ALTOONA, Iowa—Every year, thousands of eager bicyclists engage in a festive ride across Iowa called RAGBRAI (the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa) during the last full week of July. The event beckons anyone, from native Iowans riding for their 30th consecutive year, to tourists from a vast array of nations experiencing the rural American Midwest for the first time.
To some, RAGBRAI is a vacation; to others, an exercise milestone; but to Pastor Chris Humburg of Altoona Regular Baptist Church, it is an opportunity for ministry. While local retailers leap at the chance to hike up prices and gouge for the additional dollar, Pastor Humburg and his congregation take advantage of the extra tourism to strive for an eternal impact.
For five of the past six years, Altoona Regular Baptist Church (this year partnering with Adelphi Calvary Baptist in Runnells) has set up a makeshift rest stop along the side of the bicycle route where they offer free watermelon to any of the roughly 20,000 riders who form a steady trickle throughout the morning. It’s not just the watermelon, however, that attracts the attention of passersby. The shady oasis is complete with a tire pump, cold water, and a photography stand, all without cost.
“Whenever we see ‘free,’ it’s like a magnet!” says an excited cyclist who expected to be charged for the fruit. Since the riders are tirelessly ripped off at every stop along their way, many of them offer out-of-pocket donations to Altoona’s endeavor, though the money is kindly refused.
“We don’t believe in merchandising people,” says Pastor Humburg, “That’s not how they are reached with the gospel. People are curious because they can’t understand why the watermelon doesn’t cost them anything. Why would people give anything away on RAGBRAI? ‘Well, it’s grace,’ we tell them, and ultimately it leads to the fact that salvation is free.”
Since the outreach is casual and nonintrusive, socialization around the watermelon tables is automatic. And with free food in their grateful hands, none of the cyclists refuse to take a church pamphlet or tract from the mingling volunteers.
Though the ministry reaches 2,000–3,000 people every year, few people visibly respond. “You have to trust the sovereignty of God,” Pastor Humburg says. “We just sow as much seed as possible.” And it is a lot of seed. This year another 3,000 guests were impacted within a span of three hours.
It’s not just the cyclists being blessed by the ministry though. Dozens of volunteers end the morning with the grace of God on their hearts. “All kinds of people have helped,” says Pastor Humburg. “It’s a great ministry for anyone, from new believers to longtime members.”
Pastor Humburg wants his ministry ideas to encourage other pastors and church leaders. “Be creative,” he advises. “You can do a lot of things with the gospel without being fleshly or worldly. There are tons of unique ways to reach people.” And that’s not just a typical spiel; Pastor Humburg and his congregation at Altoona Regular Baptist have started many unique ministries, from sports camps to clothing drives, blessing their community with the grace and love of our Savior.
Seth Thompson attends Faith Baptist Bible College, Ankeny, Iowa, and is a member of Bethel Baptist Church, Oskaloosa. He won second place in the 2011 Talents For Christ writing competition.