As a Southern Baptist pastor
for the last 30 years — and as a North American Mission Board (NAMB) missionary
for the past six — Louis Spears has conducted many a funeral. But none of
them prepared him for the long, lonely walk behind his wife’s casket almost two
A native of Guthrie, Okla.,
Spears and his wife, Shelley, had been married for 32 years — ever since they
were both 20-year-old church planters in Oklahoma. But in May 2008, she
succumbed to a pancreas-related illness only 11 days after its sudden onset.
“Shelley was an incredible
person, a woman of many talents,” says Spears. “The main thing I miss
about Shelley — other than just being together as not only my spouse but also
my best friend — is the amount of prayer-time she spent on my
ministry. She was really my partner in ministry. It’s a huge loss and
huge gap in my life.”
tried-and-true personal faith prevented him from caving in to the temptation of
chucking his whole ministry and blaming God in the process.
“I never thought about
blaming God. I was not mad at God. The worst thing was being totally
cut off from Shelley, missing her encouragement and positive reinforcement.”
Still after almost two
years, the 54-year-old missionary said the grief is still “like big ocean waves
that just swell up over you and you can’t fight them, but you know the Lord is
the Lord, that He is supreme, and that in His design, He had a purpose for it.
“I can’t see it and I don’t
understand it but I really don’t argue with Him about it. I really tried
during Shelley’s 11-day crisis and through the last year to live my life
without regrets. I didn’t leave anything undone or unsaid,” said Spears,
who has a 24-year-old daughter, Amy, one grandchild and another on the way.
Spears is one of some 5,300
missionaries in the United States, Canada and their territories supported by
the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering® for North American Missions. He is
among the North American Mission Board missionaries featured as part of the
annual Week of Prayer, March 7-14, 2010. This year’s theme is “Live with
Urgency: Share God’s Transforming Power.” The 2010 Annie Armstrong Easter
Offering’s goal is $70 million, 100 percent of which benefits missionaries like
While no one or nothing can
ever replace the vacuum in his life caused by Shelley’s death, Spears depends
on his challenging missionary work in Arizona to take up some of the slack,
ease the pain and bring new victories.
With an estimated 71 percent
of Arizona residents as unbelievers, Spears, a church planting strategist with
the Valley Rim Baptist Association, faces a huge challenge. In addition to
Mesa, the association serves 50 churches and missions in the Tempe, Scottsdale,
Chandler and Gilbert areas of metro Phoenix.
Because land and buildings
are so expensive in the greater Phoenix area, Spears focuses on planting
“tactical” churches instead of brick-and-mortar churches, which can financially
strap a congregation with huge indebtedness in its infancy and make survival
“Tactical churches are
collections of people who have not been reached before,” Spears
explains. “We try to target an area where the Kingdom of God hasn’t been
before. Some may be apartment complexes, mobile home parks, house churches
or just a gathering of people at a Starbuck’s.”
According to Spears, the
Phoenix area is the 12th largest metro area in the United States.
“We’re in a
vast multicultural setting. We have a lot of unchurched, unsaved
“We’re way behind on the
number of churches we need in order to impact these individuals’ lives. We have
only one church for every 23,000 people in Arizona. Since we don’t have many
churches that run 23,000 every week, it’s vital for us to have funds to do
evangelistic outreach, buy Bibles and other resources to help posture the
churches we do have.”
Evangelical Christians — of
which Southern Baptists represent the largest group — only represent two
percent of the state’s population, trailing Catholics and Mormons.
“We have some churches that
are in senior adult communities. We have multi-ethnic churches like Native
American, Filipino and African-American churches. We have a large Spanish-speaking
population. Over 35 percent of the people in Arizona speak Spanish.”
On top of the diversity, the
uncertainty in the Phoenix area housing market is driving people to
multihousing developments — whether apartments, townhouses, condominium
communities or mobile home parks.
“Statistics show that only a
small percentage of those people will ever come out and go to anyone’s church,
so we believe it’s important to take church to them,” says Spears.
Spears begins by meeting a
multihousing development’s property managers — to get in from the ground up and
establish good working relationships.
“We begin by asking the
managers what their needs are,” he said. “We try not to assume that we know the
industry better than the people who work in it. Most apartment communities
know how to evict people, know how to charge the rent, know how to handle air
conditioning problems and pest control. But what they don’t understand is the
“They lose money every time
somebody moves so by building a ministry and a partnership with them, it helps
to build a sense of community. The people are more likely to stay,” Spears
To assist both the property
managers and the tenants themselves, Spears and his team do things like forming
kid’s clubs in the afternoon to give them a place to go and something
meaningful to do. They often provide lunch to latch-key children, who are on a
break from school and whose parents work. Afternoon soccer games are offered.
Summer sports camps via mobile trailers can be deployed to various multihousing
An offshoot of Spears work
with multihousing communities was his introduction to the Travelers, the
substantial “gypsy” culture and population of Arizona.
Spears says outsiders like
him are usually not successful at trying to approach and penetrate the closed
gypsy culture. “American gypsies actually discovered me and began to attend our
church in Mesa,” he explains. “Eventually, I was accepted into their
The gypsy mission field is a
natural extension of Spears’ missions work in multihousing since so many
gypsies travel in RVs and live in mobile home parks throughout southern Arizona
because of the area’s warmer winters.
“People who give through the
Annie Armstrong Easter Offering help supply a base of church planters and allow
them to have a living while they’re beginning to build new congregations,” said
“Without the Annie Armstrong
offering, I would be able to devote only a fraction of the time to tactical
church plants, and even less to reaching the Travelers (gypsies) population.
But because of the offering, in addition to my salary, I receive training,
materials for evaluation and training, demographics for new and existing church
areas, and am able to network with other church planters across the country.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Noah is a
writer for the North American Mission Board.)