SAN ANTONIO?The absence of a major metropolitan center makes the Bluebonnet Baptist Association an unlikely illustration of urbanization and its effects on the Texas mission field. But located along the I-35 corridor between Austin and San Antonio, its 70 churches reach into the suburbs that are edging out from their metropolitan neighbors.
In Texas, urbanization is introducing Baptists to a host of missiological challenges including overwhelming population growth and the arrival of new ethnic groups. And from his central Texas vantage point, Bluebonnet Director of Missions J.K. Minton sees urbanization as one of the most significant issues facing the modern American church.
“For the most part, existing churches do not recognize the reality of urbanization,” Minton said. “We are prone to view ourselves through pre-1960 eyes and think our church prospects are still primarily a white, middle-class, conservative, Ozzie and Harriet demography. Because we do not recognize the change in our culture and have limited our evangelistic vision and efforts, most of our existing churches [have] plateaued, struggling to maintain their numbers.”
As Southern Baptists find themselves unexpectedly tied to the social and theological implications of urbanization, Minton said many existing churches lack the resources to address the new population shifts.
“This reality has caused Bluebonnet Association to give significant priority to church planting targeting specific people groups,” he said, citing church plants as the most effective evangelism strategy for urbanization.
The Connection, Kyle
The town of Kyle is a clear example of how urbanization is bringing the city outward to smaller towns. A typical small town, Kyle registered 2,093 residents in 1980. Today, it has grown to 28,000 thanks to the migration of populations from San Antonio and Austin. In the next three years, its population is expected to double again (See city-data.com for more details.).
The unprecedented population growth is what attracted church planter Cole Phillips to Kyle.
“Austin is moving this direction, and Kyle has seen a 300 percent increase over the past five years in population,” he said. “There is nothing but rooftops.”
In September 2004, Phillips led 145 people in the plant’s first worship service. Last week, The Connection celebrated its third birthday and averages 450 on Sunday mornings. In the last three years, the plant has baptized 100 people.
Although there are more people in the area, Phillips said their church battles the lack of community.
“Even though we are around more and more people, we are still isolated and feel more alone,” he explained, using the term “crowded loneliness.”
“Everybody has their garages. They push their garage door-opener and drive into the garage, and they don’t have to interact with their neighbors,” he said. “You can really go through life without interacting and meeting your neighbors. So even though there is nothing but rooftops, we still find that people don’t know how to connect.”
Phillips’ sees The Connection as a conduit for neighborhood evangelism.
“At The Connection Church we want to provide opportunities and environments to develop real, authentic relationships that are really impacting their lives,” he said. “The local church is a great place to lead our people to be intentional about getting out into the neighborhoods and to meet their neighbors.”
The push for living an intentional life comes from the church’s small groups that meet weekly in church members’ homes rather than at the church.
“There is a great mission field out there, and the best way that we’ve found to reach people is through relationships,” Phillips said.
Yet Phillips acknowledged that it is often difficult to motivate believers to engage their neighbors, especially when they are from a different culture or speak a different language.
“The population is only going to continue to change, and you’ve got to keep up with what’s going on,” he said. “To keep our finger on the pulse of the demographic, we try to make sure we include people in leadership who reflect those changes.”
Reflecting the diversity of its community, The Connection is 40 percent Hispanic, with a mix of Caucasian, African-American, and Asian faces. Because of the different ethnic groups that comprise the congregation, Phillips said he focuses on the universal needs of people.
“We teach on the kinds of teaching Jesus did?when he talked about marriage and money and things that everybody struggles with,” he said. “When you focus on basic needs that are relevant to any culture, when you have a place where you are loved and cared about, people are drawn to that. People want to be a part of a place that is making a difference in lives.”
For existing churches that are watching the face of their neighborhoods change, Phillips gave a few suggestions.
“Visit some other churches that are setting the standard and effectively reaching out [to a different] culture,” he said. “Don’t hide in your office. Get out where the people are and be relational. The pastor sets the personality, pulse, and passion of the church.”
To aid other churches in engaging their communities, Phillips began a church planting website called Launching Churches. The website, launchingchurches.com, acts as a coaching network for pastors with ideas for ministry, marketing helps, and other downloadable resources.