News Articles

WEEK OF PRAYER: Diverse, sparsely inhabited New Mexico is his mission field

EDITOR’S NOTE: The annual Week of Prayer for North American Missions in Southern Baptist churches concluded March 13 in conjunction with the 2011 Annie Armstrong Easter Offering, with a goal of $70 million to help pay the salaries and ministry support of 5,000-plus missionaries serving in North America under the SBC’s North American Mission Board. For more information, go to www.anniearmstrong.com.

GRANTS, N.M. (BP)–Jim Turnbo, in working among Native American, Hispanic, African American and Anglo Southern Baptists in New Mexico, draws encouragement when he sees God glorified.

“When I am watching my pastors be effective for the Lord, and they’re drawing attention to the Lord and nobody knows who Jim Turnbo is, but they see God blessing in that church, that’s what gets me going like nothing else,” Turnbo said.

While his official title is regional associational missionary for the Mountain and Western Baptist Associations, Turnbo, 48, is first and foremost a church planter, jointly funded by the North American Mission Board and the Baptist Convention of New Mexico.

When he’s not planting new churches, he’s a loving gardener tending established churches, nurturning their healthy growth. And in his spare time, Turnbo is a coach, developing a cadre of discipled leaders among Baptist pastors and laypeople in New Mexico.

Turnbo and his wife Karen are two of more than 5,000 missionaries in the United States, Canada and their territories supported by the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for North American Missions.

The cities in Turnbo’s two associations are few and far between. There’s Gallup with some 20,000 inhabitants, located on Interstate 40 almost at the Arizona state line; Grants (population 9,000), where Jim and Karen live, about halfway between Gallup and Albuquerque; and Socorro and its 9,000 residents, due south of Albuquerque.

With New Mexico’s vast deserts, mountains, mesas and small communities, the state conjures up visions of the Old West. To the north of Turnbo are the Native Americans -– the Navajo Nation and the Laguna, Acoma and Zuni Pueblos. To his south are the Anglos, including the cowboy culture.

Turnbo’s mission field also includes a large percentage of Hispanics and African Americans. Among U.S. states, New Mexico has the highest percentage — 44 percent — of Hispanics. The state has the nation’s third-highest percentage of Native Americans after Alaska and Oklahoma.

“Eighty percent of our people are in the open country … so you have isolated, relatively small communities,” Turnbo said of the four-county region he serves. “But each pocket of people deserves the Gospel and so that’s what we’re here for.

“We have a mission field of 90 percent lostness among the people groups identified in the four counties. These are folks who need the Gospel but they’re not in large cities or glamorous locations. Most of them are in isolated pockets in communities that can never support a full-time church. God has placed a core group of Christians here as His instruments for getting the Gospel to them.”

With a population density of only 16 persons per square mile, New Mexico is the sixth-most sparsely inhabited state in the union. Some of the churches Turnbo supports are 400 miles apart.

“This incredible diversity of people groups in a spread-out geography of a vast territory means you just can’t take a program off the shelf and apply it to every one of our churches,” he said. “You have to do customized assessment and help our churches where they’re at.”

Turnbo supports 25 churches, and only four of them have full-time pastors with seminary training. The other 21 are served by bivocational staff, many of whom are homegrown lay leaders Turnbo himself has developed and coached.

“We have to do things a little bit differently than in the Bible Belt,” he said. “We have to serve our pastors around their schedules if they’re working [in other jobs]. Developing leadership and raising the level of lay leaders is one of our major priorities, especially with our Native Americans. We have to be about going where the churches are. We can’t just have a meeting and say, ‘Y’all come.’ We have to be more relational.”

Turnbo’s ministry in New Mexico is sort of a fulfilled prophecy. When he was a young pastor, one of his mentors said, “Jim, there will come a time when God turns your attention from building your own ministry to helping others build theirs.” Two years ago, he began doing just that in the Land of Enchantment.

The NAMB missionary believes his personal background and experience was provided by God to prepare him for his unique assignment.

“I was raised in the LDS Church, the Mormon Church. Here, we have a significant number of Mormons in the area so I have an affinity for them and a desire to see Mormons come to Christ. I spent eight years in western Nebraska working with Native Americans, and God has used that to prepare me for coaching Native American pastors.

“I grew up in the boroughs of Houston and my family is Hispanic,” Turnbo said. “We have a large unreached Hispanic population here. So it just seems that as I was growing up, God brought me through one area or another that just suited me for the unique mix of people groups we have here in New Mexico.”

In Rock Springs, a Navajo community about four miles north of Gallup, Turnbo and Peter Cho, a Korean missionary to the Navajo, are revitalizing a Navajo church now attended by nearly 30 people.

“This is the beginning of what we hope is an incredible ministry, and one that is strategically important for us,” Turnbo said. “The church is located on property right on the Navajo Nation reservation, so we have incredible access to the community.

“I pray for an awakening among the Navajo people, which is a nation of wonderful, precious people, but it is a lost nation. Only a small percentage of Navajo people are saved. We need a spiritual awakening among the Navajos and hearts to be opened to our witness so many people would come to Christ. Part of this need is for leadership in our Navajo churches. We need indigenous pastors, deacons, worship leaders and youth workers.”

Explaining why the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering is important his ministry, Turnbo noted, “It really enables us to do what we do. We’re in an area that’s sparsely populated, and there is very little support system beyond the association and the state convention, which are far away. Because of Annie Armstrong, we are able to live among these people, be connected with all these churches, and provide the support they need to reach their communities effectively.”

Turnbo earned a bachelor’s degree from East Texas Baptist University in Marshall, a master of divinity from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, and a doctor of ministry at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Mo. He also served as a pastor in Texas, Louisiana and Nebraska.

Karen — Jim’s wife of nearly 25 years — supports her husband as his ministry assistant, a Vacation Bible School coordinator, music leader and as a mentor for other pastors’ wives. He and Karen have three children, Elizabeth, 19; Lydia, 15; and James, 10.
Mickey Noah writes for the North American Mission Board.

    About the Author

  • Mickey Noah