by Joe Westbury
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 (SBC) brings him back to the love of his life: helping churches and associations start indigenous churches in multi-housing communities. The category includes apartments, condominiums, assisted living, public housing, and manufactured housing.
The soft-spoken native of Forrest City, Ark., once yearned to be an Air Force pilot, but strict vision requirements shot that goal down. Later, after surrendering to the ministry and completing his master's degree, he joined West Haven Baptist Church in suburban Memphis, Tenn., as minister of community ministries.
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 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 multi-family 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.
"We also learned 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, in partnership with the local Baptist association, began starting churches in multi-family housing settings where people say it can't be done.
"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 multi-family housing locations that were donated to us absolutely free.
"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 multi-family 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.
McNairy's 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 multi-family housing.
• Only 5 percent of those residents attend any church.
McNairy fights the stereotypes that multi-family housing residents are poor or lower income. "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 multi-cultural 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 multi-family housing," McNairy said. "They are waiting to hear from us; when are we going to go to them?"