North American Mission Board missionary Vivian McCaughan enters Hidden Valley Estates in Wentzville, Missouri, and thanks God for the changes she sees.
Vivian points out the new community center, the tidy landscaping and the covered pavilion built on the dusty spot where outdoor baptisms once took place in a rented cattle tank.
But mostly, she thanks God for transformed lives. She remembers back almost twenty years ago when she first saw the 200-unit apartment community as a suffering mass of humanity. In those days, the complex was infested with drugs and crime.
McCaughan got behind the work begun in 1990 by Pastor Dan Hite and forty-five members of Christian Family Fellowship, which began its ministry by serving a Thanksgiving meal to 230 residents. The Twin Rivers Baptist Association had targeted the complex as a strategic focus area. In those early days, McCaughan taught children and women and helped to make connections with churches and resources, according to Hite. "She became our greatest cheerleader."
By the next year at Thanksgiving, the new church served 350. It also ran a week-long Life Fair ministry, holding various life skills workshops for adults, VBS for the children, and ended the week with a Christian concert. Hite said management noticed a significant drop in the number of complaint calls to the police and to the complex's office that week — down from forty calls to just two.
The complex manager later called Hite and said, "I don't know what you did but all I know is I want you here all the time." That week, the church saw 123 professions of faith and would later rent a cattle tank for outdoor baptisms in the middle of the community.
After meeting for those first years at a nearby dance school, the church now meets in a community center built on eleven acres bought in 1996. The center serves the community's six hundred residents — consisting of a majority of single mothers and children — and offers daycare for infants up to five-year-olds, an after-school reading and sports program, GED and pre-college tutoring, mentoring, cooking classes, and fragile family counseling.
Serving as the North American Mission Board's multihousing/church planting missionary to Missouri and as the Missouri Baptist Convention's missions/evangelism team leader, McCaughan sees a huge mission field in multihousing communities.
In Missouri, where 37 percent of its population of 5.9 million lives in multihousing, her job is not a small one. She says that every county in Missouri has some type of multihousing facility, whether an apartment or condominium complex, an inner-city housing project, a mobile home park, cluster homes, duplexes, or blocks of homes that are subdivided. And 97 percent of the residents who live in multihousing are unchurched, according to a national NAMB study.
McCaughan says among these unchurched multihousing residents, studies show that generally 40 percent will go to a Bible study or worship experience on the property, but that only three or four percent of residents will attend a church off the grounds.
After ministries are launched on the multihousing properties, she says, "the ultimate goal is to hold Bible studies and worship experiences on the property and to have a long-term presence.
"The long-term presence on the property is a body of believers. It may not have a church-looking facility, but having that body of believers who come together on that property is our goal," she said.
"The biggest fallacy in multihousing/church planting is that people think it can happen overnight, and they are willing to jump in and go into a community for a week, two weeks, maybe even for a year," she says.
McCaughan stresses that missions is all about building relationships over time.
"In some instances, it may take five or ten years for a church plant to take hold so that the residents see it as their church and their mission field. It's a long-time process."
But McCaughan has always had a passion for reaching people where they are.
"We (the church) have to figure out that we've got to go where the people are," she says.
Though McCaughan was appointed as a missionary in 1988 by the former Home Mission Board, NAMB's predecessor, it wasn't the first time she had done missions in multihousing.
As an elementary school teacher, she soon realized many of her students had no church affiliation. She had some students who lived in a trailer home park, so she came up with the idea to hold backyard Bible clubs for three consecutive summers. The first summer, two summer missionaries helped her. They had eighty-seven children and twenty-seven of them received Christ.
"Back then," she jokes, "I didn't even know what multihousing was." Later, her pastor asked her to consider working in the field.
Today, McCaughan works with leaders and volunteers in twenty year-round, established multihousing ministries, and with another thirty or so properties with seasonal ministries.
Encouraging churches and leaders in the state's sixty-three associations to see their opportunities to serve and to support them with resources for multihousing/church planting is one of McCaughan's main responsibilities. Her other assignments include serving as coordinator for WMU/ Women's Missions and Ministry, Heartcall Evangelism, and World Hunger. And she leads a ministry for wives of pastors and the state's fifty-six directors of missions (DOMs).
Her long to-do list usually rests on the console of her car — her "office" — as she logs about three thousand miles monthly, roaming the state from her Missouri Baptist Convention office in Jefferson City and from her home in St. Charles, visiting DOMs and state and associational ministries. She keeps in contact with the DOMs and their wives through emails, phone calls, and notes when she cannot visit in person.
McCaughan's missionary plate is full, but all the work fits together and does not deter her, even though at times she admits that if she thinks too much about all of her responsibilities, she "may panic or even feel sick to her stomach." That's understandable.
In 2007, Vivian was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and after surgery and radiation, she completed two years of chemotherapy. At first, McCaughan says she worried more about how her husband Jim would handle her cancer since his first wife — the mother of his three children — died with cancer. She says she's grateful that tiredness is the main side effect from the treatment, but she continues to work her busy schedule.
"I lost my hair and wear a wig now, but no big deal," she admits.
Missions is what McCaughan was made for. She says it's in her DNA. After all, her father was a pastor widely known in Missouri for his missions heart.
Before receiving her call to missions at 13, as a young girl, McCaughan traveled the highways and back roads of Missouri — much like she does now — only then she accompanied her father when he served on the state's missions staff and as a church pastor.
Routinely, McCaughan makes the drive from Lebanon to Springfield to visit Bolivar Road Apartments. There, she meets with Winston Barnett, pastor and executive director of Lifebuilders Ministry, which in 2008 began an outreach program in the ninety-unit complex largely populated by single mothers and children. Serving with volunteers from four local churches from the Greene County Baptist Association, the ministry runs a weekly Bible study for adults and children, averaging about thirty in attendance.
Like McCaughan, Barnett hopes that more churches will see multihousing communities as their mission field.
Letting people know she cares is important to McCaughan. "We have to earn the right to share Christ," she says.
On a recent visit to a local restaurant McCaughan frequents with her husband, a waitress stopped by her table to tell her she was excited about the upcoming Sunday's church service at her complex. After not having a church home for quite some time, the waitress planned to visit and consider joining the church.
The waitress then told McCaughan how she had always appreciated the couple's encouragement and friendliness over the years, and thanked her for the notes and pamphlets they usually left behind with their tip.
One business card they left simply said, "Introducing Jesus to you is the best way I know to say thank you."
Laura Sikes is a photojournalist and writer living in Alexandria, Virginia.