The fast-growing Texas city of Houston has more than 220 spoken languages and countless people groups, presenting a challenge in reaching the city with the Gospel.
“We’re the most ethnically, culturally diverse metropolitan area in the United States,” said Tom Billings, executive director of the Union Baptist Association (UBA), which helps mobilize Houston churches to impact the city for Christ.
One of the key ways UBA does this is by helping churches understand the area’s changing demographics. A burgeoning Hispanic population, combined with influxes of immigrants and refugees from far-flung countries like Pakistan and Sudan, means that churches must be prepared for people with vast cultural differences.
“We believe pretty strongly that in order to communicate the Gospel in a way that will be heard, [the] message has to be contextual,” said Josh Ellis, UBA’s senior church consultant.
One of Ellis’s chief roles with UBA is to conduct ethnographic research—studying ethno-linguistic people groups—in the Houston area. If a church wants to reach a certain ethnic group, for example, Ellis might create a map of where members of that group are scattered across the city. Or if a church wants to reach a certain area, Ellis can map out the various ethnic groups that live there. In addition, if a church wants to minister to an ethnic group that UBA has experience working with, UBA might hold consultations to help the church formulate or refine its strategy.
For some churches in Houston, the landscape has already shifted around them. A church whose area once consisted mainly of white residents, for example, may struggle to adapt to a neighborhood that is now largely Hispanic.
“In some cases we help them transition to new ministries, and in other cases we help them partner with churches that might be more contextually relevant,” Ellis said.
But helping churches understand demographics is only one of the many ways UBA is impacting Houston.
The association also focuses on strategic planning, research, consulting, helping churches start ministries, and leadership development.
One of UBA’s major leadership initiatives is called Lideres Transformadores (Transformational Leaders), a program that helps Hispanic pastors and church planters think strategically.
“It works to develop their leadership capacities, to provide additional tools for their leadership toolbox,” Billings said.
Jerry Edmondson, lead pastor of The Fellowship at Cinco Ranch, has been heavily involved with UBA since he went through a Leader’s Edge school the association held.
“They were instrumental in beginning a church planting assessment program, which [meant] we were assessing church planters to really help make sure that church planters were healthy, ready for the challenges of planting churches,” he said.
UBA also works with state Baptist conventions to collaborate on finding the best practices to reach people in their areas. Billings met with Baptist leaders in North Carolina last summer to discuss ways they could minister to the state’s people groups.
“[It’s] the biblical concept of iron sharpens iron,” Billings said. “Every time I go out and work with other groups, I learn something from them.”
Billings says UBA has streamlined its
operations to focus on doing things critical to its mission rather than trying to do everything. He also says UBA makes sure all its programs and strategies are adapted to fit Houston’s culture, context, and environment instead of simply transplanting ideas that worked elsewhere or imposing top-down directives.
“We try to think like missionaries in our own urban setting,” he said.
Perhaps UBA’s biggest initiative is “Loving Houston,” which launches with a June 1–8 project that includes city beautification, prayer, and community sporting events. It was conceived as a way to show the love of Christ ahead of the Southern Baptist Convention’s June 11–12 annual meeting in Houston and has grown into a monumental initiative involving churches, compassion-based ministries, and the city government.
Thousands of volunteers will descend on six major communities to conduct service projects including home renovation, demolition, and cleaning littered lots. UBA worked closely with the mayor’s office, which provided a list of projects that needed attention.
“What we’ve discovered is when it comes to service, that’s one area where we can all agree whether we’re people of faith or not,” Billings said. “There are people in the city government who want to see the city of Houston a better place to live.”
Taking a cue from Jesus’ healing and feeding ministries, Billings believes making Houston a better place to live is important to God, and he adds that it serves to establish credibility with the city’s people.
“My mantra is, ‘Doing good deeds in order to earn goodwill that we might share the Good News,’” he said. “I really hope that happens.”
COOPERATING FOR THE GOSPEL
Edmonson says that in addition to “Loving Houston,” UBA has been at the forefront of generating other ideas for ministry in the Houston area—“everything from thinking about how to get people together to serve the city, get people together to pray for the city, and getting people together to share the Good News of Christ,” he said.
A former pastor, Billings says he knows that one church, no matter how large, can’t reach a city by itself. He values UBA’s ability to look beyond a single community or suburb and instead focus on the entire city, leveraging relationships with churches to encourage them to unite for cooperative efforts.
“Somebody has to wake up every day and try and answer the question, ‘What can we do today that will extend the Kingdom of God in the city of Houston? What can we do to reach the city of Houston with the Gospel?’” he said.
John Evans, a member of Sagemont Church, is a journalist in Houston, Texas.