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Working ‘hard as we can’ in Pittsburgh

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the sixth of eight stories highlighting North American Mission Board missionaries as part of the 2009 Week of Prayer, March 1-8, and the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for North American Missions, with a goal of $65 million to help support Southern Baptists’ 5,600 North American missionaries. Today’s missionary, Lamar Duke, has accepted a new position as state director of missions for the Baptist Convention of New York.

PITTSBURGH, Pa. (BP)–In North American Mission Board missionary Lamar Duke’s native Alabama, there’s one Southern Baptist church for every 1,452 people. In the Pittsburgh, Pa., area where Duke served the last six years, there’s only one SBC church for 61,225 people.

Some 3 million people live in the nine-county area of the Baptist Association of Southwestern Pennsylvania — so broad that it takes over three hours to drive it north to south and more than two hours east to west.

“We believe that approximately 2 million of those people are unchurched,” said Duke, adding that this flies in the face of one report calling Pittsburgh the third most religious city in America.

“We Baptists, of course, know that what some call ‘religious’ may not always be Christian. There’s a lot of religion here, but there’s not much relationship with Jesus,” he said. Only an estimated 5 percent of the metro Pittsburgh population claims to be evangelical Christians.

Duke, who served as director of missions for the Baptist Association of Southwestern Pennsylvania, is among the 5,600 missionaries in the United States, Canada and their territories supported by the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for North American Missions. Duke and his wife Dolly are two of the missionaries featured in this year’s Week of Prayer, March 1-8, with the theme, “Live with Urgency: Sowing Together for Harvest.” The 2009 Annie Armstrong Easter Offering’s goal is $65 million.

With his southern drawl, Duke is seldom confused as a native Pittsburgher. In coming to Pittsburgh in 2002 as a long-time pastor in Georgia, Duke had to learn about the city’s culture and diversity.

Although ranked as the 22nd largest metro area in the United States, Pittsburgh also has a small-town feel, with each of its 1,600 boroughs having its own ethnic and religious traits. Some 140 identifiable ethnic groups call Pittsburgh home.

Duke tells a funny story about how careful he has to be with words commonly used in the South, stemming from a speaking engagement in the Polish Hill area of Pittsburgh, “where, of course, most are Polish.”

“I told a funny ‘Bubba’ story,” Duke recalled, explaining that in the South “Bubba” is the well-known name for a “good ol’ boy” and the brunt of many a joke.

“After I spoke, a man told me he thought I was talking about his grandmother because, in the Polish community, grandmothers are known as ‘Bubba.'” Duke just laughs at his innocent gaffe but said he learned not to make that mistake again.

What Duke doesn’t laugh about — in fact he’s known to weep about it — is the profound lostness across the greater Pittsburgh and southwest Pennsylvania area. Duke became emotional on stage when talking about Pittsburgh’s spiritual state with NAMB President Geoff Hammond at the 2008 Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting in Indianapolis.

As Duke describes it: “The fact that 95 percent of the local population has no recognizable, identifiable relationship with Jesus Christ is what drives me. It gets me out of the bed in the morning and keeps me up at night. Our vision at our association is that we cannot rest until there is a vital, evangelizing, discipling, reproducing church within driving distance of all the 3 million people in the nine counties of southwestern Pennsylvania, and a church where they can worship in their heart language.”

Before coming to Pittsburgh, Duke was the founding pastor of South Effingham Community Church in Guyton, Ga., serving there from 1996-2002. He previously held pastorates in Louisiana, New Jersey and Alabama.

He and his wife Dolly, also an Alabama native, have been married 38 years. They have two grown children, Cheri D. Witmer and Thomas L. Duke, pastor of Iron City Church, also a church plant in Pittsburgh.

So why did he leave Georgia — with its abundance of Baptist churches — to come to Pittsburgh?

“I thought I was ready to retire,” Duke said. “I’d been a pastor for 31 years and I knew pastoring. I’m still a pastor at heart. I’m more comfortable behind a pulpit than anywhere else. But I felt God was moving me to multiply my ministry.”

A graduate of the University of Mobile with a B.A. in religion and an M.Div. from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, Duke had been schooled to believe that church planting is the most effective and efficient way to reach unchurched people.

“So we’re doing everything we can to salt and seed the area with the Gospel,” Duke said. “We believe church planting is the way to do that because the more salvation stations we can create, the more opportunity those people have to hear the Gospel.

“So if somebody comes up with a better way to reach these people for Jesus, I’m all about that. But up to this point, they haven’t, so we’re planting churches — as hard as we can, as much as we can, as qualitatively as we can. And we’re putting everything around these church planters we can to make them successful.”

Duke — who, as the local director of missions saw himself a wholesaler, not a retailer, in the church planting business — still believes as an associational leader that “you have to have smoke on your clothes from being in a fire if you’re gonna tell other people how to fight the fire.”

So he’s had a direct or indirect hand in the number of churches in his association increasing from 38 to 71.

One of the church planters Duke has motivated and coached is Larry Walker, pastor of West Hills Baptist Church in Moon Township, Pa., a 35-year-old church. West Hills’ attendance has climbed from 60 each Sunday to 90. Another 500 are touched each month via the church’s extended ministries.

“A church that comes back is a church that begins to get in touch with their community and starts thinking outwardly,” Duke said.

West Hills Baptist did just that, Walker said. The church started ministering in neighborhoods and communities. It now supports a pregnancy center, holds Bible studies for the elderly at a senior high-rise apartment and works with the homeless in downtown Pittsburgh.

“Lamar just has a great burden for lost people and a great burden to see new churches planted here in the area,” Walker said. “It’s been a privilege to work with Lamar because of his enthusiasm. It’s good to hang around with him and catch the vision God has given him about seeing other churches planted.”

In addition to West Hills’ own ministries, the church now houses a separate Hispanic church, ministering among the thousands of Hispanics living and working in greater Pittsburgh. Another Duke protégé, Moises Rosario, pastors that congregation, meeting at 3 on Sunday afternoons at West Hills.

“Lamar has a great vision and is a great man of God,” said Rosario, a Hispanic church planter in his own right in Pennsylvania having helped start congregations in Moravia, Oakland, Coraopolis, Grove City, Erie, Altoona and Martinsburg.

Duke believes that churches plant churches — not associations, state conventions or mission boards.

“So our goal is to enable, equip and empower our churches to catch a vision, have the resources and partner and sponsor with other churches to get new church plants off the ground,” Duke said. “There’s no reason to plant a church if you don’t intend to reach people for Jesus Christ. We’re not planting social clubs here, we’re planting churches.”
Mickey Noah is a writer for the Southern Baptist North American Mission Board.For more information on this year’s Week of Prayer missionaries and the ministries of the North American Mission Board, visit www.anniearmstrong.com.

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  • Mickey Noah