MIAMI -- Girard Middleton likes skateboarding and surfing, which might seem unusual for a Southern Baptist pastor. But in Miami's South Beach area -- home to jet-setters and surfing enthusiasts from around the world -- he fits right in. That might explain why 20 people crammed into Middleton's one-bedroom apartment one recent Monday for the weekly worship service of The Backyard, his new congregation.
In an area where Christian churches are scarce, several individuals already have come to faith in Christ since he started the church last summer.
"[Southern Baptist leaders] have been looking for a long time for God to send someone to that area, because there's no way someone could go in there and start something," said Middleton, a Miami native. "People just don't trust churches. That's probably the big reason no other churches are there. It takes an insider."
Across Miami, similar stories are popping up with more and more frequency as the North American Mission Board's latest Strategic Focus Cities effort begins to kick into high gear. "For You Miami," the local name for the ministry, has chosen church planting as one of its primary strategies for reaching the city's population estimated at 3.5 million.
"We're looking to start 100 intentional, staffed and reproducing congregations over the course of five years, from 2002 to 2006," said Harry Watkins, For You Miami's city coordinator. "This first year we started 11, and we're looking to start 20 in 2003 -- 10 of which will be on Easter Sunday."
Miami is the seventh in a series of major cities to become the object of Strategic Focus Cities outreach efforts. Since 2000 the initiative has brought concentrated Southern Baptist church planting and evangelism resources and volunteers to Chicago, Phoenix, Boston, Las Vegas, Seattle and Philadelphia. A similar effort in New York dubbed New Hope New York is currently in a planning stage, with implementation gearing up late in 2003.
Doug Metzger, director of strategic cities strategies for NAMB, said Miami offers an opportunity to make an international impact.
"To date, SFC has been focused outside the traditional Bible belt. In this respect, we normally think north and west. However, one look at Miami and you know that we are not talking Bible belt," said Doug Metzger, "The world, especially Latin and South America, has come to Miami, and it is a vast mission field that demands the attention of Southern Baptists."
Watkins said For You Miami used 2002 as an opportunity to begin ramping-up the effort -- relying mostly on in-state volunteers to help with the work.
"We've had a lot of volunteers, but nowhere near what we're going to have during 2003," he said. "Ninety-eight percent of what we're asking volunteer groups to do is work with our new churches -- often before the new churches open -- with prayer-walking, community surveying and evangelistic events such as block parties or sports clinics."
As with The Backyard, the emphasis is on finding indigenous pastors to lead the new congregations, primarily because they understand the unique blend of cultures that is Miami. But leaders are finding God working through a variety of circumstances.
In another new church start, for instance, Ralph Tone -- a former missionary to Argentina -- leads services each Sunday morning in a school on Miami's west side designed to reach second-generation English-speaking Hispanics.
"In the past three months we've seen about seven people come to Christ, including one Cuban atheist," said Tone, who noted that about half of the Hispanics are Cuban while the rest are from throughout Latin America.
"I can honestly say in the 10-plus years I've been a missionary I have never seen a more strategic place to start a church," Tone said of Miami. "In Argentina you start a church among Argentineans, and in Mexico you start a church among Mexicans. But in Miami you're planting a church among the nations."
Steve Nerger, who coordinates For You Miami's church planting efforts, said it has been exciting to see God at work.
"For You Miami has given us the impetus to attract and let people know that God is doing something here," he said. "That's why we're getting people like Girard and Ralph Tone -- people who are saying that 'I want to be a part of that.' ... It's like a snowball rolling down a hill. It's getting broader and broader, and better and better."
Watkins said the four prongs of For You Miami's strategy include prayer, evangelism, and leadership development -- in addition to church planting.
"Our hope is through those four we also strengthen our existing churches, which in turn will help and support our new churches," he said.
Several leadership conferences have been scheduled, prayer ministries are growing across the city, "and evangelism is tied to just about everything we do," he said.
Thus far about 2,000 volunteers from across the country have been enlisted to work in Miami during 2003, with another 1500 expected as word of the opportunity spreads. The goal is to develop long-term relationships between churches.
We don't want it to be a big event in 2003 and 2004 and then drop off," Watkins said. "We want it to continue to grow in strength and support locally as well as nationwide. We're looking at churches that volunteer and come down next year will come back again, if not in the next year then the year after that."
For more information on For You Miami -- including prayer needs and volunteer opportunities -- visit www.foryoumiami.org.
-- While Miami/Dade County's population according the U.S. Census is about 2.3 million, undocumented immigrants swell that figure to an estimated 3.5 million or higher.
-- People from more than 160 countries in Miami speak more than 140 languages. Of the 266 churches in the Miami Baptist Association, 82 are Spanish-speaking, 70 are Hatian-Creole and 102 are English-speaking. Other language groups represented by churches include Portuguese Korean, Chinese, Russian, Persian and Filipino.
-- A survey has found that 78 percent of the people in Miami have not been contacted by any church during the last six months. Twenty-five percent of the population attends church weekly, and another 25 percent do not attend church at all.
By James Dotson