Apartment house evangelism

Here's a workable way of reaching the millions who live in the large apartment complexes of the world's urban areas.

Barbara Oden, the multifamily housing coordinator for the Union Baptist Association, coordinates and encourages the ministry Baptists are carrying on in Houston's apartment complexes.
Timothy Ponder pastors the Seventh-day Adventist churches in Bartlesville and Nowata,Oklahoma.

Houston is the fourth' largest city in America; 1.7 million people live within its city limits and close to another 2 million in its vicinity. 1 Nearly half (47 percent) of Houston's population live in its more than 3,000 apartment complexes and only 2 percent of these people attend church.2

Barbara, how did you get involved with apartment house ministry?

I did not intend to get involved with it at the start. After being an apartment house manager for eight years, I wanted to do something else. I felt God was leading me into some type of full-time Christian work.

Looking for a youth position, I went to Mission Service Corps orientation to see what they had to offer. They told me about this apartment house ministry need. I called Harvey Kneisel [minister of missions at First Baptist Church in Houston] to see if I could help at First Baptist until I got an assignment with youth. An hour before I got there to interview with Harvey, an apartment manager in Spring Branch called and asked him if there was anybody who could come and live on her property and help her keep her tenants there. She offered--free--an apartment to live in and an apartment to use as an activity center, if someone would just come there to help her. That's how it all started. I felt that God was setting that whole thing up even before I got to Harvey's office.

What type of program did you implement at Springbrook Village?

There were a lot of ethnic people there, so we offered English classes four times a week twice during the day and twice at night. You can always do an activity with kids, so we had a kids' Bible club every week. This club has special activities and crafts in addition to Bible instruction; it is similar to Vacation Bible School, but it goes all year long, once a week.3

The teenagers were driving everybody crazy, so we started a teen night. We'd have movies, or let them bring games and have a game night. We also started an aerobics exercise class, which the ladies really wanted. Out of this we developed a ladies' coffee and some Bible studies. It wasn't long before we started a church congregation right there at the apartments.

How did you get the people interested in the religious activities and not just the secular ones?

When we started, we did a survey to determine the interests and needs of the people in the apartment complex. Along with all the secular activities we offered on the survey, we listed home Bible study, teen Bible study, and a kids' Bible club. We immediately started these three spiritual activities with the people who expressed interest in them. Then as people began to talk about their problems and share with us something about their lives, we could share Christ with them. We asked these people to invite their friends and neighbors in the apartment complex to our Bible study classes.

We found that if we advertised subjects that are vital to them, we could attract more of them to the studies. For example, we found that more people would come to our studies if we said that we were going to study the biblical view of parenting or marriage or being single or divorce or peer pressure--depending upon the group--than if we just said, "We are going to study the Bible." People want to know how they can turn to the Bible to find help with their everyday life problems.

How does an activity director go about publicizing activities in the apartment complex?

We do a monthly calendar that lists all of the upcoming activities. The manager will often include this in the apartment newsletter. If not, we pass out the calendar and other flyer announcements door-to-door, so that everyone will be aware of what is going on. We also put up posters in the laundry rooms, by the mailboxes, and in other places.

When a ministry group is just starting its work in an apartment complex, the leaders usually plan a large event such as a carnival or a picnic with volleyball and softball to bring attention to the activity program. Three hundred people at tended the carnival that was held to kick off the ministry at Springbrook Village apartments. Five of those attending be came Christians as a result of this social event. 4

What results did you see from your work at Springbrook Village?

I went there in August 1986. By the end of the year we had about 70 new believers on that property. Then we had another problem--what to do with these people. It takes a lot of transportation to get them to and from the church. Be sides, they really didn't want to go to church. They were scared and felt uncomfortable. They didn't feel as if they had the right clothes or enough money to put into the offering. Since they didn't want to go to church, we decided that we would have Sunday school and church there.

So your original plan was to bus all of the new believers in the apartments to a nearby church?

Well, it seemed like the logical thing to do, especially with all of the churches around. I didn't understand that they didn't want to go. I had never worked with that type of person before. Every body I had been around had been to church, at least some of the time.

Do they feel as if they are going to church when they are in this apartment setting?

Yes, they really do. They develop their own congregation.

