By David Dawson
In some cases, in fact, the impact literally lasts for eternity.
Since its inception, the ministry — which provides backpacks filled with toys, clothes and other items to children in low-income families — has served as a gateway for children to come to know the Lord in a personal way.
Through the distribution of backpacks, children are able to see the love of God on display through the kindness and generosity of people they are unlikely to ever meet in person.
Those types of “after-effects” are at the heart of the ministry, said Beth Moore, compassion ministry specialist for the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board.
“The Christmas Backpacks ministry is a wonderful way to provide Christmas gifts to children in Tennessee, but it is actually so much more than that,” said Moore. “Through this ministry, Tennessee Baptist churches can ‘go and tell’ children what Jesus has done for them. It’s an incredible opportunity!”
This year, the TBMB compassion ministry team is hoping to distribute 6,500 backpacks in Tennessee, which would be a new high-water mark for the ministry.
Moore said it will be a daunting task, but said she is excited about the challenge.
“It is always an exciting — and scary —thing when the task before us is impossible to complete in our power,” said Moore. “I am excited to watch and wait for how God is going to provide.”
While “spreading Christmas joy” is certainly part of the ministry, the greater purpose is to promote the true meaning of Christmas, Moore said.
“The Christmas Backpacks ministry is a tangible way for our churches to show the love of Christ to their communities,” she said. “In a time when we see fewer and fewer young people connected to a local church this ministry allows children and teenagers to have an encounter with the body of Christ and to hear a clear gospel message.”
ABOUT THE MINISTRY
The Christmas Backpacks ministry was formed many years ago, when Baptists in Georgia, North Carolina and other states began collecting toys, clothing, hygiene items and food to put into backpacks and deliver to children as Christmas gifts.
Tennessee Baptists joined the ministry in 2018, and provided more than 3,500 Christmas Backpacks, with roughly 150 churches participating from around the state. That number increased to 5,500 backpacks in 2019, when nearly 200 churches were involved. Last year, despite the pandemic, the numbers continued to climb, with more than 5,800 backpacks distributed from 176 total churches.
“As this ministry grows and becomes more familiar to our churches and ministries that seek to reach impoverished children, the demand for more backpacks only grows,” said Joe Sorah, Harvest Field Ministry Team Leader for the TBMB.
“The backpacks are a wonderful tool for ministry advancement,” he said. “Doors open for the gospel and people are more receptive than usual,”
Before moving into his current role as Harvest Field Team Leader, Sorah served as the TBMB’s compassion ministry specialist, and was the director of the Christmas Backpacks ministry.
He said last year was especially challenging because of COVID, but said that, ultimately, the hardships made the success of the event all the more special.
“It was truly amazing,” he said. “Although some churches chose not to participate last year due to COVID, some churches elected to participate in other ways. Many gave money and gift cards, which allowed us to buy backpacks and gifts to put in the backpacks. Some churches did not have VBS last year, and they passed the funds that they would have used for VBS to us to give backpacks.”
STRIVING FOR MORE
Sorah and Moore agreed that, on paper, this year’s goal of 6,500 backpacks seems like an enormous challenge. And yet, they both said they are ready for the challenge — and ready to see God at work in the months ahead.
“In order to meet this goal, it will require doing what we, as Baptists, do best: working together,” said Moore. “Sometimes the cost of filling a backpack is a hinderance. But Sunday School classes, small groups or missions groups can work together to fill a backpack or two. I believe as everyone does what they can, the Lord will multiply our efforts to meet the needs before us.”
Sorah agreed, saying that the only way the goal will be reached is through the power of God. “We are excited about trying to reach 6,500, but more than that, we are a bit overwhelmed,” he said. “The most important thing to remember is that each number represents a child.”
Sorah said he hopes churches in Tennessee will be motivated by the opportunity to introduce children to Jesus.
“While I hope to give backpacks to 6,500 children in Tennessee, I am more concerned with the opportunity to share the gospel with 6,500 children,” he said. “Wouldn’t it be an amazing thing if we saw hundreds of children come to Christ in Tennessee this year through this ministry? That’s what excites me.”
Sorah, like Moore, said cooperation and participation from churches all across the state will be the key.
“My message to churches is that we need whatever you can give, even if it is just one backpack from your church,” he said.
THE NEED IS GREAT
Sorah said he has been encouraged by the way many Tennessee churches have embraced the ministry over the past few years.
“The Christmas Backpacks ministry is one of the highlights of the year for many Tennessee Baptists,” he said. “It is an opportunity to show an often overlooked part of Tennessee that someone cares. It is a wonderful opportunity.”
Sorah said the need for the ministry is greater now than ever before, noting that over 19 percent of children in Tennessee are raised in families that live below the poverty line.
“The Christmas Backpacks ministry is one simple way that we can reach out to them with love and hope,” he said. “Tennessee Baptist churches have answered the call for the past three years and given sacrificially to make a huge statement to these children and their families.”
Sorah reiterated that seeing new believers come to know the Lord is the ultimate measuring stick of the ministry’s success.
“Children as well as family members are hearing the gospel, many of whom are responding and accepting Christ,” he said. “Tennessee is a mission field, and the backpack ministry is one way we can engage an important people group in our mission field. That’s our focus.” B&R — Churches and individuals can learn more about Christmas Backpacks by visiting www.tnbaptist.org/backpacks.