PITTSBURGH, Pa. — In North American Mission Board missionary Lamar Duke’s native Alabama, there’s one Southern Baptist church for every 1,452 people.
In the Pittsburgh area, where Duke served the last six years as director of missions for the Baptist Association of Southwestern Pennsylvania, there’s only one SBC church for 61,225 people.
Some 3 million live in the association’s nine-county area — so broad that it takes over three hours to drive it north to south and more than two hours east to west.
“We believe that approximately two million of those people are unchurched,” says Duke, adding that this flies in the face of one report calling Pittsburgh the third most religious city in America.
“We Baptists, of course, know that what some call ‘religious’ may not always be Christian. There’s a lot of religion here, but there’s not much relationship with Jesus,” he said. Only five percent of the metro Pittsburgh population claims to be evangelical Christians.
Duke is one of more than 5,500 missionaries in the United States, Canada and their territories supported by the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering® for North American Missions. He is among the NAMB missionaries featured as part of the annual Week of Prayer, March 1-8, 2009. This year’s theme is “Live with Urgency: Sowing Together for Harvest.” The 2009 Annie Armstrong Easter Offering’s goal is $65 million, 100 percent of which benefits missionaries like Duke.
With his size, shaved head and southern drawl, Duke is seldom confused as a native Pittsburgher. And since coming as a long-time pastor in Georgia to Pittsburgh in 2002, Duke had to learn about the culture and diversity of Pittsburgh.
Although ranked as the 22nd largest metro area in the United States, Pittsburgh also has a small-town feel — comprised of some 1,600 boroughs, each with its own ethnic and religious traits. Some 140 identifiable ethnic groups call Pittsburgh home.
Duke tells a funny story about his most recent object lesson in the area’s culture and diversity and how careful he has to be with words commonly used in the South.
“I recently was speaking in the Polish Hill area of the city, where, of course, most are Polish. I told a funny ‘Bubba’ story,” Duke recalled, explaining that in the South, “Bubba” is the well-known name for a “good old boy” and the brunt of many a joke.
“After I spoke, a man told me he thought I was talking about his grandmother because in the Polish community, grandmothers are known as ‘Bubba.’” Duke just laughs at his innocent gaffe, but said he won’t make that mistake again.
What Duke doesn’t laugh about — in fact he’s known to weep about it — is the profound lostness of the greater Pittsburgh and southwest Pennsylvania area. Before thousands last summer at the 2008 Southern Baptist Convention meeting in Indianapolis, Duke became emotional on stage with NAMB president Geoff Hammond when talking about Pittsburgh’s sad spiritual state.
“The fact that 95 percent of the local population has no recognizable, identifiable relationship with Jesus Christ is what drives me. It gets me out of the bed in the morning and keeps me up at night.
“Our vision here at our association is that we cannot rest until there is a vital, evangelizing, discipling, reproducing church within driving distance of all the 3 million people in the nine counties of southwestern Pennsylvania, and a church where they can worship in their heart language.”
Before coming to Pittsburgh six years ago, Duke was founding pastor of South Effingham Community Church in Guyton, Ga., serving there from 1996-2002. Before that he had pastorates in Louisiana, New Jersey and Alabama.
He’s been married to wife Dolly, also an Alabama native, for 38 years. They have two grown children — Cheri D. Witmer and Thomas L. Duke, pastor of Iron City Church, also a church plant in Pittsburgh.
So why did he leave Georgia — with SBC churches on every corner — to come to Pittsburgh?
“I thought I was ready to retire,” Duke says. “I’d been a pastor for 31 years, and I knew pastoring. I’m still a pastor at heart. I’m more comfortable behind a pulpit than anywhere else. But I felt God was moving me to multiply my ministry.”
A graduate of the University of Mobile with a B.A. in religion and an M. Div. degree from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, Duke had been schooled to believe that church planting is the most effective and efficient way to reach those 2 million unchurched people in his association’s area.
“So we’re doing everything we can to salt and seed the area with the gospel,” said Duke. “We believe church planting is the way to do that because the more salvation stations we can create, the more opportunity those people have to hear the gospel.
“So if somebody comes up with a better way to reach these people for Jesus, I’m all about that. But up to this point, they haven’t so we’re planting churches — as hard as we can, as much as we can, as qualitatively as we can. And we’re putting everything around these church planters we can to make them successful.”
Duke — who, as the local director of missions considers himself a wholesaler, not a retailer in the church planting business — still believes as an associational leader, “you have to have smoke on your clothes from being in a fire if you’re gonna tell other people how to fight the fire.”
Since coming to Pittsburgh six years ago, he’s had a direct or indirect hand in the number of churches in his association increasing from 38 to 71 — probably up to 75 in the near future.
One of the fellow church planters Duke has motivated and coached is Larry Walker, pastor of West Hills Baptist Church, Moon Township, Pa., a 35-year-old church. West Hills once ran only 60 each Sunday but now sees a weekly attendance of 90. Another 500 are touched each month via the church’s extended ministries.
“A church that comes back is a church that begins to get in touch with their community and starts thinking outwardly,” according to Duke.
West Hills Baptist did just that, said Walker. The church started ministering in neighborhoods and communities. It now supports a pregnancy center, holds Bible studies for the elderly at a senior high-rise apartment, and works with the homeless in downtown Pittsburgh.
“Lamar just has a great burden for lost people and a great burden to see new churches planted here in the area,” said Walker. “It’s been a privilege to work with Lamar because of his enthusiasm. It’s good to hang around with him and catch the vision God has given him about seeing other churches planted.”
In addition to West Hills’ own ministries, the church also now houses a separate Hispanic church, ministering to the up to 30,000 Hispanics living and working in greater Pittsburgh.
Another Duke protégé, Moises Rosario, pastors that congregation, meeting at 3:00 on Sunday afternoons at West Hills Church.
“Lamar has a great vision and is a great man of God,” says Rosario, an Hispanic church planter in his own right, who, in addition to the West Hills church, has helped plant Hispanic churches in Moravia, Oakland, Coraopolis, Grove City, Erie, Altoona and Martinsburg, Pa.
Duke believes that churches plant churches — not associations, state conventions, agencies, or mission boards.
“So our goal is to enable, equip and empower our churches to catch a vision, have the resources, and partner and sponsor with other churches to get new church plants off the ground,” Duke said.
“There’s no reason to plant a church if you don’t intend to reach people for Jesus Christ. We’re not planting social clubs here, we’re planting churches.
“We just want to make it hard to go to hell from Pittsburgh,” said Duke.
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Since his selection as a 2009 Week of Prayer missionary, Duke has accepted a new missionary position as state director of missions for the Baptist Convention of New York. For more information on this year’s Week of Prayer missionaries and the ministries of the North American Mission Board, visit www.anniearmstrong.com.)