HOUSTON–Landon Hays, son of SBTC church planters Ben and Kelli Hays, was born with a rare liver disease. And the place where the family found a remedy for Landon and experienced a call to plant a church is one and the same–Houston’s Medical Center.
Officially known as The Medical Center, the city within a city is the world’s largest concentration of medical providers, employing some 75,000 people.
“We spent the first year of Landon’s life in and out of hospitals, and we were sort of immersed in this really busy community. We were focused on our child surviving,” Ben Hays told the TEXAN.
As God called the Hays into planting a church, the couple wondered, “How does the traditional church connect with the lives of people like this?”
Noting that the thousands of medical employees work long, hard hours, Ben remarked, “These young professionals need for the body of Christ to be a part of their lives, but they don’t have the time and energy to search in the suburbs for a church.”
Digging deeper into resources at the Union Baptist Association of Houston, Ben discovered that people in The Medical Center area are largely unreached with the gospel, and also comprise the lowest percentage of born-again believers in Houston.
“The bottom line is a whole lot of people who aren’t connected with the body of Christ. Many of them do great humanitarian things with their lives, but haven’t had the opportunity to connect to a community of faith,” Ben said. “I started feeling that call two years ago.”
Unable to ignore the call of God to plant a church, or the spiritual needs of the community that brought physical healing to their son, Ben and Kelli moved to Houston from the East Texas town of Henderson last June and began meeting each week with a core of 12 people. Now numbering 40 and meeting in rented facilities, The Church in the Center is on its way.
“We want to put the church in the footpath of those living and working in this community. That’s why our worship space is walking distance from the rail line. And it’s also why we started our Lunch Break Fellowship.”
Every Tuesday, the church provides lunch for medical workers and Ben offers devotional thoughts.
Early on, Ben asked founding members to jot down their answers to a question he posed–“What do we dream of becoming?”
The partial, random list below reveals they wanted to be a church:
>that saturates the community with the gospel;
>where great missionaries are born;
>where people come because they truly want to follow Christ;
>committed to serving the city for the sake of God’s glory;
>that sends missions teams around the world;
>that reaches the intellectual through apologetics, and marries the mind and faith;
>known for their love of God and for his people;
>that prays fervently and has the power of God resting upon them;
>that puts feet to the gospel by feeding the hungry and poor;
>that represents people from all nations of the world.
Ethnic diversity is topmost on Ben’s heart. He knows that internationals who work and live in or visit the Medical Center area have strong ties to their homelands, and he sees them as potential missionaries.
“This is one of the most diverse places I have ever seen anywhere,” he noted. “Literally, you can pick a country, and workers are here from virtually every nation under heaven,” Ben said, drawing a comparison to Jerusalem as described in Acts 2:5: “Now there were Jews living in Jerusalem, devout men from every nation under heaven.”
“We see that exact same opportunity here,” he said, “So far, we’ve met and invited people to church from Mexico, Canada, Guatemala, Chile, Argentina, Italy, Greece, China, Korea, Japan, Kenya, Nigeria, Ghana, Egypt, Libya, Kazakhstan, India, Australia, Sri Lanka, Haiti, Colombia and the Philippines.
“These are the people we’ve met, seen their faces and said, ‘You’re welcome at The Church in the Center.’”
At a church-sponsored fall festival, one woman from the church gave a Bible to another from India who’d never heard the name Jesus. At a similar event, two men from the church taught a man from China how, for the first time, to pronounce the name Jesus.
“The opportunity to share with those who’ve never heard is not rare in this area, and it’s very close to our hearts to share with those who’ve never heard the gospel,” Ben said.
Describing the church as “people-centric, not building-centric,” Ben noted that church ministry doesn’t require asking locals to come to a church building.
“Instead, we call on our people to go out of our assembly into the community to do ministry on the street level. All the ministry we’ve done has been on public property.”
It didn’t take long for the new church’s list of dreams to put them in line of duty as Hurricane Ike arrived just days before the church’s proposed, and subsequently postponed, launch date: Sept. 21.
Rescheduling the launch date to Oct. 5, Ben led the congregation in disaster relief by volunteering at the Houston Food Bank. The young church also gave the entirety of its first offering to the SBTC Disaster Relief efforts toward Hurricane Ike.
“We wanted our first offering to be a response to the community, and to define our missional DNA in an outward way,” Ben said.
With regard to subsequent ministry in the community, Ben said, “Not only do we meet felt needs, we invite unchurched people to experience first-hand what the body of Christ really is about in terms of sharing the love of God in practical ways.” After every community service ministry, “we have new people visit, some of whom did not go to church anywhere,” he added.
Ben cited gratitude for the SBTC, “an incredible partner, supporting us well financially, and through accountability, encouragement, and networking. We would not feel adequately equipped without them,” he said.
“Ben is the perfect church planter for planting such an unusual church,” said Barry Calhoun, SBTC church planting team leader. “He has the passion, the vision, and the missionary mindset necessary to meet the challenges of planting a multi-venue, multi-ethic, urban church, and an uncommon work ethic. He is willing to do whatever it takes to reach the lost with the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Ben also cites as a major contributor to his missions vision his father, Steve, who started Fellowship Baptist Church, Nederland, with 13 people and was pastor there 42 years.
“I grew up in the home of a missions-minded pastor who traveled the world on missions. Dad was a visionary leader.”
“I also want to credit my sending church, Emmanuel Baptist Church of Henderson, and Pastor Mike Simpson. EBC believed in my vision to plant a church in Houston from early on and were an exemplary sending church in every way. Not only have they sent us out with their blessing and prayers, much like the Antioch church, they are supporting us financially as well,” Ben said. “But the most powerful testimony of all was that they allowed me a four-month window of time to work in Houston—half of the week every week—on networking and developing my core group, while staying on staff and full salary back there at EBC.”
Ben added: “God has been wonderful and shown himself strong. This area has great potential for God to do something special. It’s a community of great hope where families from all over the world from all walks of life look for help, healing and wholeness. It’s also a beautiful context in which a very caring church could emerge.”