DALLAS (BP)–More than 60 percent of Texans live in apartment units, and 96 percent of those tenants are unsaved. That means great potential for ministry exists for churches, according to Barbara Oden, multi-housing church planting consultant with the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention.
Oden, who has worked with creating and structuring multi-housing ministries for the past 20 years in such cities as New York City, Las Vegas, Houston and Dallas, also is a former apartment manager.
“I think if we’re going to reach our cities in America with the message of Christ, then we have to get into these communities,” Oden said. “Apartment complexes are growing and growing every day.”
The Texas Apartment Association (TAA), for example, represents apartments in 26 cities providing housing for more than 3.8 million Texans in 1.5 million rental-housing units.
Multi-housing ministry provides a sense of community among people who live in close proximity, Oden noted. These ministries offer classes that meet the needs and wants of the tenants such as after-school tutoring for children, crafts, cooking, art, Bible studies, Spanish as a Second Language (SSL), English as a Second Language (ESL) and more.
“The apartment managers want a tool that will keep the people from moving out, so they are looking for something to offer the residents,” Oden said.
Multi-housing ministry provides that with classes, free of charge, led by local church volunteers. “We are looking to create classes and activities necessary to be able to build relationships with people who are not the least bit interested in God,” Oden said. “Multi-housing ministries in Texas congregations are reaching people who would never darken the door of our churches.”
Oden said it is not unusual for church services to take place in the apartment complex after the volunteers have established a meeting place and time. “They are winning people to Christ, baptizing them, starting Bible studies, having regular services there,” Oden said.
One pastor and his wife, Harry and Nilda Impini of Mission Lochwood/La Mission in Dallas, spend each week at a local apartment complex ministering to children and their families.
During the school year, Nilda oversees two kindergarten classes a week for children ages 4 and 5 and an after-school class for the older kids from 3:15-5:30 p.m. every day except Fridays. Her church hosts two mini-Vacation Bible Schools each year, one in March and the other in June, at the complex reaching 20-25 kids each time. During their last VBS, eight children made professions of faith. La Mission also hosts Backyard Bible Clubs.
Nilda ministers to children of various ethnic backgrounds through Bible study, songs, art and crafts. On Wednesday nights, she gathers a carload of children from the complex to attend services at La Mission.
Recently, she befriended a family with four children, who, like many of those among whom Nilda ministers, have strong Catholic ties. At first, the mother of the children refused to let them attend the classes with Nilda. But after developing a relationship with the mother, the children were finally given permission as long as they attended Mass on Sunday.
“One of the little girls wanted to be a missionary,” Nilda said. “She recently received Jesus as her Savior, went to the front and wanted to be baptized. I went to her mother, and she was very upset and said she would remain Catholic until she turned 18, and then she could make her own decisions.”
The little girl cried to Nilda because her mother “would not let her” be a Christian. But Nilda comforted the little girl by telling her that she was a Christian in her heart and that, although her mother had made some rules she didn’t like, she had to obey and respect her.
Since then, Nilda has developed a close relationship with the mother as well as the children. All four children have accepted Christ along with their father. This is not the only family that Nilda has grown close to as she tries to transcend their Catholic traditions.
“I hurt for them, but I have to understand that Jesus is the one in control,” Nilda said. “I have to depend on Him and be very quiet, not letting my human flesh control my spiritual side.”
Of the multi-housing ministry, Nilda said, “I think it is important for others to get involved in spreading the Word of God. We aren’t supposed to be sitting down in the church enjoying ourselves and then go home and forget everything. People around us are dying without Christ. We have to be conscious of this and knock on doors or do whatever it takes to get them to Christ.”
Nilda noted that apartment residents are constantly moving, thus it is important to give a life-changing witness promptly while establishing relationships with the tenants. Other “apartment missionaries” like the Impinis are working to do the same in multi-housing units across Texas, Oden said.
For church members interested in starting this type of ministry, Oden explained that it depends “on the wheels and motions in the church. When you have to go through committees, it could take up to three months. If it is a smaller church, then sometimes in a week they are off and running. The problem is never the apartments, but it’s the church that is the hardest to get going.”
Many of the apartment residents refuse to enter a church building, so such ministry doesn’t always benefit the local church’s attendance numbers, Oden noted.
“I would hope that more churches would get involved,” Oden said. “If I could go out to any given city in Texas and have just a few days, I could probably find 50 apartment communities that would open their doors, but I would not be able to find 50 churches that would want to participate. I pray that more people would become more aware of the mission field right at our doorstep.
“My prayer is for laypeople to be involved and get out there where the ministry is,” she said. “This is how I’ve grown in ministry. My heart aches for people to experience that kind of blessing in their Christian life.”
An “Emerging Multi-housing Church” conference will be Aug. 26-27 at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth. See www.experiencemultihousing.org for information. The registration deadline is Aug. 15.