Rebekka Johnson didn’t go to Jackson, Mich. primarily to lead children to faith in Christ. She came to paint a house. But from her ministry as a World Changers volunteer for one scorching week in June, her work crew saw three neighborhood children place their faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.
“A lot of little kids drive by here on their bikes and they’re like, ‘Whoa, what are you guys doing?’” she said during a break from painting in the 90+-degree heat. ”… They asked, ‘Why did you come all the way here?’ And we said, ‘because we love God.’”
That expression of love for God is at the core of World Changers, a missions outreach sponsored by the North American Mission Board. Through World Changers about 13,000 volunteers this year are working with local officials in about forty cities to rehabilitate substandard housing.
Encounters such as those experienced by Johnson, a member of Crosswell Baptist Church in Sumter, S.C., are not uncommon as opportunities arise for evangelistic witness. But the spiritual impact is also seen in the lives of the student volunteers. Johnson, for instance, felt called by God to children’s ministry last summer during a related World Tour project.
There was as much “building” going on within the students as on the houses, said North American Mission Board President Bob Reccord, who served as a volunteer on the Jackson project. ”And that’s the whole purpose of why we came,” he said.
“… I think as the government is faced with the issue of having to cut back in support of many folks in our society in issues of welfare, etc., they said very clearly they are in desperate need of the church stepping in,” Reccord said. ”I think this is a marvelous way Southern Baptists are rising to the meet the need of our culture. It is one way we can make a difference spiritually as well as physically.”
World Changers has been one of Southern Baptists’ success stories in coordinated volunteer missions opportunities for youth. It began in 1990 with a pilot project in Bryceville, Tenn., involving 137 senior high youth and their adult leaders. It grew rapidly as a ministry of the former Brotherhood Commission before becoming part of the new North American Mission Board last year.
The strategy is simple: large groups of several hundred volunteers descend on a city for a week to provide labor for residential rehabilitation projects such as roofing and painting, with building materials and other support from local governments. All logistics are coordinated centrally, giving local churches — including smaller ones with limited staff — an opportunity to participate in a large-scale mission project.
As the ministry grew, projects were added for junior high and, for the first time this year, all youth. The concept also was expanded to include separate projects for college students, senior adults, single adults, young adults, and all adults.
There are forty-six World Changers and World Tour projects this year in the forty host cities, including three in Mexico, one in the Dominican Republic, and one in Antigua. While World Changers volunteers work on homes all day, World Tour participants divide the day between work projects and traditional missions activities such as Vacation Bible schools and Backyard Bible Clubs.
The routine in Jackson — the largest of this year’s projects with more than 600 volunteers working on forty-four different homes — was somewhat typical for the youth projects. Students and their adult leaders slept on cots in classrooms throughout the sprawling Parkside Middle School. The lack of air conditioning served as just one part of the character-building formula.
Church groups came to the project together, but students were divided into crews that worked all day replacing roofs on houses — usually including underlying sheathing — or repainting. Lunch was provided on work sites by local churches.
During the evenings students gathered for a joint worship service that often provided some of the spiritual highlights of the week. W.O.W. Moments (Wonderful Opportunities of the Week) submitted by participants are shared with the full group.
Although roofing and painting are primary in World Changers projects, volunteers also make a point of interacting with neighborhood residents. During lunch and breaks, student volunteers play with area children.
“They are true men and women of God,” said resident Ivy Todd as students worked on her roof. “They are an inspiration to the kids out here, the way they play with them. I think our neighborhood will change a lot.”
Through a comprehensive pre-project study, students arrived prepared to explain their motivations with all who would listen. The “Time To Build” World Changers theme for the year was a popular rallying cry at one work site, particularly when soaring temperatures began to take their toll.
“What time is it?” someone would shout.
“It’s time to build!” was the mass reply.
“What are we building?”
The scene was similar in other cities during the first week of this summer’s World Changers.
Diana Jackson, a member of First Baptist Church of Flippen, Ark., reported “the greatest day I’ve ever had” June 18 during a World Tour project in Birmingham. She led two girls and two boys to faith in Christ. “It was amazing,” she said. “I prayed with the two girls, and afterward the two boys said they wanted to have ‘whatever it was them girls got,’ and I led them to Christ as well. This isn’t a W.O.W. Moment — it’s an everlasting one.“
Also in Birmingham, the “Galilee Gang“ work crew took it upon itself to restock the food pantry of The Church at Fairview. By the end of the week, 400 pounds had been collected, and the story had been shared with the entire city through television news coverage.
Such results have helped World Changers emerge as one of the key strategies in NAMB efforts to reach the nation’s cities for Christ. Next year, fifty projects are planned in the United States, in addition to international projects that, beginning next year, will be coordinated through the International Mission Board. Among the 1999 efforts will be a special 10th anniversary project in Bryceville, Tenn., with all original participants invited to return.
Reccord envisions rapid growth to as many as 100,000 volunteers by 2002, and possibly increased coordination of World Changers with other efforts as part of upcoming Strategic Focus Cities initiatives. Those efforts will begin in 2000 with broad-based evangelization efforts in Chicago and Phoenix.
“I think one of the things we want to think about in the future is maybe a multi-faceted approach, where World Changers would come in, and then maybe Frontliners would come in and do door-to-door (evangelism),” said Reccord.
Frontliners is another youth missions opportunity pioneered by Florida evangelist Kelly Green in which teens receive training and experience in personal evangelism.
“Frontliners experienced such a successful impact (during Crossover Salt Lake City in June), that vision has been increased as to their vital role and impact in the future,” Reccord said, adding that details of future NAMB involvement with Frontliners are currently under discussion. “I think there are all kinds of creative things that we’ve got the opportunity to look at,” he said.
Meanwhile, World Changers continue to do just as their name implies.
During a senior high project in Birmingham, adult volunteer Jason Rumbaugh of Millbrook Baptist Church in Aiken, S.C., talked with one young man who in his short lifetime already had been shot and stabbed.
“He realized, in the end, in his words, he wanted to ‘hang with God,’” Rumbaugh reported. “… I’m just happy to say that we’ll be able to see Lawrence, a 12-year-old little boy who has just had his life completely turned around, up in heaven along with us.”
For more information on World Changers and other student volunteer opportunities, contact the North American Mission Board at (800) 462-VOLS or www.studentz.com/mobilize.