the songs of Christmas and the sermons will be focused on the promise of the Messiah in anticipation of Christmas.