Do the apartment complexes have room for these church meetings?

We don't really get many more than 50 in our church fellowships; our largest one has 70. They don't get much larger than that because people are always moving out. That is why we try to keep the activities going we need to keep people coming into the churches as others move away.

Further questioning revealed that the congregations meet in apartment units that have either been donated or rented often with a second unit accommodating Sunday school classes. If an apartment complex has a clubroom and it is available, this often serves the space needs much better than does an apartment unit.5 As soon as possible a pastor (often a bi-vocational lay pastor) is assigned to work with the activity director in establishing and building up the new congregation.

Missions USA, a Baptist mission periodical, offers this interesting note on the Springbrook Community Church: "On Sunday mornings, members park their bicycles and skateboards outside the apartment that serves as the sanctuary. Felder's [the lay pastor's] head deacon is a tenth-grade student." 6

How do you help the Christians in these small apartment house congregations feel they are a part of a larger community of believers?

I'm working with about 24 churches in Houston. We invite the people in the apartments to special programs at the lo cal churches, such as Easter and Christ mas programs. If the church youth have a special retreat, or if the singles have something going, then we include those meeting in the apartments. Sometimes they will attend a Sunday night service at a church. However, they always feel like guests. They never feel as if that is their church.

How much money does it take to conduct an apartment house ministry?

Actually, if you use some ingenuity it costs very little each month--somewhere around $100. This money is used for supplies, refreshments, photo copying, things like that. What you need to find are dedicated people willing to give their time, and enough money to buy them their supplies.

We try to find a couple or a single person to move to the complex as the coordinator--the activity director. Then we try to get a couple to pastor the church once it gets going. We don't move both leaders into the apartments; only one or the other. Usually it is the activity director, since he or she is the person whom the manager wants to deal with. The activity director is interested in the overall program in the apartments, while the pastor focuses upon the spiritual aspect of the work.

We ask for two apartment units when we begin the ministry: one for the activity director or pastor to live in, and one for an activity center. We're willing to settle for one but if we ask for just one to begin with, we're not likely to get two.

You mentioned ethnic groups earlier.I suppose that the main ethnic group you encountered in Houston is the His panic.

Yes, they are a large group, but I worked with a lot of Koreans at Springbrook Village. They made up my English classes. We also encountered a lot of Vietnamese and Laotians. And I found that it is hard to mix ethnic groups.

Some apartment complexes have limited access. You have to get the resident's permission before you can gain admission to the complex itself. Is this common, or is this the exception?

Some of the higher priced complexes have this security feature. We have activity coordinators in a couple of these; the managers have allowed them to open the gates when they have an activity.

How many apartment house minis tries are you currently coordinating for the Union Baptist Association in Houston?

We have 32 active ministries in apartments throughout the city, but 65 complexes are waiting for an activity director. That's frustrating!

I don't even advertise. I don't tell managers anymore; in fact, I try to keep it quiet. To let these managers sit there month after month when they've asked for our services is much worse than if they had never heard about them. When we began, we talked to a lot of managers, telling them what we had to offer. Some times they would say yes; most times they would say no. But as we became successful, there was a much greater demand for our services. The first complex I worked in, Springbrook Village apartments, was 50 percent occupied when we came. Within that first year occupancy went up to 92 percent. Another complex, The Oaks of Wood Forest, has gone from 70 to 97 percent occupied while our minis try has been there.

What makes these occupancy rates improve so much?

People know that if they move to an other complex, they are not likely to have these activities there. And these programs give the managers a strong selling point when someone comes inquiring about renting.

Share with us again some of the services that your ministry offers.

We offer activities, seminars, and study classes that help people--for example, "English as a Second Language" and "How to Operate Your Car on $500 a Year."

We also try to run a benevolence program in the apartments. We help the needy residents with food and clothing; once in a while we can help them with a utility bill or steer them to the place where they can get help. If they need a job, we try to use what resources we have to get the word out so they can get a job. There are food banks in different parts of the city, and we try to take the people to one of these if they need assistance with their groceries. Many of our churches also have food banks.

