by Karen Campbell, UBA Guest Editor


/files/Photo Gallery/News  Feature Stories/The Salt Shaker/2011/Houston GCI/London2003.jpgEight years ago UBA Executive Director, Tom Billings, participated in a group of church and mission leaders from around the world meeting to discuss what it would take to reach unreached peoples internationally. In assessing the worldwide situation, a reality emerged. The U.S. had its own unreached peoples.

As a result, the group acted and launched a new strategy --Great Commission Initiatives (GCI).

In its beginning days, the GCI consisted of informal discussions about how to identify people groups in the United States. International efforts were already underway but state statistics were lacking. One of the first results of GCI discussions can be found in the people groups database at Eventually, the GCI came to be focused on the collaborative efforts of the Dallas, Union, and San Antonio Baptist Associations partnering with the International Mission Board, Baptist General Association of Virginia, Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma, e3Partners and other Great Commission entities.

/files/Photo Gallery/News  Feature Stories/The Salt Shaker/2011/Houston GCI/TomBillings.jpgIt was in the initial meeting in 2003 that a passion for reaching the unreached was re-ignited in the heart of UBA Executive Director Tom Billings (follow). He returned to the U.S. with a firm conviction to share with other the compelling information he had received about the extent of the unreached peoples of the world.

The mission of GCI is to ignite church planting movements among the unreached peoples beginning in North America and extending to the ends of the earth. To accomplish this task, missional leaders provide intensive training and networking opportunities designed to equip highly motivated Christians to identify, engage, evangelize and disciple unreached people groups.

Billings and UBA consultants Sally Hinzie (follow) and Josh Ellis (follow) are among the current GCI trainers utilized in a three-phase experience.  Hinzie brings her experiences as the Virtual Strategy Coordinator for Nizhniy Novgorod, Russia (video) and her expertise in Bible Storying.  Ellis, a member of the original people group research team for the Houston area, continues to bring research and demographic expertise to the training process (blog). 

Phase 1 provides a biblical understanding of the Great Commission, an increased awareness of the extent of those who are unreached in both the US and in the world, a challenge to discover the unreached in a specific community, and some practical takeaway tools.  Phases 2 and 3 lead the participant deeper in to the essentials of church planting and the use of Bible storying as effective evangelism tools.

/files/Photo Gallery/News  Feature Stories/The Salt Shaker/2011/Houston GCI/TrinityPines.jpgIn March 2011, more than 30 pastors and leaders from UBA congregations and surrounding associations gathered at the UBA Trinity Pines Conference Center (TPCC) for Phase 1 of Great Commission Initiatives Houston (3 min video). The gathering was at the request of area Directors of Missions after they witnessed successful GCI efforts in Washington, Maine, Virginia, Georgia, Oklahoma and Hawaii.  (Video testimony by Bill Jones, Exec Director of Neches River Baptist Association.)

Responding to why Houston area church leaders need a GCI experience, Tom Billings notes, "The familiar adage 'if you keep doing what you've been doing, you'll keep getting what you've been getting' holds a stern warning for us.  We are losing ground in the city.  That suggests to me we need to change what we are doing if we hope to get better results.  And folks rarely change what they do until they change the way they think. GCI is about helping folks think about church, about disciple-making, about leadership development and about evangelism differently."

The purpose of GCI is to equip believers in the best practices for reaching the unreached in their communities.  During this four-day experience a diverse group of believers gathered early each morning to learn from each other and from two experienced facilitators - UBA's Tom Billings and the International Mission Board's Jim Slack, a missiologist and research specialist who was also present eight years earlier when GCI was just an idea.

Participants spent time talking around the table and sharing learning, experiences, and questions with one another. They also spent time in prayer.

/files/Photo Gallery/News  Feature Stories/The Salt Shaker/2011/Houston GCI/Dany-Daniel.jpg"GCI served more as an affirmation for me, rather than a revelation about the missional concept of the church and individual  believers," said participant Dany Daniel (follow), pastor of evangelism and pastoral care at West Conroe Baptist in Conroe. 

"I think the church already possess a 'Field of Dreams' theology on missions.  We build a pretty building, fill it with decoration, and create programs to keep people busy, in hopes the community will come to see us.  Missional theology follows scripture and the understanding that we must go to the people, and be light in darkness."

Daniel notes that for a large church steeped in traditional functions applying GCI principles would be a major shift. 

"We cannot gut the church of its current identity, or it would crumble.  We do need to begin identifying leaders in our church who will live missionally," he said.

He is already at work on a strategy to reach the subdivisions in Conroe and Lake Conroe -- most of which are gated or secluded with their own societal structure, operations, and values. 
Daniel's plan is representative of the people-group focus inherent in all GCI teaching. To reach people and help them accept and adopt a new way of thinking and living, one must understand how they think and live presently.

Billings thinks it's the only way to address the ever-changing population of Houston and the U.S.

/files/Photo Gallery/News  Feature Stories/The Salt Shaker/2011/Houston GCI/HoustonDemographicNews.jpg"Once most folks in the city could be characterized as Protestant, Catholic or Jew. That's not true any more," he explained. "According to the Glenmary Research Center, half the folks in Houston do not identify with any religion whatsoever.  And non-Christian religions are growing.  As folks move to Houston from other parts of the world, they bring the language, culture, and religion with them.  Consequently, mosques and temples are being built as fast or faster than churches in our city.  UBA Consultant Josh Ellis' provides up-to-date information on Houston Demographics at his blog Houston Demographic News.

"As I've noted on many occasions, while the church is strong in Houston, our strength is a bit deceptive.  We are large, but we are losing ground in the city every day. Every year that goes by the percentage of Christians as a part of the total population of the city declines."

Great Commission Initiatives Houston will offer Phase 2 in September.  Detials will be released at a later date.   

For more information on Houston GCI, contact Sally Hinzie (email) or Tom Billings (email).

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Reaching the Unreached