On The Way: Stories of Transformation in Process

What do the following true stories have in common?

  • A group of Anglo pastors meets regularly with a group of African-American pastors to talk about politics and race. This same group did a “movie night” to watch and discuss the movie “42” and are scheduled to do the same thing with the movie “Selma.”
  • A school district invites pastors and youth pastors to be trained in and used as crisis counselors.
  • Fourteen school districts in two counties receive over $1,000,000 over a nine year period. This was to be used as cash assistance for physical needs of children, such as food, medicine, and clothes.
  • Six thousand new jobs comes to an area that had an unemployment rate of over 20%.
  • A Turkish Muslim is drawn into a church for a Christmas meal to find out more about the church and four weeks later is a follower of Jesus.
  • About 10% of the area turns out for the annual National Day of Prayer events.
  • The “good ol’ boys” candidate loses an election for the first time in years. This time they lost 75/25 to the candidate which the “good ol’ boys” say is supported by the “religious mafia.”
  • Four hundred teachers participate in the annual “teacher’s supply give-away” sponsored by the Church.
  • A school finally gets a $500,000 grant they had tried to get for several previous years. Overall, the school district has received over $1,000,000 in grants over the last 4-5 years.
  • Attendance and academic scores in schools show dramatic increase.
  • It has become more normal for groups in different congregations (like youth leaders and worship leaders) to do things together instead of separately.
  • The official Emergency Management Plan in a county is changed to include “the vital involvement of houses of worship” because the way believers assisted in the hurricane clean-up was declared to be “The finest disaster response in the history of the state.”
  • Pride and suspicion have been significantly replaced by humility and trust in a town in the “Show Me” state.
  • A school administrator states, “I’ve worked in this school district for 24 years and I have never seen such a sense of hopefulness here.”
  • When realtors ask people why they are moving into an area, the common answers are, “This place is like a breath of fresh air!” And “Our family feels safe here.”

What’s common to these abbreviated kingdom-advancing stories?  Of the many factors that went into each of them, the one common factor is prayer.  Lots of prayer.  United prayer.  Strategic prayer.  Believing Prayer.  Relational Prayer.  Persistent prayer.

The stories above are all from four specific, diverse areas.[1]   These are just a few of the stories from these cities that could be told.  Each story could become an article.  The four areas have a unique history.

In Tucson, AZ, I spoke with Dave Drum and Matt Merrill.   They both grew up there.  Dave pastored there for 20 years and now serves as the Church Domain director of a ministry called 4Tucson.   Matt is the Transformations Coordinator for Gap Ministries, a ministry that focuses primarily on assisting foster kids.

Tucson (population 526,000) is a desert metro area where immigration is on the front burner.  The three major ethnic groups are Anglos, Hispanics, and African-American.  4Tucson, a ministry birthed by ministry and business entrepreneur, Mark Harris, states their mission is to “transform our community by mobilizing the Body of Christ.”  They have identified and work with 12 domains, or areas of cultural influence, in their city.

Corvallis, OR is a university town of just over 50,000 people, more than half of them college students.  Three ministers from Corvallis shared their stories with me:  Tom White (veteran city leader and director of Frontline Ministries) who has lived and ministered there for over 3 decades, Ron Johnson, recently retired pastor of Corvallis Evangelical after nearly 30 years of ministry there, and Bryson Lewis, who has been the director of the Heart of the Valley House of Prayer since 2009.  Students, and specifically international students, provide a great opportunity for effective ministry there.

Bartow County, GA has tripled in population in the last 40 years.  If you drive about an hour northwest from Atlanta on I-75 you will be in Cartersville, its largest city of 20,000.  About 50% of the 102,000 people in the county work outside of the county.  Keith Wood has been a bi-vocational pastor since the early 90’s.  David Franklin, the denominational district overseer for the Southern Baptists, has lived there since 2007.  These two told me that they and about 10 other pastors form an informal “Jerusalem Council” out of which flows much of the activity there.

Branson, MO influences far more people than the average city of its size.  Its population, of just over 10,000, hosts 6-7 million visitors each year.  But this also brings with it some unique challenges of ministry.  John Baltis, the President of the Silver Dollar City Foundation, and Howard Boyd, who has pastored in the city for over 30 years told me some of their story.

Though none of these cities would say they are transformed (David Franklin says, “We are at about the 5 mile mark of a 100 mile journey”) neither would they deny that significant kingdom progress has taken place in recent years.  The people behind these stories would agree with this paraphrased quote from John Bunyan; “We must do more than pray.  But we can’t do more than pray until we have prayed.”  These four areas include multiple prayer traits.  I will let each area represent one of four specific traits.

