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Missionary in Cleveland guides ‘Bridges of Hope’ initiative

CLEVELAND, Ohio (BP)–Showing pretty fair pitching form, Randy Chestnut winds up and fires the baseball. With a clang, Randy’s fastball nails the metal target and another victim plops into the dunking pool to gales of laughter in the crowd of several hundred.

And while this block party on a bright sunny day on the green lawn of Park Heights Baptist Church in the Middleburg Heights section of Cleveland is replete with gospel music, games for the kiddies and food and refreshments for all, it’s serious work for Randy and wife Denise. They’re doing the King’s business.

For two years now, Chestnut has served as director of missions and a North American Mission Board missionary for the Greater Cleveland Baptist Association. Randy wasn’t always a Southern Baptist. He was raised in a Roman Catholic home in Dayton, Ohio.

When he married Denise, his high school sweetheart, 25 years ago, he first worked as a construction electrician. Today, he says God “hard-wired” him from birth for his present job as director of missions in Cleveland.

Chestnut is one of more than 5,300 missionaries in the United States, Canada and their territories supported by the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for North American Missions. He’s among eight Southern Baptist missionaries to be highlighted as part of the annual Week of Prayer, March 5-12, 2006. The 2006 Annie Armstrong Easter Offering’s goal is $56 million, 100 percent of which is used for missionaries like the Chestnuts.

“Without the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering, Denise and I couldn’t be serving as missionaries here in the Cleveland area,” Chestnut said. “Fifty percent of my salary is supported by the Cooperative Program, so it means the difference between this association having or not having a director of missions.

“The 2 million people of Cleveland are an interesting, diverse lot,” Chestnut noted. “We have people from 117 different nations. We have a lot of folks with Eastern European roots. But the Asian population is the fastest-growing segment of the population. I’d describe Clevelanders as tough, hard-working people. The weather up here tends to make people tough, but they’re also the friendliest I’ve ever met.”

The Greater Cleveland Baptist Association consists of 37 churches -– 20 are Anglo while the rest represent different ethnic and language groups, including African American, Spanish, Korean, Ukrainian, Russian and Slavic congregations. There’s even a church for the hearing-impaired.

But 24 of the 37 churches have less than 100 people in Sunday worship services. Some use traditional worship, some are contemporary and one group even employs “rap” and “hip-hop” to get the Gospel message across.

One of Southern Baptists’ biggest challenges in Cleveland, Chestnut said, is to be culturally relevant.

“Whether the worship service is traditional, contemporary for young people in the suburbs or in rap or hip-hop for the inner city, we have to do church in a way that will interest people. That’s a real challenge. Now, hip-hop may not be my favorite genre, but I do like to see people reached for Jesus, whatever it takes.”

Another challenge for the Chestnuts is to inspire and re-invigorate those 24 smaller Baptist churches with less than 100 people at Sunday services.

“Some -– not all -– of these smaller churches are discouraged and feel like they don’t have anything to offer. Some of them feel like their day has come and gone. My job is to challenge them and to show them that God has a great future for them, too.”

Help from other Southern Baptists is on the way.

The North American Mission Board has selected Cleveland as a “Strategic Focus City.” That means that over the next few years, evangelism and church planting efforts in greater Cleveland will be intense and extensive. The campaign’s theme is “Cleveland Hope: Building Bridges of Love,” reflecting the historic local nickname of “City of Bridges.”

“By being a Strategic Focus City, we will partner with Southern Baptist churches who will offer us new resources –- volunteers, money and prayers -– to expand the Baptist presence and more importantly, the presence of Christ in the greater Cleveland area. For example, members of the First Baptist Church of Canton, Ga., came up here to support us with the games and food for the successful block party [in Middleburg Heights], where we were able to share Christ and contact many prospects.”

Chestnut’s plans for missions in Cleveland go far beyond maintaining the status quo.

“We hope to start 37 new congregations and baptize 3,000 by December 2007, which would effectively double the size of our association,” said Chestnut, explaining that in the United States there is an average of one Southern Baptist church for every 6,400 people, but in Cleveland there is only one Southern Baptist church for every 43,000 people.

To reach the U.S. ratio, Cleveland would have to plant 228 more churches over and beyond the 37 it already has. Stated another way, Cuyahoga County (Cleveland) has 38 different cities or towns in the metro area, and 30 of them do not have a single Southern Baptist church.

“So there’s plenty of room for our existing churches to reach outside of themselves and be involved in church planting right here in the greater Cleveland area,” Chestnut said.

“Sometimes I ask God, ‘Why am I here for such a time as this?’ Then I remember that my heart has always been for people in the city.”

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  • Mickey Noah