NASHVILLE (BP) - Thirty years ago, 137 youth and adults spent a week in Appalachian coal country doing construction work on nine homes. They also shared the Gospel in the neighborhoods where they worked. That pilot project in the East Tennessee community of Briceville marked the beginning of World Changers.
The May 1 announcement from LifeWay Christian Resources that it was discontinuing World Changers was a personal loss for the staff, students and leaders who participated. Over the last three decades, World Changers developed a following of passionate, loyal supporters. Its blend of hard work and personal ministry illustrated the Great Commission for a new generation.
Andy Morris and the youth group he led at First Baptist Church, Memphis, Tennessee, participated in the 1990 pilot project. When the Southern Baptist Brotherhood Commission established the World Changers program, Morris became the first director. “Developing and managing World Changers was one of the best experiences of my life,” he said. “Watching God at work through the work of countless volunteers, national staff, students, coordinators, worship leaders, speakers, crew chiefs, summer staff, residents and agency representatives was a sight to behold.” The newly formed North American Mission Board assumed World Changers operations in 1997. In 2011, LifeWay formed a partnership with NAMB and took over operations.
John Bailey worked with World Changers for more than 15 years. He was a manager of World Changers at LifeWay and currently serves as associate executive director at the Highland Lakes Camp and Conference Center, Spicewood, Texas. He said one of the most valuable byproducts of World Changers’ ministry model was its celebration of interactions between volunteers and the people they served. World Changers was a “new approach to missions,” according to Bailey. It was a trailblazer in the concept of pre-packaged missions experiences for churches.
“Missions is about people but not just people like us,” said Bailey, “What made ... World Changers so special to me was all the different people who came together - different economic backgrounds, different educational backgrounds, different generations, different ethnic groups, different skills and so on.”
“The construction aspect of World Changers gave [students] the ability to see a finished product at the end of the week and to marvel at how God used them to accomplish this seemingly impossible task,” Morris said. “This created a whole generation of students that were used to ‘getting their hands dirty’ with construction projects.”
Jonathan Wilson’s first experience with World Changers came in 1996 when he served on its summer staff. At the first worksite Wilson visited that summer, two middle school girls from Bellevue Baptist Church, Memphis, ran up to the truck as he pulled in. The exclaimed, “Jonathan, Jonathan, you won’t believe what just happened!”
“They proceeded to tell me how they had just led the resident of that home to the Lord,” Wilson said. “Jerry had come home a few days earlier after quadruple bypass heart surgery. And, these girls were able to share the Good News of Jesus Christ with him. … I knew at that point [that] this was a ministry that I wanted to be a part of long-term.”
Later, Wilson served as NAMB’s strategy development coordinator for World Changers (2002-2011). He currently serves as the family and missions pastor at Fruit Cove Baptist Church, St. Johns, Florida. He said World Changers offered churches an opportunity to immerse students in situations where they could meet real physical and spiritual needs. The experience led many students to develop a lifelong passion for missions. As Bailey put it: “World Changers set the missions DNA of a generation.”
Morris emphasized that World Changer’s work will continue through multiple faith-based non-profits with historic connections to the ministry. Mission Serve in Georgia, Metro Changers in Alabama, Kentucky Changers in Kentucky, and Bounce in Texas are such organizations. Each one continues using the rehabilitation of sub-standard housing as a vehicle for sharing the Gospel. Morris founded Mission Serve in 2003 and still serves part-time as its Serve 365 director.
A closing celebration for World Changers will take place July 24-26 at Northwood Hills Baptist Church, Northport, Alabama. All former staff, summer staff and coordinators are invited to attend. For more information on the event, call (205) 339-3196.