By Mickey Noah
KANSAS CITY, Kan. (BP) – Donnie Simpson was on the fast track at a Fortune 500 company when he jumped off the corporate ladder after God called him into ministry at age 39.
Simpson, who led North American Mission Board (NAMB) trustees and staff on an afternoon bus tour of the Kansas City area in May, has served six years as executive director of the Kansas City Kansas Baptist Association and as a church planting strategist in the 56-church association five years before that. Using the same strategic talents for God he once cultivated in the business world, Simpson has never looked back.
The Baptist association’s five-county area in Kansas encompasses 900,000 people in rural communities, bedroom communities and affluent areas – spanning mega-churches, house churches of 20 members, cowboy churches, small country congregations, churches on a shoestring and churches with money – all ministering in different ways.
“Of course, the Kansas City, Kan., side is not as big as the Kansas City, Mo., side, which has a metro population of 2 million people,” Simpson said. “They’re much older, dating back to the Civil War.
“We’re playing catch-up,” Simpson said. “Everything is a new work for us on the Kansas side because the Methodists, Catholics and Lutherans were here before us.”
The tour, conducted in conjunction with a NAMB trustee meeting in Kansas City, Mo., and a missionary commissioning service at Lenexa (Kan.) Baptist Church, began on the Missouri side of the metro area then, crossed the Missouri River into Kansas.
“We have to think like missionaries in the context of our communities,” said Simpson, who is based in Overland Park, Kan. “The methods may be up for grabs but not the [Gospel] message.”
In Lenexa, Frank Gonzalez, a regional Hispanic church planting strategist, is reaching Hispanics at the Quivera Place Apartments near the 2,500-member Lenexa Baptist Church.
“It’s amazing how God has opened doors,” said Jeff Goss, a lay member of Lenexa Baptist who works with Gonzalez. “The apartment complex has several owners – including an atheist, a Muslim and a Jew – who were skeptical when we told them we wanted to conduct Bible studies and community projects.”
With dozens of youth at Quivera Place – half of them Hispanic – Gonzalez and Goss started out by building playgrounds throughout the apartment complex. That led to trust, credibility and acceptance by the owners and tenants.
“The owners even gave us an apartment for Bible studies and board games for the children and adults. We also offer kickball and soccer for kids after school, English-as-Second-Language classes and a Bible study in Spanish. We are filled up with people who are excited to learn about Jesus Christ. It’s awesome,” Goss said.
Goss said the Quivera Place initiative is generating Hispanic attendance at Lenexa Baptist on Sundays – to the point that the ministry needs a bus to transport residents to the church, until Gonzalez reaches his long-term goal of planting a Hispanic church at the apartment complex.
In Wyandotte County, Kan., formerly a blue-collar area, a boom in growth occurred when construction began on the 80,000-seat Kansas City Speedway in 1999 in the middle of a cow pasture. Now, spurred by the racetrack, a planned casino and the popular “Legends” shopping area, the county is adding 1,000 people a year. The area also has attracted subdivisions with affluent homes, professional soccer and a minor league baseball team.
Cole Cochran, a local pastor and chaplain for the speedway, recounted to NAMB trustees that he and his fellow Southern Baptists started to consider how it could be used to share the Gospel.
From the speedway’s first NASCAR race in 2001, and at races featuring Indy cars and NASCAR’s truck series, there has always been a ministry presence at the 1.5-mile oval, Cochran said.
NASCAR fans start showing up as early as Wednesday before the Sunday race, with an influx of more than 1,000 RVs into the track’s infield and RV parking lots.
Cochran and a team of volunteers set up a ministry tent on Thursday before each race – a tent that stays open 24 hours a day until Sunday afternoon’s checkered flag. Worship services for fans are held in the track infield along with a 6:15 a.m. service for track vendors. Cochran’s team also operates an information booth, helps run trams and golf carts for disabled fans and even offers first-call trauma response.
“Now, in a joint venture, the International Speed Corp. and the Hollywood Casino Corp. are building a new casino on turn two of the speedway,” Cochran said. “We need your prayers for continued opportunities,” he told the trustees. “So far, the leadership of the speedway has been open to us. We need that openness both at the speedway and at the casino when it is finished. My job is to work with the staff and employees at the track and at the casino so that we might share the Gospel.”
Earlier in their bus tour, NAMB trustees witnessed the Lazarus-type back-from-the-dead story of 89-year-old Wornall Road Baptist Church in Kansas City, Mo., now pastored by John Mark Clifton.
Located in what was once the tony “Brookside” section south of downtown Kansas City, Wornall Road was chartered in 1921 and, until the mid-1970s, was a dominant church with 600-800 in attendance every Sunday. Its beautiful red-brick building – with an all-white traditional sanctuary and stained glass windows – was built in 1929.
But through the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, Wornall Road Baptist Church lost touch with its community for a variety of reasons, Clifton recounted. Once located in the southern suburbs of Kansas City in the ’20s, the church found itself in the middle of the city by 1970.
“By 2005, the church was in serious decline,” Clifton said. “The church had spent all its money. They weren’t attracting new members or connecting with the community in any relevant way. They were still doing church the same way they did it in their glory years of the ’40s and ’50s.
“By the time they called us, the church had only 18 members left – most on walkers or canes. Only one member was below the age of 50. It was costing up to $4,000 a month to run the church, pay the utilities and the insurance.”
Clifton, a church planter at heart who turned 50 in 2006, had started a dozen churches in the United States and Canada in his 30-year ministry. But he felt God was calling him to come to Wornall Road and “re-plant” a church on life support, a task he says is “the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
“I found it to be a gorgeous church on about two acres in a strategic part of Kansas City. But nothing about a declining church brings glory to God. I had seen enough of declining churches. I had a passion for God to again be glorified on the corner of Wornall Road and Westmeyer Boulevard.”
And now He is being glorified again. After four years, Wornall Road now runs 300 every Sunday – 150 in its Anglo service and another 150 in its on-campus ethnic “daughter” churches, as Clifton calls them.
“Today, the neighborhood has a little of everything,” Clifton said. “It includes the wealthiest zip code in Kansas City, Mo. But only six blocks away, you have some of the most poverty-stricken. There are college students and blue-collar people. It’s racially diverse. We have Anglos, Indians, Hispanics, Koreans and African Americans.”
Wornall Road not only reflects nine different people groups, it has injected itself in the community by housing a maternity home, adoption agency and a Christian family counseling center.
“We do everything we can to be an important part of the community,” Clifton says. “We say every Sunday: If we closed tomorrow and only the members cared, then we’ve lost out. We want the entire neighborhood to be upset if we ever had to close the doors.”