When East St. Louis is mentioned on the news, the focus usually remains on the crime rate and its status as one of the deadliest cities in the nation. However, when Kempton Turner walks around the Illinois city just across the Mississippi River from the Arch and the St. Louis Cardinals, he sees a community ripe for the gospel. Turner, who grew up in East St. Louis, returned to the community recently to plant a new church.
“The vision is pretty simple,” he said. “We’re going to plant the gospel in the city of East St. Louis.”
Turner noted East St. Louis is sometimes depicted as a wicked city like Nineveh or a place to avoid like Samaria. But he sees his calling as to go like Jesus did in Samaria by “coming right to the city.”
“Every challenge is an opportunity to see the Lord at work,” he explained.
Turner is busy working on launching the new church. It is crossing Baptist denominational lines with its two main supporters: Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, a church in Minneapolis where John Piper served as pastor; and the North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. Turner previously served on staff at Bethlehem, which is part of Converge Worldwide (previously known as the Baptist General Conference).
“I’m thankful the Lord has given us a lot of help because we’re going to need it,” Turner noted.
Turner said the new work currently is moving through various “planting seasons.” They have been building partnerships and preparing for the work with core team building. He hopes for a public launch of the church next spring.
Michael Haynes, director of missions for Greene County Baptist Association, sees a rich environment for new church work in Springfield, Mo., and other cities. He noted young adults are moving back into urban centers and Springfield is undergoing a downtown renewal, creating “opportunities for a fresh kind of church planting.”
“We’ve been blessed with a real kind of surge in church planting interest and churches that are doing some outstanding things in church planting,” he added.
GCBA currently has just over 100 congregations, but the association has a “Jerusalem project” to grow to 120 by 2020. Haynes noted some established churches are helping launch new church works and supporting church planters. Since finding property to rent or own “can be very, very expensive” in urban settings, some older, traditional churches sometimes open up their property for newer churches to use.
“It’s critical for a pastor to have a heart for reaching people, a missions heart,” he said. “We can be the base church or the sponsor church.”
“Pastors of older traditional churches don’t have to have everything in line or lots of money,” he added. “They just have the heart and have the willingness to see the kingdom grow. The need is overwhelming and we’re going to have to go into these urban areas and plant new churches.”
One key reason Haynes believes new churches are needed is that “we have so many subcultures” today and “traditional churches are not going to reach these other cultures.” Not only are young adults moving into Springfield, but he sees multiple subcultures within them.
Andy Hale, a church planter in North Carolina who leads the Church Starts Initiative for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, also noted the importance of recognizing multiple subcultures within an urban community.
“It’s a new and exciting day for church starts, but it also is a challenging one,” he said. “Instead of doing a church-in-a-box, we’re more focused on contextualizing, organic relationships.”
Hale hopes established churches can partner with new church starts. But he noted such relationships should not be merely monetary as both the established and new churches can learn from each other. He encourages established churches to think creatively about ways to support new work, such as providing gathering space, offering a church administor to manage accounts for both churches (and therefore saving the new church a lot of money in personnel and software) and even finding a business owner in an established congregation who can provide a job for a bivocational church starter.
“That’s a huge worry for a lot of our church starters,” he added about the need for a job to support their family while launching a church.
Hale believes this collaboration should emerge as churches “have a kingdom mindset and within that have a missional nature.” After all, established churches cannot reach all of the subcultures in a community.
“A single church cannot be all things to all people,” he said. “There needs to be diversity in the way we connect with people from all walks of life.”
As Turner works to bring spiritual renewal to East St. Louis, he hopes other Baptists will have “a burden for their brothers and sisters in the inner city.” He urges white Baptists not to ignore that their “black brothers and sisters are struggling.”
“That’s like saying my left foot has gangrene and is infected but my right arm is okay, so I’m just going to keep doing curls with my arm,” he said.
“They are us and we are them because we are literally part of the same body,” he added. “Our problem is their problem because there is one head and that is Jesus Christ.”
Brian Kaylor is a freelance writer and author based in Jefferson City, Mo.