By Jeff Brumley
There’s a saying that if you want to hear God laugh, tell him your plans.
The folks at Oakmont Baptist Church in Greenville, N.C., have experienced that principle firsthand.
It all started when the Cooperative Baptist congregation purchased a 112-unit apartment complex next door. Being hemmed in on their own seven-acre parcel, Oakmont’s leaders considered possible demolition, Pastor Greg Rogers said.
“We went into this thinking we are landlocked and here is an opportunity to get out of that,” Rogers said. “I’m sure God laughed at us several times.”
Evidence of that laughter has come through the years since the 2007 purchase. In that time, the congregation has become increasingly aware of a calling to do much more with the 10-acre complex than they could have ever imagined, Rogers said.
“The purchase galvanized the creation of the Oakmont Community Center, and out of that a multiplicity of ministries,” he said.
‘Any church … can do it’
But even the awareness of that call grew incrementally — and with help from a congregational coach.
In its work with Eddie Hammett, Rogers said, Oakmont initially discerned an affordable housing ministry for the working poor, ministry to college students and senior adult ministries.
Hammett told Baptist News Global that he was impressed with the church’s openness to new, unexpected ideas. He attributed that to its embrace of spiritual formation.
“That process opens you up,” Hammett said. “It also gives you the spiritual grounding to deal with people of different opinions and you know how to maneuver through conflict and challenge — because they haven’t done this without conflict and challenge.”
But from that members of Oakmont have learned how to contextualize their ministries and they have relied on both lay and clergy leadership, he said.
“They model how to partner with the community, with the different groups, the university and the medical people,” he said.
So it’s no wonder that multiple ministry forms have sprung from Oakmont’s apartment complex and community center purchase.
“But it’s not the apartments,” Hammett said. “It’s their preparation and their willingness to walk into the mystery of God.”
Hammett said a lot of churches think it’s just big churches with deep pockets that can do these things. They are wrong.
“Any church of any demographic can do it,” he said. “They just have to be open and ready.”
‘Beyond missional to incarnational’
Rogers said those first three ministry goals related to the complex have been realized. But it was later, sensing that something even bigger was afoot, that opened the way for more ambitious outreach.
“Our eyes have been opened to the needs of the neighborhood,” he said.
That came initially from the affordable housing project. That project introduced the church to the children and families who live in the apartments and surrounding area.
From those relationships the needs for other ministries were discerned. Those include:
• An outreach to unsheltered homeless people, providing them showers, haircuts, health screenings, a meal and a Bible study.
• A medical clinic that operates two days a month. Health care services are provided to the uninsured and under-insured. It also includes medications available at cost plus $1.
• English as a second language courses.
• Weekly tutoring services for children in grades K-12.
• An outreach to women struggling educationally and vocationally.
These ministries resulted from lay and clergy leaders, working in teams instead of through committees, making decisions and taking action when needs were seen, Rogers said.
“What shifted is we are more incarnational, now,” he said. “It’s moved beyond missional to incarnational, to being the hands and feet” of Christ.
And it’s a willingness to form relationships with the working poor, the homeless and the sick and suffering, he said.
“It’s getting your hands and feet messy with the messiness of people’s lives.”
The results have been powerful, Rogers said.
“We’ve seen some of these people we are ministering to come to Christ.”
Oakmont members have also been transformed.
“We have an amazing number of people in our church who are doing at least one ministry now,” Rogers said.
And it goes for him, too.
“It’s made me aware of how blind I was at times and how my radar screen was not aware of the needs of the neighbors around me,” he said. “It has deepened my faith and it has allowed me to reinvent myself and my ministry, and I think our church has reinvented itself.”
Sharing the gospel
Sharron Edwards was able to verify that.
A member at Oakmont for 22 years, the Greenville attorney said she’s always been involved at church. But the apartments have opened her up to new ways of following her calling and passion for helping others, especially children.
Edwards volunteers in the Tuesday night tutoring ministry, where she helps students with reading, writing, social studies and history. But there’s more to it than that.
“I have had opportunities to share the gospel with them,” Edwards said. “It’s not just tutoring, it’s a ministry.”
Her growth comes from that sharing plus the relationships that result.
“I get to know God better as I work with these kids,” she said.
— Baptist News Global’s reporting on innovative congregational ministries is part of the Pacesetter Initiative, funded in part by the Eula Mae and John Baugh Foundation.