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After wife’s death, he still plants churches

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the last of eight stories highlighting North American Mission Board missionaries as part of the 2010 Week of Prayer, March 7-14, and the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for North American Missions, with a goal of $70 million to help support Southern Baptists’ 5,300 North American missionaries.

MESA, Ariz. (BP)–As a Southern Baptist pastor for the last 30 years, and as a North American Mission Board missionary for the past six, Louis Spears has conducted many funerals. But none of them prepared him for the long, lonely walk behind his wife’s casket nearly two years ago.

A native of Guthrie, Okla., Spears and his wife Shelley had been married 32 years, ever since they were both 20-year-old church planters in Oklahoma. But in May 2008, she succumbed to a pancreas-related illness only 11 days after its sudden onset.

“Shelley was an incredible person, a woman of many talents,” said Spears, now a church planting strategist with the Valley Rim Baptist Association in Mesa, Ariz. “The main thing I miss about Shelley — other than just being together as not only my spouse but also my best friend — is the amount of prayer time she spent on my ministry. She was really my partner in ministry. It’s a huge loss and huge gap in my life.”

Spears’ tried-and-true faith prevented him from caving in to the temptation of chucking his whole ministry and blaming God.

“I never thought about blaming God. I was not mad at God. The worst thing was being totally cut off from Shelley, missing her encouragement and positive reinforcement,” he said.

After almost two years, the 54-year-old missionary said the grief is still “like big ocean waves that just swell up over you and you can’t fight them, but you know the Lord is the Lord, that He is supreme, and that in His design He had a purpose for it.

“I can’t see it and I don’t understand it, but I really don’t argue with Him about it. I really tried during Shelley’s 11-day crisis and through the last year to live my life without regrets. I didn’t leave anything undone or unsaid,” said Spears, who has a 24-year-old daughter Amy, one grandchild and another on the way.

Spears is one of some 5,300 missionaries in the United States, Canada and their territories supported by the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for North American Missions. He is among the North American Mission Board missionaries featured as part of the annual Week of Prayer, March 7-14. This year’s theme is “Live with Urgency: Share God’s Transforming Power.” The 2010 Annie Armstrong Easter Offering’s goal is $70 million, 100 percent of which benefits missionaries like Spears.

While nothing can ever replace the vacuum in his life caused by Shelley’s death, Spears depends on his challenging missionary work in Arizona to take up some of the slack, ease the pain and bring new victories.

With an estimated 70 percent of Arizona residents being unbelievers, Spears faces a significant challenge as a church planting strategist. In addition to Mesa, the Valley Rim Baptist Association serves 50 churches and missions in the Tempe, Scottsdale, Chandler and Gilbert areas of metro Phoenix.

Because land and buildings are so expensive in the greater Phoenix area, Spears focuses on planting “tactical” churches instead of brick-and-mortar churches, which can financially strap a congregation with indebtedness in its infancy and make survival more difficult.

“Tactical churches are collections of people who have not been reached before,” Spears said. “We try to target an area where the Kingdom of God hasn’t been before. Some may be apartment complexes, mobile home parks, house churches or just a gathering of people at a Starbucks.”

Noting that the Phoenix area is the 12th largest metro area in the United States, Spears said, “We’re in a vast multicultural setting. We have a lot of unchurched, unsaved individuals. We’re way behind on the number of churches we need in order to impact these individuals’ lives. We have only one church for every 23,000 people in Arizona. Since we don’t have many churches that run 23,000 every week, it’s vital for us to have funds to do evangelistic outreach, buy Bibles and other resources to help posture the churches we do have.”

Evangelical Christians, among whom Southern Baptists represent the largest group, only represent 2 percent of the state’s population, trailing Catholics and Mormons.

“We have some churches that are in senior adult communities. We have multi-ethnic churches like Native American, Filipino and African American churches. We have a large Spanish-speaking population. Over 35 percent of the people in Arizona speak Spanish,” Spears said.

On top of the diversity, the uncertainty in the Phoenix area housing market is driving people to multihousing developments, whether apartments, townhouses, condominium communities or mobile home parks.

“Statistics show that only a small percentage of those people will ever come out and go to anyone’s church, so we believe it’s important to take church to them,” Spears said.

Spears begins by meeting a multihousing development’s property managers to get in from the ground up and establish good working relationships.

“We begin by asking the managers what their needs are,” he said. “We try not to assume that we know the industry better than the people who work in it. Most apartment communities know how to evict people, know how to charge the rent, know how to handle air conditioning problems and pest control. But what they don’t understand is the human element.

“They lose money every time somebody moves, so by building a ministry and a partnership with them, it helps to build a sense of community. The people are more likely to stay,” Spears said.

To assist both the property managers and the tenants themselves, Spears and his team do things like forming kids’ clubs in the afternoon to give them a place to go and something meaningful to do. Latch-key children, who are on a break from school and whose parents work, may be fed lunch. Afternoon soccer games are offered. Summer sports camps via mobile trailers can be deployed to various multihousing communities.

An offshoot of Spears’ work with multihousing communities was his introduction to the Travelers, the substantial gypsy population of Arizona.

Spears said outsiders like him usually are not successful at trying to approach and penetrate the closed gypsy culture.

“American gypsies actually discovered me and began to attend our church in Mesa,” he said. “Eventually, I was accepted into their fascinating culture.”

The gypsy mission field is a natural extension of Spears’ missions work in multihousing since so many gypsies travel in RVs and live in mobile home parks throughout southern Arizona because of the area’s warmer winters.

“People who give through the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering help supply a base of church planters and allow them to have a living while they’re beginning to build new congregations,” Spears said.

“Without the Annie Armstrong offering, I would be able to devote only a fraction of the time to tactical church plants and even less to reaching the Travelers population. But because of the offering, in addition to my salary, I receive training, materials for evaluation and training, demographics for new and existing church areas, and am able to network with other church planters across the country.”
Mickey Noah writes for the North American Mission Board. To view video profiles of all 2010 Week of Prayer missionaries, go to www.anniearmstrong.com/2010video.

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