EDITORS’ NOTE: March 4-11 marks the 2007 Week of Prayer for North American missions. This is the second of eight stories in Baptist Press featuring North American Mission Board missionaries and their ministries supported by the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering.
SEATTLE, Wash. (BP)–Seattle can seem like one big paradox.
On one hand, it is the largest city in the Pacific Northwest, with nearly 574,000 people in Seattle proper and about 4 million in the metro area.
Also known as the “Emerald City” because of the region’s lush evergreen trees, Seattle has been called the most literate city in the United States. The most recent census found that Seattle has the highest percentage of college graduates of any major U.S. city. And according to Men’s Fitness magazine, it is the fittest city in the country. The area is home to Microsoft, Boeing and Starbucks.
Seattle also is a multiethnic city where some 190 different languages can be heard and many world religions are represented. More than 80 percent of the residents say they believe in something beyond the physical realm.
At the same time, only about 4 percent of greater Seattle’s 4 million people are evangelical Christians.
“Seattle has never been a Christian city,” noted Gary Irby, church planting missionary for the North American Mission Board and the Puget Sound Baptist Association. “It’s not post-Christian -– it’s never had a predominant Christian influence.”
And therein lies the rub for 46-year-old Irby, whose sole mission is to plant new churches to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the Puget Sound area, which is about 100 miles long and 40 miles wide.
Irby is among the 5,300-plus missionaries in the United States, Canada and their territories supported by the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for North American Missions. He’s one of eight missionaries highlighted as part of the annual Week of Prayer, March 4-11. The 2007 Annie Armstrong Easter Offering’s goal is $57 million, 100 percent of which is used for missionaries like Irby.
“One of the important things we’ve discovered is that you cannot presume that people in Seattle have a basic understanding of the Gospel,” Irby said. “You can’t assume they’ve ever been in church, that they’ve ever even seen or read the Bible. Many people around the country don’t understand that there’s a part of the United States like that.
“What we have to do is listen in order to share. Seattle people want to know that you genuinely care about them before you can start to share your faith. So when we talk to people, we talk about their belief systems. We ask them, ‘Where are you in your spiritual journey?’ And as they open up, we gain the opportunity to share our faith with them.”
Irby is a native of Fort Wayne, Ind., who considers Richland, Wash., as his hometown. He earned degrees at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Wash., and Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary in Mill Valley, Calif. He pastored churches in Seattle and Oregon. He’s been married to Joyce, his childhood sweetheart, for 25 years, and they have four children. Irby also comes from a long line of church planters.
“My granddaddy was a bivocational church planter in north Texas. Then my dad went into the ministry at an early age, moved to Indiana and planted eight churches there before I turned 7 years old.
“But even with my background, it wasn’t an absolute sure thing that I was going to be a minister, much less a church planter. I thought about music, education and even politics before God led me into the ministry.”
As a young minister in Washington state, Irby served a church that was growing, albeit slowly. He became frustrated with himself and with God. He said he prayed and did the things he needed to do to grow the church but it just wasn’t happening.
Irby asked God, “Lord, what’s going on here? What gives?”
“And God said to me very clearly -– the clearest I’ve ever heard Him -– ‘Gary, you’ve been adding. It’s time to start multiplying.’ In other words, He meant that it was my turn to get involved in churching planting.”
And during his 20 years as a church planter -– nine of them in Seattle -– Irby has been answering God’s call to multiply.
“About seven years ago, we had about 100 churches in the area,” Irby said. “We’ve seen that number grow to about 170 churches in 20 different languages. Over half of the new churches we’ve started have been churches using a language other than English.” These include Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Filipino, Russian and Spanish.
In addition to planting churches focused on nationalities, Irby and the 65 church planters he’s directed over the last nine years have targeted groups based on age. For instance, some churches focus on the “Millennials” (teens and 20s), the “Busters” (early 30s to 40) and, of course, the “Baby Boomers” (late 40s to early 60s). They also have planted new churches in apartment complexes, theaters and schools.
Irby said that while the Scripture is constant and unchanging, church planting methods should be flexible and church planters need to think outside the box and adapt to the local culture.
“One of the first things I tell church planters is that the only wrong kind of church plant is the one in which its planter thinks that’s the only way to do it -– that the church has to be this or that only,” he said.
“My role as a church planting missionary is to help recruit and train church planters, to assess them, to help them find partners and to help them discern where God is leading them to plant a church. A lot of planters come in and say, ‘Just tell me where to plant a church.’ I tell them I won’t do that. I’ll leave that to God. We’ll show them a half-dozen possible places and pray with them about where God is leading them.”
Church planting can be lonely, challenging work, Irby said; it’s tough to be away from one’s family and to leave a place where you’re comfortable to move to a non-Christian location like Seattle.
“Another challenge is having enough resources and partners to help. We find that it takes an average of six churches to help support every new church plant. So it can be a great struggle if they don’t have enough people coming alongside them,” Irby said.
“It’s a constant struggle to find enough churches to come and help us with the new church plants. It takes prayer support, mission involvement and financial giving. But as much as we need money, it’s more than that. We want supporting churches that will commit to pray for us regularly and consistently, and churches that will send people to come and help us with short-term missions.”
For Irby, it’s not just planting churches that excites him the most.
“I love to see people come to faith in Christ. That’s why we plant churches. It’s just such a cool thing to see the new churches celebrate every time they hold baptism services. It’s like a big party. People are so excited about their new life in Christ that they practically jump out of the water.”
How does Irby feel about the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering?
“It’s such a huge blessing to know that when I get up in the morning, I can immediately get after what God has called me to do instead of figuring out how I’m going be able to live, survive and feed my family. We need a great deal of resources, and the core of those are the resources that come from the Annie Armstrong offering.”