Over the years Corvallis has developed a prayer rhythm for their city.  Pastors in Corvallis began praying for their city in 1981.    Since 1991 that has included an annual Pastors’ Prayer Summit.  In recent years they have added a simultaneous women’s summit.  Together there is typically 100 people who set these three days aside each year to go away for a time of Spirit-led, worship-based, Scripture fed, corporate prayer.  Now, the Sunday night following their summit, they invite all the believers in the city to enjoy Adoration, a city-wide time of worship and prayer.  Each Thursday morning since early 1999 the pastors and other ministry leaders gather for weekly prayer.  These times have included invitations to significant city leaders such as the mayor, superintendent of schools, University leaders, etc.  This has become the fountainhead of all the other prayer (plus) activities in the city.

The most recent addition to this rhythm has been the addition of Light Corvallis – 26 hours of continuous prayer and worship.  The key dynamic of the first 2 of these gatherings (more are being planned) has been the intentional merging of various prayer streams and styles in the city.  Coordinated by Bryson, these times have included carefully thought and prayed through themes and means to help all pray-ers in the city find ways they can contribute in a meaningful and satisfying manner.

In Branson, they understand and pray consistently with their history.  John Baltis points to five key events: 1) 1906 when James Forsyth founded the school that has now become the College of the Ozarks, a Christian college which seeks to provide high quality Christian education to those who may not be able to otherwise afford it.   2) 1907 when Harold Bell Wright wrote a very popular novel in its day titled Shepherd of the Hills.  3) the 1926 opening of Kanakuk Kamp, a premier Christian camp just outside of Branson, 4) a 1944 autobiography of Guy Howard titled The Walking Preacher of the Ozarks, and 5) the 1949 purchase of land by Hugo and Mary Herschend which they turned into Silver Dollar City.  Each of these played a key role in shaping Branson’s spiritual history.

They discovered that even though much had happened in prior years, there was a multi-decade gap in significant prayer and cooperation between believers until, in 1994, intentional prayer returned through the Christian Businessmen’s Committee.  Two years later the first (of now 20) annual Pastors’ Prayer Summit took place.  Since April 21, 1999 (the day after the tragedy of Columbine) pastors have prayed one Wednesday morning each month in and for the high school.  The other Wednesday mornings they pray at the Old Stone church, the first church built in the area.    Since 2002 the Uninterrupted Prayer Team (the UP Team) has been praying for the “Seven Mountains” of business, education, entertainment, government, medical, ministry, and social services.  For the last 10 years Pastor Howard has rallied the community to take the first 7 days of each year to pray at and for groups representing the 7 mountains.

These times of prayer have led to the most recent development that will greatly impact the future: the Ozark Mountain Legacy.  This group came out of the input of about 400 community leaders.  They concluded that the 5 key values of Branson are “family, faith, friends, flag, and future.”  The OML is tracking how these five values are being lived out and therefore encouraging more people to embrace them.  Believers in Branson are aware of their history and shaping their future.

In Bartow County, GA, God’s work is moving forward at the speed of trust and relationship.  About 135 pastors from across the county prayed prior to the National Day of Prayer rally in 2009.  Then they walked together to the outside location where hundreds of people were waiting.  When the crowd saw the pastors come around the corner together, many wept openly because they never thought this could happen.

In 2014 about 3500 believers participated in reading the entire Bible out loud in every city in the county.  In one small town – the one where General Sherman developed his famous March to the Sea – the mayor was so moved by it he invited a denominational evangelistic team to minister in their city.  Where doors were once closed, they were now wide open.

The County Commissioners asked the pastors to pray for and at a specific city in their county because it was very needy.  These events all came about because of the relational connection between pastors and then between pastors and government leaders.

Tucson schools were characterized by a lack of hope.  Many there began praying with specific purpose. Twenty-five year old Matt saw the hopelessness and suicides in the schools and was broken.  His brokenness and burden was turned to prayer: specific, purposeful prayer.  It was prayer to bless everything related to the schools: the attendance, the academics, the students, the finances, the administration, everything.   He rallied intergenerational prayer at and for the schools.  To date, there have been extended times of prayer at about 150 schools.  Some of these times lasted 4 hours, some lasted 26 hours.  Specific answers to prayer were recorded.

Some kids mentioned they stopped thinking about suicide.  Some administrators said things changed “the day you prayed.”  Some of these things were greater attendance, finances, and hope as well as fewer suicides.  Fear between the schools and the church diminished.  Christians in schools were more bold and equipped to take godly steps.

Between the pastors and racial groups in Tucson, real fellowship is replacing isolation and ignorance.  The pastors not only pray with each other in large groups (up to 100 at times) but in smaller pockets as well.   Those who are involved in these things conclude they are happening because they prayed with purpose.

There is good traction and God traction in each of these cities.  Developing rhythms of prayer, praying consistently with their history, letting prayer flow from trust and relationship, and praying with purpose is working in each of them.  And because they are working, God is working.

[1] Stories 1, 9, 10, & 14 are from Tucson, AZ.  Stories 2, 5, 8, & 11 are from Corvallis, OR.  Stories 3, 6, 13 & 15 are from Branson, MO.  And stories 4, 6, 7 & 12 are from Bartow County, GA.

March 2015

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