Serious social problems are facing us everywhere, but these problems seem to be compounded and magnified in the large cities—in the setting in which you and your workers are ministering. How do those in apartment ministries deal with such situations as broken families and divorce, alcoholism, drug abuse, incest, physical abuse, crime, promiscuity, etc.?

It is not easy for our workers to deal with this aspect of the ministry. The churches meet with their people who are involved in this ministry on a regular basis. Also, I try to meet with the coordinators once a month so that we can talk through and share together the difficulties and problems they are confronting. But it is really tough. The situations and problems you face in the apartments will really break your heart.

We're just lay people; we don't have seminary training. Many of the volunteers find the behavior they see offensive. It is hard for them to accept people where they are and draw them to Christ. And they want these people to change right now. We have the mind-set that if these people accept Christ as their Saviour, they will automatically become like us. When people say that they have accepted the Lord and we go back the next week and see the beer bottles on the table or find out that they spent two or three nights with a woman, we get really impatient.

The gospel does have power to change lives, but sometimes we don't see the progress we would like to see.

We need to remember that Jesus spent time with the woman at the well and Zaccheus; He ate with the publicans and sinners. We should do the same as we try to reach them for the Lord.

What has your work in the apartment ministry taught you about the urgency of sharing the gospel?

I just came back from Fort Worth. In the part of the city where the church I visited was located, 64-5 percent of the people live in apartments, and only 4 percent of them attend church. There are 32 apartment complexes around this particular church in Fort Worth. A study found that only 40 people out of the 10,000 that reside in those apartments had visited this church. And the church is right across the street from them! They just will not go. There is resistance to church, no matter what the denomination.

As Christians, we all must work together in reaching the world for Christ. I think those of us who believe in salvation must join hands and reach the people who live in these apartments. I don't care whether you are a Baptist or notyour help is needed!

1 The Research Department of the Houston
Chamber of Commerce provided these population
figures for 1987 for the city of Houston and the
surrounding counties. The official designation of
this seven-county regional area is "Houston-
Galveston-Brazoria Consolidated Statistical
Area."

2 Barbara Oden named a study done by the
Houston Apartment Association as the source for
this figure on church attendance.

3 Another children's program those in apart
ment ministry hold during the week is the Big A
Club. This club meets on Sunday morning as a
special type of Sunday school. It is a yearlong Bible
study program developed to teach unchurched ele
mentary children who Jesus is and why He came to
this earth.

4 Clay Renick, "A Church for Everyone,"
Missions USA, January-February 1988, p. 26.

5 ibid.,p. 21.

6 Ibid., p. 26.

 

 

 

To learn more ...

If you would like to learn more about
ministering in apartment complexes,
you can purchase the manual written
and compiled by Barbara Oden, The
"How To" Book for Starting Ministry in
Multifamily Housing Communities. Send
US$8.00 (which includes postage and
handling) to Barbara Oden, c/o Union
Baptist Association, 2060 N. Loop
West, Suite 100, Houston, TX 77018;
phone: (713) 957-2000. (Make the
check payable to Union Baptist
Association.)
Barbara Oden is also willing to come
to your church for a seminar about
apartment house ministry. Or you may
go to Houston and observe an apartment
ministry firsthand. In either case,
please contact her at the above address.
You may also learn more about apart
ment house ministry through a set of
videotapes. The two videotapes feature
Barbara Oden; Harvey Kneisel, minis
ter of missions at First Baptist Church of
Houston; and Tillie Burgin, minister of
missions at First Baptist Church of Ar
lington, Texas. (This congregation is
conducting apartment ministries in, 50
different apartment complexes in the
Arlington area.) The videotapes consist
of a presentation from each of the three
speakers and a question and answer sym
posium.
You can order the Multifamily Housing
Ministry videotapes, which are sold
as a set, from Carl Elder, c/o Baptist
General Convention of Texas, 333 N.
Washington St., Dallas, TX 75246;
phone: [214] 828-5375. Write or call
Carl Elder's' office for further information,
including the price of the tapes.


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Barbara Oden, the multifamily housing coordinator for the Union Baptist Association, coordinates and encourages the ministry Baptists are carrying on in Houston's apartment complexes.
Timothy Ponder pastors the Seventh-day Adventist churches in Bartlesville and Nowata,Oklahoma.

May 1991

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