By Lonnie Wilkey
Editor, Baptist and Reflector
FRANKLIN — Though World Changers began as a program of the former Southern Baptist Convention Brotherhood Commission, it made a lasting impact on Tennesseans who both participated in the hands-on missions ministry and those who benefited from the work of countless teenagers and sponsors.
World Changers was actually birthed in Tennessee with a pilot project in the summer of 1990 in Briceville. The project drew 137 youth and sponsors to the Appalachian area of northeast Tennessee. Participants did construction projects in the community and shared the gospel with local homeowners.
Though it was started by the Brotherhood Commission, World Changers was eventually moved under the auspices of the North American Mission Board in 1997 and then to LifeWay Christian Resources in 2011.
LifeWay announced on May 1 that it was discontinuing World Changers due to a 10-year decline in participation and that no projects could be held this summer due to COVID-19. LifeWay also recently announced it is cutting its budget which will save between $25 million and $30 million annually.
“While World Changers as an organization is going away, the impact upon thousands of lives over 30 years of ministry is undeniable,” said Ben Trueblood, director of student ministry at LifeWay in a May 1 Baptist Press news article.
“The love of Christ was shown to homeowners and communities across North America. People came to know the Lord, and students were trained in sharing the gospel and being the hands and feet of Jesus,” Trueblood added.
“For 30 years, World Changers has provided meaningful missions experiences for more than 400,000 students and adults throughout North America,” Trueblood told Baptist Press.
Many of the World Changers projects took place in low income urban areas of Nashville, Memphis and Knoxville as well as rural communities and other areas throughout the state including Briceville and Clinton in East Tennessee.
Tennessee Baptists who were involved in World Changers agree they feel sadness and a sense of loss as World Changers ceases to exist.
“World Changers provided a new component to missions for teenagers,” recalled Tim Bearden, a retired member of the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board staff. Bearden, while then on the staff of the SBC Brotherhood Commission, participated in the first World Changers project in Briceville.
Prior to World Changers, churches sent kids to camp, he noted.
“World Changers allowed them to do hands-on missions. They changed lives spiritually and physically,” he recalled.
Bearden, who at one time was brotherhood director and Tennessee Baptist Disaster Relief director, noted that the first Tennessee DR shower trailer was developed out of a need for World Changers groups who needed a place to take showers while working in Clinton one summer.
In addition, World Changers crew chiefs were trained at both Tennessee Baptist Convention conference centers — Carson Springs in Newport and Linden Valley in Linden, he added.
World Changers had a major impact on his daughter, Jenni Bearden, who participated on three World Changers trips and later served on staff for three summers while in college.
One of her most vivid memories was going to New York following 9/11 on a special World Changers project. As they were working in an apartment building next to Ground Zero, she recalled that they were still pouring water onto the site because there were still embers.
Soon, a rainbow appeared.
She said she still remembers thinking, “That’s a symbol of God’s presence.”
“No matter how dark things seem, He is there in the middle of it with us,” she said.
Like her dad, Jenni Bearden, now a child therapist and children’s director at Ellendale United Methoist Church in Memphis, was saddened by the news that World Changers will end.
“World Changers is the one ministry that helped churches truly be the hands and feet of Christ in the poorest communities,” she said.
World Changers also provided an opportunity for many teenagers to feel the call to ministry. Among them was Jeff James, pastor of First Baptist Church, Fisherville.
James grew up in Faith Baptist Church, Bartlett, and participated in more than 30 World Changers projects over the years. “World Changers was a big part of how God prepared me to enter the ministry,” he said.
“World Changers was very meaningful to me and it opened my eyes to the missions field,” he recalled. “World Changers is where I really learned the importance of the Great Commission and our responsibility to share the gospel,” James said.
James also recalled learning what the power of God can do in a week with a teenager. “I saw how God opened their eyes to missions and it spurred them to go home and meet needs in their own neighborhoods and share the gospel with their friends.”
James’ brother, Allen James, called the demise of World Changers “the end of an era.”
Allen James, now pastor of Salem Baptist Church, Knoxville, was involved with World Changers in one way or another for nearly 15 years, beginning in 1993 when he was the student minister at Faith Baptist in Bartlett.
He credits World Changers for being “the missing piece that connected faith and action.”
Through his involvement he has seen “a lot of kids called to ministry” through World Changers. It is neat to see how God used World Changers in the lives of people.”
Allen James noted that one of the key components of World Changers was focusing on communities and trying to make a difference. That focus “has impacted the way I do ministry,” he confirmed. “We don’t exist for us. We have to exist for the community,” he said.
— Carol Pipes of LifeWay Christian Resources contributed to this article.