KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Sitting against the backdrop of the Appalachians, the weathered house with a sunken roof seemed to hang on the side of the mountain defying gravity.
That’s what Tim Earl remembers about the house he worked on in Briceville, Tenn., the site of the first World Changers project in 1990. A small coal-mining town, Briceville and its residents had seen better days before the mine played out and, now, was in need of much assistance.
It became the laboratory for a new kind of ministry — high school students, male and female, doing construction projects, with the aim of getting students out of the classroom and onto the mission field where they could put hands and feet to their faith.
It was the first time anyone had suggested that students could be used in construction-type ministry projects. That summer, 137 youth and adults painted, roofed and performed other light construction jobs on nine homes in the area.
Earl, then the interim youth minister at Central Baptist Bearden in Knoxville, Tenn., took a group of 10 youth to the pilot project.
“I really didn’t want to go,” Earl admits. “I didn’t promote World Changers because I didn’t know how to do construction. Fortunately, some parents encouraged me to take a small group, and it changed my life. Miss Doris’ house needed a lot of work. Her husband had died years before of black lung disease, and she couldn’t afford to make the much-needed repairs.”
Earl’s crew along with three adults and seven students from other participating churches re-roofed the backside of the house and built a retaining wall to keep water from flooding Miss Doris’ basement.
The pilot project in 1990 was a success. Partnering with local churches, Southern Baptist associations and city governments, World Changers became one of the first student volunteer organizations to help alleviate substandard housing in the United States.
It also was one of the first pre-packaged mission trips for Southern Baptist churches.
“As the youth leader, I didn’t have to worry about who’s going to feed us, who’s going to speak or where am I going to get the materials,” Earl recounts. “All that’s done for you. That’s such a gift to the youth minister.”
But what has kept Earl coming back year after year is the effect World Changers has on the students.
“Many of them have never been on a roof or picked up a hammer. That first day they are always so shocked by the task before them,” Earl says. “And then at the end of the week: seeing that finished project we did in four days with a crew of strangers who are not professionals, and realizing that the only way it happened was because of God using us and working through us.”
Twenty years and more than 20,000 homes later, World Changers, a ministry of Southern Baptists’ North American Mission Board, is still changing the lives of low-income residents as well as students.
“I have watched in awe through the years as the continuing blessing of God has sustained and strengthened World Changers,” said Mike Day, director of missions for the Mid-South Baptist Association and one of the founders of World Changers. “I think His greatest blessing, of course, is the ever-growing commitment of churches to mobilize their students for mission.
“This approach, no matter how creative and innovative, would have no appeal if God was not doing a work in the hearts of churches and students that drives them to minister to others,” Day said. “His blessing has also sustained the initiative through financial challenges, leadership changes and even the reorganization of the SBC [during the mid-1990s].”
This summer, more than 23,000 teenagers and adults are sharing God’s love by providing free labor in communities across the country. Students pay $249 and give up a week of their summer to sleep on the floor of a local high school and work eight-hour days, often in 90-degree heat.
To celebrate the 20th anniversary, World Changers returned to east Tennessee. Earl, now college and young adult minister at Central Baptist Bearden, coordinated a July 5-9 project in Knoxville when 300-plus students and adults helped roof or repair 20 homes in the metro area.
As a part of the celebration, a new Christian rock band, 7eventh Time Down, held a concert for participants, debuting their song “World Changer.”
John W. Bailey, team leader for student volunteer mobilization at the North American Mission Board, told the World Changers participants in Knoxville how excited he was about their generation and the increasing number of opportunities they have now to make a difference in North America and around the world.
“At the very beginning, few youth leaders were taking students for a whole week and putting them in this type of ministry,” Bailey said. “I’m grateful for the past and look forward to the future.”
In 1991, Bailey was a youth minister at First Baptist Church in Memphis, Tenn., when he took a group of students to World Changers in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas.
“That week transformed me and gave me a new vision for student ministry,” Bailey said. “World Changers is at its best when it becomes a tool — one that you can use in a wide spectrum for making disciples.
“Our students became leaders when they got back,” Bailey recounted. “They learned what it means to make a sacrifice.” Through the years, he has seen World Changers participants develop a deeper level of commitment to missions.
“We have to find new ways to push, challenge and call students to the front lines of missions,” Bailey said. “We are calling out each one of our students, the 25,000 involved in World Changers and PowerPlant [a similar mission package, but focused on church planting] to serve a summer or semester in missions before they graduate or just after they graduate from college.”
Jessica Clemons of First Baptist Church in Clinton, Tenn., is planning to make that kind of commitment. Clemons was 15 when — 12 years ago — she participated in her first World Changers project. She has returned as a student and now as an adult volunteer every year since.
“I started as a student participant just roofing, painting, decking, whatever the team needed,” Clemons says. “Each year our projects were a little different, and I picked up a new skill. Construction is certainly not my career, but I’ve been able to expand my capabilities.”
This year, Clemons was asked to be a crew chief at the Knoxville project. But this wasn’t a typical crew: For the first time in 20 years, World Changers put together an all-female crew.
“To be honest, I was hesitant because of the age of the girls and the maturity level,” Clemons admits. “I wasn’t sure if they’d want to take on that much physical labor, much less be on a crew with all women.”
Clemons stepped up to the challenge.
“I had faith that God would provide and He did. These are 18 strong, courageous and talented women, all with different assets they bring to the team,” she notes. “We have roofed, we have built a back deck, we have painted the gutters and fixed a mailbox. Quite a few different projects and tasks, but it keeps 18 girls busy.”
God has used each of her World Changers experiences to call Clemons to a longer-term commitment to missions.
“Since I was in high school, I knew the feeling I got serving God in hands-on missions couldn’t be replaced with anything in this world,” Clemons says. “World Changers has sparked that fire and allowed me to expand my knowledge and build my faith in God. He shows me each year He will definitely provide for our needs.
“I feel like the world’s a big place. And God’s put me in a position to where I’ve had some experience I can take abroad with my education and minor construction capabilities. I just love to work hands-on.”
That’s been World Changers’ goal all along. By providing opportunities for students to share the Gospel while meeting someone’s physical needs, a spark for missions is ignited and carried out into the world.
“No matter the generation of students, they have this particular need to see something significant happen with their hands,” Bailey says. “It makes a tremendous impact on those students to show up on the first day of work and see a house that is dilapidated and then on Friday walk away and say, ‘We have made a major contribution. We have met this family, we have given them a safe home and before we leave, we have told them what the real Good News is all about.'”
Other milestones for World Changers this summer included the 100th projects in Alabama and Georgia, the 30th project in Canada, the 10,000th church group and the 300,000th participant.
Carol Pipes is a writer for the North American Mission Board. To listen to the song “World Changer,” go to http://www.ourstage.com/tracks/XJJENRIYZKXR-world-changer.