TOBIN PERRY/North American Mission Board
Sioux Falls, S.D. (BP) — Thanks to an historic shift in the funding relationship between the North American Mission Board (NAMB) and state conventions throughout the South Region, $1 million will be available over the next four years to help start churches in key cities and towns along the I-29 corridor – also known as HIS, Hearland Interstate Stratey – that runs from Kansas City to Canada.
“I am grateful to our friends in the South state conventions who are making this shift so we can move money to start churches in areas where our presence is so minimal right now,” said NAMB president Kevin Ezell. “While NAMB’s primary focus is cities, we are still assisting plants in towns of all sizes, all over North America where there is a need.”
The new money from NAMB will be used to fund church plants and planters. The funding will help in cities like Sioux Falls, S.D. In the first decade of the 21st century no city in the Midwest grew faster than Sioux Falls. Forbes magazine calls it the best small city in the United States for new business and careers (a title it has held for most of the past decade).
But with only six Southern Baptist churches in a metro area of more than 238,000 people, it’s also a critical mission field that could lead to greater Southern Baptist impact throughout one of the most unreached regions of the United States—the Upper Midwest.
“Sioux Falls is really a hub throughout the region,” said Buck Hill, a former interim Sioux Falls pastor who also serves as the state director of missions for the Dakota Baptist Convention. “It’s the biggest city in the Dakotas. People come here to go to work in the technology field and then often move to other places throughout the I-29 corridor.”
The Upper Midwest has historically been one of the most difficult to reach for Southern Baptists. Of the 444 counties in the United States with no Southern Baptist churches, according to 2011 Annual Church Profile (ACP) statistics, 60 percent are in the Upper Midwest states of North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri and Kansas. Many of those counties without an SBC presence are predominantly rural.
Members of the Heartland Interstate Strategy Task Force, which includes representatives from each state convention along the highway, believe that by planting multiplying churches in seven strategic hub cities along Interstate 29—which stretches from Kansas City to Winnipeg, Canada—Southern Baptists can begin to impact the entire Upper Midwest.
“The idea is to strengthen those [hub] areas and then press east and west through church planting to try to enter into those rural and small-town counties all across the Upper Midwest,” said Leo Endel, the executive director of the Minnesota-Wisconsin Baptist Convention who initiated early conversations about the I-29 need.
Mark Elliott, church planting catalyst and director of missions for the Eastern Nebraska Baptist Association, says early SBC efforts in the region focused mostly on congregationalizing transplanted Southerners and often didn’t impact those who had lived their for generations. Many of these long-time residents of the Upper Midwest immigrated to the area in the late 19th century and formed ethnic communities with strong relationships to specific religious traditions like Catholicism and Lutheranism.
By far the largest state Baptist convention connected to the I-29 corridor is the Missouri Baptist Convention (MBC). Missouri Baptists, Elliot says, will play a critical role in the effort as a bridge between the South and the Upper Midwest. Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City will also play an important role by training future church planters for the region.
John Yeats, MBC’s executive director, sees the opportunity to reach the I-29 corridor as a strategic part of the convention’s vision.
“Missouri Baptist churches in conjunction with the MBC and oftentimes with their local associations are planting new churches in our state,” Yeats said. “However, our vision is beyond our borders. Our vision is to reach the heartland of this nation with the gospel of Jesus Christ. That’s one of the reasons Iowa is a partner state with us and now we partner more strategically with our other state conventions in the Great Plains.”
Elliott says the partnership with Southern Baptists throughout North America through NAMB will be essential in impacting the hub cities in the region.
“We are very, very excited about the announcement [of the NAMB funds],” Elliot said. “That will move this ball down the field to reach a huge area of lostness in an underserved area with the gospel of Jesus Christ.”