As the nation prepared for the first Super Bowl in the Bay Area in nearly three decades, Southern Baptists turned their eyes to a changing mission field – but one with a consistent need for new churches.
“Things are booming economically in the Bay Area,” said Rich Johnstone, the North American Mission Board’s (NAMB) Send North America city missionary for San Francisco. “At the same time, there’s not a corresponding boom spiritually – just yet. However, we are starting to see some momentum.”
Only 7 percent of metro San Francisco residents affiliate with an evangelical church – one of the lowest percentages of all of North America’s large cities. The region has only one Southern Baptist church for every 17,139 people. Santa Clara, the site of Super Bowl 50, is about 50 miles from San Francisco.
Photo courtesy Brett Butler
Brett Butler, right, baptizes Cornelius Hornage. Butler and his wife Patti moved in 2015 from Kentucky to Redwood City, Calif., to plant a church as part of Send North America: San Francisco.
Through Send North America: San Francisco, Southern Baptists have been working together the last few years to impact the spiritual destiny of the area by starting new churches. Southern Baptists have been in the Bay Area since the days of the Gold Rush (First Baptist San Francisco was the first Protestant church in California in 1849). But the Bay Area has always been a tough mission field – particularly during the last few decades, Johnstone said.
A new generation of Southern Baptist church planters is trying to change that. Johnston noted that Epic Church – planted in the heart of the city’s financial district – has celebrated its 5-year anniversary.
Johnstone also pointed to new church planters that are just beginning evangelistic works throughout the metro area. Brett Butler, a church planting apprentice in Redwood City, Calif., first felt called into missions a decade ago, not long after he became a follower of Jesus. Yet for eight years, he said, God left an important part of his family’s mission call unknown – where He was sending them.
Two years ago, while sitting in Buck Run Baptist Church in Frankfurt, Ky., Butler started reading Annie Armstrong Easter Offering materials that featured Epic Church and its pastor Ben Pilgreen. Almost immediately, God began to pull Brett and his wife Patti toward the Bay Area. Butler had attended college at the nearby University of California at Berkley, and his parents lived in Southern California.
“The whole Bay Area just made a ton of sense, looking back at our lives,” Butler said. “So we went back home and clicked the ‘Mobilize Me’ button on the NAMB website. And they had a great system – people emailed us and called us. We had trips out here. Some amazing God-things happened while we were out here. It just became really clear that this is what God wanted us to do.”
One of those “God-things” led to the couple leading their first person to faith in Christ before they even arrived on the field full-time. While visiting Redwood City, they met Gina Plute, who asked them why they were there. When the Butlers told Plute they were interested in starting a church, she told them she thought they should start one in Redwood City.
Photo courtesy Brett Butler
Brett, back right, and Patti Butler, front left, study the Bible with Cornelius Hornage, back left, and his friend Rubin Martinez at a local iHOP restaurant. Hornage has come to faith in Christ and been baptized by Butler since the couple arrived in Redwood City, Calif., last May.
Although she had experienced much success in life, she felt like something was missing. Finding out more about God, she thought, may be that missing link.
“So when do we get started?” Plute asked.
The Butlers then had to tell her that they lived in Kentucky, and it would take them some time to get started. Still they offered to do a Bible study with Plute over the Internet. Starting in December 2014, the three of them studied the book of John together. Last February, as the three studied John 3:16, Plute committed her life to Christ. Three others have come to faith in Jesus since the Butlers arrived in the Bay Area in May 2015.
Redwood City is about halfway between San Francisco and San Jose. As the county seat of San Mateo County, it has about 76,000 people and a small evangelical presence, Butler noted.
Butler’s partnership with California Southern Baptists – and Southern Baptists in general – plays a crucial role in his church planting efforts, he said. Besides the financial resources through the Cooperative Program and the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering that make it possible to live in one of the most expensive areas in the country, he pointed to the relational support provided by Southern Baptists.
“We’ve gotten hand-written encouragement cards in crayon from third-grade Bible study classes in Florida that we’ve never met,” Butler said. “It just brings tears to your eyes. We have people write us from Virginia, Ohio and Texas and places like that.”
Noting the significant spiritual need in the Bay Area, Johnstone said partner churches from outside of the region play a critical role in reaching people there. Because of the area’s diversity, many of the Bay Area church planters lead language churches or culture-specific churches.
“We love to partner with traditional large-launch church plants in the area, but we also have a corresponding need for churches who will come alongside these planters who speak a different language or come from a different culture,” Johnstone said.
For more information about Send North America: San Francisco, visit www.namb.net/SanFrancisco. Learn more about the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering at www.AnnieArmstrong.com.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tobin Perry writes for the North American Mission Board.)