Bryant Laird serves as the Family & Student Pastor at Trinity Baptist Church in Cayce, SC. He previously worked at the North American Mission Board and was in charge of recruiting, hiring and training Summer Staff for the ministries of World Changers and PowerPlant from 2006-2011. Bryant also served at First Baptist Church Yazoo City, MS as Minister to Students from 2002-2006 and has a history with World Changers that includes time as a participant (1991-1995), Summer Staffer (1996, 1998-2000), Coordinator (2001-2005) and Group Leader (2003, 2005, 2012). Bryant is married to Olivia, whom he met while serving at World Changers, and they have a daughter named Ryleigh Kate.
A book written a few years ago by twin brothers portrayed the current student generation as one that wanted to do “hard things” to further the gospel of Jesus Christ. The premise of the book was that today’s students want to live their faith out by doing things that make a difference in the world. In nearly 15 years of student ministry I couldn’t agree with them more. But I’m afraid that one of our denomination’s national entities is changing the book into a title more along the lines of Do Easy Things.
Less than 2 years ago, the North American Mission Board entered into a partnership agreement with LifeWay Christian Resources related to the student mobilization programs of World Changers and PowerPlant. As NAMB tried to align more with a church planting purpose, it seemed to make sense to spin programs off that didn’t have a direct tie-in with that focus. The partnership agreement (according to Baptist Press) called for NAMB to maintain outright ownership of the brands while LifeWay handled day to day operations and expenses. Efficiencies in staffing, programming, promotion and creative direction were supposed to lead World Changers and PowerPlant to even greater heights.
On paper it all made sense. LifeWay’s student ministry KNOWN strategy had events to help students KNOW about how to have a personal relationship with Christ (Centrifuge) and OWN their faith (M-Fuge), but nothing really to help students make their faith KNOWN. Enter World Changers and PowerPlant. Throughout transition discussions the management team at LifeWay verbalized the desire to have missions programs vastly different from anything they already had. Statements like “nothing is going to change” were commonplace. As a matter of fact, one sentence in the February 1, 2011 Executive Summary detailing plans related to the NAMB/LifeWay partnership states, “LifeWay would never want to make decisions that could possibly undermine what the Lord has done to build this ministry.”
Now comes word of changes for World Changers, a vision that led to LifeWay leaders calling over 25 cities the past month to tell them they would not be hosting World Changers projects anymore, even though they had been on the published 2013 schedule all summer. In other words, they disinvited themselves to these cities after much planning had already taken place. Cities like Casper WY, Sioux City IA and others throughout North America whose local churches got a real shot in the arm when a few hundred students would descend upon their cities to serve.
LifeWay, I suspect following advice from their legal team, has also made a decision about World Changers that I am afraid will forever change it’s identity. Student participants under the age of 17 (safe to say that would be 90% of student participants) will no longer be able to work on roofs, long thought to be the bread and butter of what helped make World Changers the powerful missions initiative it became. These decisions will have a lot of implications related to the cities World Changers has partnered with, volunteers who have served in coordinating positions, and churches who have participated by bringing their students. Yes, there is definitely much more ministry for students to be part of throughout North America, but my point is that Wold Changers was different. It was a unique partnership between cities, churches in those cities, and churches who sent their students. Substandard housing was improved and students shared their faith in Christ.
For years, World Changers has allowed high school students to replace weather-beaten shingles and rotted sub-roofing. LifeWay’s decision to keep students off roofs is to “ensure the safest worksite possible and not overextend the risk to our students,” Student Ministries Director Ben Trueblood said. “We want to make sure we are providing meaningful mission opportunities for our students in the safest possible environment.” So does that mean the message we’ve been telling students for the past few decades, the message that “missions can be dangerous”, is wrong?
LifeWay will state that the desire to reach the cities for Christ follows the route that NAMB has set with the SEND>>North America emphasis. They will also say that having multiple weeks of “camp” in one city is more effective than one week. Again, my point is that it seems LifeWay is forcing World Changers into more of a Centrifuge/M-Fuge model than the World Changers that was so desired by LifeWay.
Last month Kevin Ezell seemingly described what “partnership” means for LifeWay and NAMB. In a tweet he stated, “Grateful for @ThomRainer and LifeWay’s partnership with @NAMB_SBC Just received over $300,000 from LifeWay summer camp mission offerings.” Can that be defined as NAMB helps LifeWay eliminate competition, LifeWay cuts them a check to say thank you?
The main questions I have about these decisions would be as follows:
- When were these decisions made and who was involved in the decision-making process?
- Was NAMB actively involved in the decision making process or did LifeWay make these decisions solely?
- Had any of the key decision-makers actually taken an opportunity to visit a World Changers project to observe the worksite process?
- Why was a strategic shift made for World Changers to “reach the cities” made when PowerPlant was already engaged in this type of ministry?
- Why are Centrifuge, M-Fuge and StudentLife Missions Camps not being called to “reach the cities.”
- What does this new strategic shift communicate to other cities and communities who have requested projects from World Changers, but are disqualified because they don’t meet major metropolitan city label?
- What will happen when LifeWay wants a city to host a World Changers project for 2-4 weeks in a row, but the city is unable to fund a project for that length of time?
- What kind of experience will participants have at World Changers in the future when they arrive at a city that didn’t request a project from the local level?
- Will these decisions in the end lead to 4 student missions programs at LifeWay that really don’t have much distinction from each other anymore? (M-Fuge, World Changers, PowerPlant & StudentLife Mission Camps)
- And if that’s the case, how could all 4 not only thrive but even survive?
- If these changes were necessary, why are other missions ministries not following suit, but instead, highlighting the differences that LifeWay/NAMB has made and marketing themselves competitively?
Students do want to make a difference, and many of them would prefer to do it the hard way. Even if our national agencies decide not to provide excellent, top notch, cutting edge hands-on missions opportunities for our students, our churches and their student ministers are smart enough to figure out ways to do this on their own or join other ministries that will provide them with such opportunities.
I’m convinced that if LifeWay were present in Mark 2 they would have not allowed the friends to create the hole in the roof to lower the paralytic to Jesus. Too risky. In the end, “nothing will change” has turned into everything has changed.
There may be some drop in participant numbers this summer for World Changers, but I suspect the big decrease will take place the following summer. Most churches are currently not aware of these changes yet, but when they arrive at a project this upcoming summer and witness these changes, I would say that 25%-30% of youth groups will opt to not come back. LifeWay’s model over the years has been one that eliminates initiatives that don’t make enough money. I’m giving World Changers 2 years max. I hope LifeWay & NAMB prove me wrong.