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September 2021

Living Lessons


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ETEAM: Great Commission Dream

By Neil Gilliland


Ken and Marvis Eagleton were visionaries. Following many years of service in Brazil, they retired and returned to the States. Ken didn’t stop though; he worked at the IM, Inc. headquarters (then Free Will Baptist Foreign Missions). In the fall of 1991, Ken called me. “Neil,” he said, “we are waiting until students get to college to challenge them for missions. We need to start earlier. We need to give them an experience while they are still in high school. Will you help me?”

I don’t remember what took place between that call and June of 1992, but I do remember what happened that June. Ken, Marvis, their son Terry, and I welcomed a handful of high school students to the campus of Free Will Baptist Bible College (now Welch College). We called it TEAM—Teens Equipped and Active in Missions. We spent the next several days teaching and training this small group from around the denomination. As students moved from dorm rooms to classrooms, from the dining hall to the auditorium, they lugged their suitcases everywhere they went. (This was before suitcases came with wheels, and whoever invented those needs to be awarded a Nobel prize!)

At the end of the training, we gave them an opportunity to repack…lightly. After those days of learning the biblical foundation of missions, how to interact within a cross-cultural context, and a variety of other topics, that first TEAM boarded a plane and flew to Brazil with Ken and Marvis. The next year, we added a Panama team, doubling the number of teens experiencing cross-cultural missions.

I don’t think those pioneer dreamers could have foreseen nearly 2,000 young people fanning out across the globe to share the Good News of a risen Savior over the next three decades. Many current missionaries began their passionate journey to the nations with ETEAM. (Following Ken Eagleton’s death, the E was added to honor him.)

Today’s ETEAM program looks far different than it did in 1992. The training has morphed into a program that educates, inspires, and engages students in God’s plan for the peoples of the world. Yet the goal—to provide students with a challenge to personal involvement in the Great Commission—remains unchanged. Twenty-nine years later, we still meet on the campus of Welch College.

One of my jobs during training week is to “get rid of parents” on opening night. I encourage them to say goodbye well, explaining they won’t get the same child back. These students will not be able to un-see what they have seen, un-taste what they have tasted, or un-experience what they have experienced. I am not so naive that I don’t realize, for some teens, ETEAM is just another activity on the summer calendar; but for the majority of those who go, it is a life-changing adventure.

Each team has leaders who act as much more than adult chaperones. These leaders serve as counselors, teachers, mentors, “parents,” coaches, encouragers, nurses, etc. Leaders sacrifice almost a month of their summer for the privilege of investing in young people. Typically, the leaders are impacted as profoundly as the students. Some leaders have gone on to serve overseas because the Holy Spirit spoke to them about their deeper involvement in the Great Commission.

Several leaders have remarked, “Even if we had to leave after the week of training this would have been well worth it.” One leader explained, “My daughter went on ETEAM, and I don’t know what happened, but we want to be part of it because of the change we saw in her.”

Our field hosts deserve a standing ovation for their sacrificial commitment. They take a chunk from their summer schedule to host our students. They spend immeasurable hours preparing to provide students with a rich cultural experience and opportunities to share the gospel. I don’t have enough words to adequately thank our missionaries for investing in the youth of our denomination. (In case some of you missionaries are reading this, thank you so very much).

From those early days until the present, ETEAM has grown enormously. One team has expanded to as many as 12 teams annually trained and sent out to encourage overseas workers and share the good news of the gospel. Foot on the accelerator, we sped forward with excitement at what God was accomplishing. Then, for ETEAM and the rest of the world, the foot was violently jerked from the accelerator to slam on the brakes. Only a few months before ETEAM 2020, the world began to shut down. IM was forced to make the heart-breaking decision to cancel ETEAM 2020. Sadness enveloped all of those involved.

We cinched up our belts and began planning for 2021. Regardless of what prognosticators said, we kept moving forward. Plans were put in place, teams selected, and leaders secured. As 2021 approached, hope flourished. The pandemic slowed in the U.S. We prayed borders would open by June, and the ETEAM ship could once again unfurl her flags and sail to the ends of the earth. But as each month led into another, the global pandemic did not slow. In some places, the situation only worsened. Little by little, international borders closed. Once again, we were forced to apply the brakes.

All international trips were canceled. Then, a ray of hope broke through. Pastor David Potete called and offered to host his team. He even offered to receive more students than usual. David and the Northwest FWB Church have proven major supporters, hosts, and cheerleaders for ETEAM. For many years now, we have had an ETEAM Chicago. The church always provides students with an amazing cross-cultural experience while ministering in the city of Chicago. This partnership remains a vital part of our ETEAM program.

Once again, the program is back to one team. Instead of going to Brazil with Ken and Marvis, students boarded a plane to Chicago. No, it is not what we envisioned or wanted, but we are deeply grateful and indebted to David and his congregation.

Across the years, it has been a joy to watch the program expand and develop. From the visionary Eagletons to the present coordinator, Hanna Mott, ETEAM shines a beacon of light for our denomination and her youth. What do we plan for 2022? Once again, we will move forward. We will plan like COVID doesn’t exist. Join us in praying next year will once again offer this unique opportunity for our teens and their leaders as we labor with the Body of Christ to fulfill the Great Commission.

About the Writer: Director of mobilization and member care for IM, Inc. Neil fills his spare time as a professor, counselor, writer, fisherman, and avid bluegrass fan. His most cherished role is “papa” to his grandson Jagger.


©2021 ONE Magazine, National Association of Free Will Baptists