TUSCALOOSA, AL (BP) – Fifty-seven percent of Americans live in multihousing communities -- apartment complexes, trailer parks, condo communities and so on, according to figures from the North American Mission Board. In Tuscaloosa, Ala., that number reaches closer to 65 percent, mainly because of the universities in the area, said Eric Boykin, missional strategist for Tuscaloosa Baptist Association since 2013. Since taking on the role in Tuscaloosa, Boykin has seen God open doors for more than 30 multihousing ministries -- something near to his heart since he was raised in Section 8 housing and adopted at age 9.
Across the state of Alabama, Boykin explained, 50 percent of those who live in a regular-sized single family home are connected to some kind of evangelical church. But according to NAMB, only 5 percent of those who live in a multihousing community are connected to a church.
Where the lostness is!
"What that means is ... if you live (in a multihousing community in Alabama) you are 10 times less likely to go to church than if you lived in a home," Boykin said. "That's significant. Especially since 65 percent of our city lives in these kind of communities. They are spiritual black holes. This is where the lostness is." To reach those spiritual black holes of the state Boykin and his team at the association formed a strategy for starting what they call "missional communities," where they strive for "something spiritual" happening in the area. But he's not doing it alone. Boykin has gathered and trained a network of volunteer leaders -- made up of pastors, single people, mothers, students, retirees -- and meets monthly with them in locations across the county where they pray together, share strategies, compare notes and "see what they can do to work on the outreach together."
NAMB also provided Tuscaloosa Association with 25 student missionaries in 2014 to live onsite and work in communities in Tuscaloosa every day to build intentional relationships with the hopes of starting missional communities.
Some of the missional communities already established are at Green Village and Wood Village, both trailer parks, as well as Section 8 apartment complexes, The Links & Greens at Tuscaloosa. In January 2015, Boykin helped implement the missional community strategy across 11 metro areas of the state -- including Mobile, Montgomery, Auburn and Huntsville. NAMB and the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions (SBOM) have each provided $25,000 to implement the strategy and fund one part-time missionary in each of the 11 metro locations. Each missionary is a multihousing strategist (MHS) for that area, Boykin explained.
Training up leaders
MHS's are trained at a "Learning Lab" to see how the strategy has been implemented in Tuscaloosa and participate in the monthly network gathering.
The end goal of the strategy is that each one of these missionaries will plant four missional communities in multihousing communities in the year -- or 44 missional communities across the state by the end of the year. In each missional community, leaders teach those who participate in a Bible study or other small group outreach how to study the Bible for themselves, Boykin said. Boykin noted, "We ask three questions: What does the Scripture say? What does it mean? What does it matter? We ask those three questions after studying the Bible together. We want (residents) to be able to do this themselves as opposed to needing a pastor or a Sunday School teacher to come in and lead them. We don't want them to depend on someone outside."
So what's the secret to success in reaching multihousing communities in Tuscaloosa, and now other areas? It takes organization, prioritization and prayer, Boykin said. "First of all we cannot reach people with a program," Boykin said. "These are people. So we do ministry to focus on people by using the acronym PEOPLE:
P – Pray with fervency.
E – Engage the culture.
O – Open the Word.
P – Prepare key leaders.
L – Launch sustainable ministries. (Bible studies, kids club, English as a Second Language classes)
E – Exit with care. "Find the 'Lydia' of the community so they can be equipped and lead the
ministry ... building sustainability to the ministry," Boykin said.
Support from NAMB and SBOM has made it possible for Boykin to share this strategy in even more areas across the state, starting with multihousing ministry luncheons -- informational meetings held this spring in Opelika, Gadsden, Dothan, Birmingham, Bessemer, Montgomery, the Shoals area, Mobile, Baldwin County and Huntsville. At the Shoals area luncheon, held April 19 at Highland Park Baptist Church, Muscle Shoals, Boykin shared with more than 15 leaders and volunteers about the multihousing community strategy and had Bryant McGee, missions intern at Highland Park Baptist and MHS for the Shoals area, discuss how he's been a part of starting two large missional communities in the past year.
McGee, a junior at the University of North Alabama in Florence, said, "We've been working at Sheffield Homes (a Section 8 area of town) ... and have seen 50 people come to Christ. It's just been awesome." McGee orchestrates a team of volunteers who host a weekly kids club at Sheffield Homes, noting that an average of 43 kids participate in the club. "Multihousing ministry could be anything but our main goal is to make something that will last," McGee said. "I report to Eddy Garner (director of missions for Colbert-Lauderdale Baptist Association, who then reports to Boykin) and I train people to take up the roles. A lot of my workers are high school and middle school students who are taking on teaching roles, recreation roles and craft roles."
Rick Barnhart, director of SBOM's office of associational missions and church planting, who participated in the luncheon, suggested that church leaders consider planting "persons of peace" into communities they are trying to reach.
Persons of peace
"Be the person of peace and be the instrument in the community to lead," Barnhart said. "Find students ... that want to live the life of Christ out and be missional all around the state. Commission them to be missionaries ... in their apartment complexes." Above all else, when trying to reach multihousing communities, "don't go in there and do a one-time event," Barnhart said, "because you'll ruin the opportunity for folks to come in the future." Boykin noted, "If you're going to make a difference, it's not about the pictures or leaving a gift. It's about loving them and staying there. It's a process. There's a lot of struggle in those communities. There's not going to be a quick fix. We've got to dig deep."
And Highland Park Baptist plans to dig even deeper at Sheffield Homes. Because there's been such a strong foundational relationship, the church plans to open a preschool in the complex in the future. But starting an outreach is not about growing the church, Pastor Brett Pitman said. "Your church exists for the Kingdom," he said. "Your church was birthed at a certain point and it's going to die at some point. They won't last forever. We've got to do everything we can to advance the Kingdom." And for Boykin, seeing missional communities flourish is "one of the most exciting things to be a part of in ministry," and working with NAMB and SBOM in this one-of-a-kind relationship is "just a win-win-win for everybody."
For more information, contact Eric Boykin at firstname.lastname@example.org.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR Neisha Roberts is editorial production coordinator for The Alabama Baptist (www.thealabamabaptist.org), newsjournal of the Alabama Baptist Convention.