Instead, they’re counting on the gospel.
“I’m thinking that there can be a faithful gospel presence literally in every community in St. Louis,” said Kenny Petty, a Southern Baptist church planter in St. Louis.
“These things are heart issues. And there’s only one thing that can deal with the heart of man and that’s the gospel of Jesus.”
Photo by Elizabeth Comer
With more than 2.8 million people in the metro area, St. Louis is among North America’s great unreached urban centers. Less than 15 percent of the city’s population is affiliated with an evangelical church and nearly half of the population is unaffiliated with any religious group – Christian or otherwise. Through Send North America: St. Louis, local Southern Baptists plan to start more than 75 churches in the city during the next five years.
Yet, only 14.8 percent of metro St. Louis’ 2.8 million people are affiliated with an evangelical church, according to the Association of Religion Data Archives. Even though Southern Baptists have been in the city for as long as there has been an SBC, there’s only one SBC church or church-sponsored mission for every 7,037 residents.
Local Southern Baptists have begun efforts to start more than 75 new SBC churches in the city over the next five years through their Send North America: St. Louis initiative.
Send North America is the North American Mission Board’s (NAMB) national strategy to mobilize and assist individuals and churches to get involved in hands-on church planting in 29 major cities and other areas throughout the continent. Through Send North America, NAMB will come alongside Southern Baptist churches that are not directly involved in church planting and help connect them to a church plant. And NAMB will partner with Southern Baptist churches already planting churches to help them increase their efforts.
A team of St. Louis Southern Baptists has been meeting since August to develop the local strategy. While there are vast church planting needs throughout the metro area, starting churches among the mostly African American urban core is one of the highest priorities of those developing the strategy of Send North America: St. Louis.
“We’re like most Southern Baptists in urban environments in that we vacated our cities 30-50 years ago to go and move to the counties and suburbs,” said Jim Breeden, executive director for the St. Louis Metro Baptist Association. “So there is a huge need and gap for new church plants in the urban core – or what we call ‘the city.’”
Send North America: St. Louis organizers have been particularly aware of the city’s racial divide. While penetrating the large pockets of lostness within the city is the primary objective, many believe intentionally cultivating indigenous African American church planters can help bridge that divide.
“I think people want to see real gospel change,” said Kenny Petty, a St. Louis native who is starting The Gate in University City, an inner-ring suburb of St. Louis. “And the gospel changes things like no other – even race. Racial issues, economic issues are changed through and from the gospel.”
St. Louis also needs more non-English speaking church plants. Local Southern Baptists say the city has more than 60,000 Bosnians and receives some of the largest amounts of Iraqi refugees in the country. Those planning Send North America: St. Louis would like to train indigenous leaders from these nations to start new churches within their communities.
Reaching the city’s international population won’t be easy. Just ask North American Mission Board church planter Yoshi Ubukata, who started a church five years ago to reach the city’s growing Japanese population. At the time, Ubukata said, there were no Japanese-speaking churches that he knew of in the state of Missouri.
Nearly five years into the life of Japanese International Harvest Church, the congregation has grown steadily to around 35. “Most of the Japanese people don’t know anything about Christianity because they were brought up in a totally pagan culture,” Ubukata said. “The gospel is very strange to them.”
Yet Ubukata knows the Japanese people are much more likely to respond to the gospel in North America than back home in Japan. “They don’t like to be different from other ‘normal’ Japanese people,” Ubukata said. “The Christian population among the Japanese people is still said to be less than 1 percent. If you’re Christian, you’re very different from other Japanese people.”
St. Louis Southern Baptists realize they can’t reach their goal of 75 new church plants alone. A vast increase in partnerships will be needed.
“I’ve found that one of the great things that a church planter needs in that season is other congregations, other churches, other friendships that will come around him, and where he can know people are praying for him. And when they say they’re praying for him, they mean it,” said Jason Zelmer, who planted Peine Ridge Church in nearby Wentzville in 2010.