He sees vast opportunities for multihousing ministry

ATLANTA (BP)--When Chris McNairy sees an apartment building, he looks beyond the concrete walls and screened-in patios to the individuals inside as they eat dinner, watch television and put their children to bed.

With a kind of spiritual X-ray vision, he calculates how many residents call the dwelling home and wonders how many are facing life crises without the knowledge of Jesus Christ. Then he begins to dream of ways to reach beyond the walls with evangelistic ministries that bring the church to the residents in new and exciting ways.

McNairy has worn various hats in recent years -- assistant to the pastor on a church staff, pastor and leader of African American ministries for the Baptist State Convention of Michigan. But his newest role as national missionary for the North American Mission Board brings him back to the love of his life -- helping churches and associations start indigenous churches in multihousing communities. The category includes apartments, condominiums, assisted living, public housing, and manufactured housing.

McNairy was among the missionaries featured during this month's 2001 Week of Prayer for North American Missions.

The soft-spoken native of Forrest City, Ark., hasn't always been so at ease with life. As a young man he became angry because strict vision requirements disqualified him from a career as a pilot while still in ROTC.

"That's when I decided to accept a full academic scholarship to Washington University in St. Louis to practice law. I was so angry, I wanted to go to law school and get rich and go into politics and cut the funding to the Air Force," he said with a halfway smile that still shows a hint of rejection. "I really wanted to fly."

But that's not how things turned out.

Before graduation he surrendered to the ministry and joined the staff of a National Baptist Convention church -- the denomination in which he was raised -- where he learned to manage weekday ministries. Then he embraced Southern Baptists when he joined a Praxis church-starting team starting Sunday schools in St. Louis multifamily housing units.

After completing his master's degree he moved to Tennessee to seek a public service job and find a way of meeting his growing desire for ministry. He joined West Haven Baptist Church in suburban Memphis and was soon working two jobs -- at the church by day as minister of community ministries and as a night shift janitor at McDonald's.

West Haven was located in a transitional community undergoing radical social change. White flight was pulling Anglo residents to the suburbs and African American homeowners were moving in to take their place. The former bastion of 35 Southern Baptist churches had been reduced to only two. When McNairy arrived on the scene, West Haven had begun its ministry in a former Anglo church with less than a hundred members in a worship center that once sat 700.

Eventually he became pastor and began to look at ways the small congregation could reach the community.

"We began prayerwalking the area before we knew what it was called," he said. "We just started walking around the neighborhood, making mental notes of what we saw, and asking God how we could reach the people. We were wondering how our churches could be dying if there were so many people moving in.

"What we discovered was that there were 12 privately owned multifamily housing communities with 13,000 residents and no church. The striking thing to me is that was the population of my hometown, which had 12 churches.

"After completing some surveys we also learned something else -- that none of the residents wanted to come to our nice brick building. But they did say they would attend church if it was in their community," he recounted.

That's when McNairy began doing what many said was impossible, and he's still doing it to this day -- starting churches in multifamily housing settings where people say it can't be done. And he did it in partnership with the local Baptist association.

"I've heard all of the excuses why it can't be done, but the fact remains that within a few short years we and the Shelby Baptist Association had missions and satellite ministries in 40 multifamily housing locations that were donated to us absolutely free. That space would have cost us $35,000 a month if we were renting it on the open market," he said.

McNairy has since become an evangelist of sorts for multifamily housing ministry as he spreads the word on how to take Christ to what are perceived as closed communities.

"Relationships. That's the key word to being successful in this ministry," he said matter-of-factly. "Without a relationship with the apartment manager and owner, you'll never get your foot in the door."

Not knowing how to get into the Memphis apartments, McNairy and his church began praying for a strategy from God -- who led them to begin praying for the apartment managers.

Soon the managers and owners were eating lunch at the church, sharing their problems with the congregation. The church members, in turn, responded with ministries to meet the problems and build a sense of community in the multifamily housing properties.

"We learned that these managers want to partner with anyone who will help build a feeling of community among their residents. We provided tutoring for children, helped launch a Neighborhood Watch program, and taught ceramic and aerobic classes. That aerobics class grew into a Bible study and now meets as a church, bringing others to Christ within the complex," he said.

Multifamily housing includes more than just apartments, McNairy is quick to point out. It includes residents of gated communities and manufactured housing communities.

McNairy has an impressive track record with the ministry and he wants to share that knowledge with others. His facts are sobering:

-- The number of people living in apartments has more than doubled in the last 25 years.

-- One in 16 Americans live in manufactured housing.

-- Between 4 and 8 million Americans live in private, upscale gated communities.

-- One in 10 private apartment community households has an income of more than $50,000 a year.

-- 122,700,000 Americans, or 45 percent of the nation's population, live in multifamily housing.

-- More than 90 percent of those residents are unchuched; only five percent attend any church.

McNairy fights the stereotypes that multifamily housing residents are poor or lower income.

"I'm an example of someone who has lived in multifamily housing all of his life. In the parking lot outside my window I see every make of car from beat-up Chevrolets to shiny new Jaguars. There are young singles and senior citizens in their second and third careers. There are residents of every imaginable race. Each complex is a small multicultural city in and of itself.

"Did you know that the average town in Tennessee has 3,000 residents and a dozen churches, yet a multifamily housing complex with 700 units -- about 3,000 residents -- will not have one church?

"When we look at our dysfunctional families, the lack of moral fiber in our youth and rampant drug abuse across the socio-economic spectrum -- we have to realize that we have huge pockets of would-be communities with no church."

"If we are going to reach North America for Christ, we are going to have to address the nearly 50 percent of our population that lives in multifamily housing," McNairy said. "They are waiting to hear from us; when are we going to go to them?"

(For more information on McNairy and other missionaries featured in the Week of Prayer for North American Missions, visit the www.anniearmstrong.com Web site.)


(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: SEEING POSSIBILITIES.

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