Appalachian Outreach serves as Training Ground for Missions Education

by Mark Brown, Carson-Newman College Communications Office

Appalachian Outreach was established almost 30 years ago as a way for Carson-Newman College students to learn innovative ways of serving others while fighting poverty. Since then, the home repair ministry has helped thousands of residents in a five-county region of East Tennessee.

Over time it has also become something like “boot camp” for mission awareness and training for churches who participate. “Pastors can preach about missions and the need to be actively involved in such efforts, but, until folks see the need up close and feel the blessing in their own lives, the sermons are just words from a pulpit,” said AO

Executive Director Jim Wilson, who led the establishment of the ministry as Carson-Newman’s campus minister in the early 1980s.

Leaders of several groups this summer have confirmed Wilson’s assessment and say AO is tailor fit to educating servants of all ages.

Rev. James Tilton is the pastor of The Church at Clayton Crossings, a church located near North Carolina’s capital of Raleigh. He recently brought to Jefferson City 14 volunteers, “as many as the van could handle,” he said.

For Tilton, a 1993 Carson-Newman College alumnus whose “unofficial major, without a doubt, was Campus Ministries,” the trip was significant on several fronts. First, it granted him the opportunity to work with AO as a pastor two decades after he served as summer missionary. A second benefit was as a way to say thanks for the spring break trip when C-N students helped his church with construction efforts.

A third reason was perhaps the most important, he said. “I am glad that we have the opportunity to expose these kids to something that is not suburban Raleigh. This is a good chance to build character development, and for them to see something different.”

“Different” is a diplomatic understatement. Clayton, North Carolina has an unemployment rate of 2.6 percent while Grainger County, Tenn., where the team spent their workdays, is almost five times as high. Educational prep statistics are likewise dissimilar, as are personal resources – Grainger’s $29,122 median income pales against Clayton’s $51,408.

But Tilton’s not a sociologist who wants a smattering of his congregation’s young people to understand demographics. Rather, he’s the pastor of a 10-year-old, 500-member strong church plant that some 750 Sunday morning worshippers. He hopes that a week of poverty relief in East Tennessee will foster a dedicated collection of Joshuas and Calebs who will go back home and share the needs they saw as well as the blessings they felt daily.

“Our church is growing to understand the value of missions,” said Tilton, who earned a business degree in expectations of being an ordained church administrator. “It’s very hard to convince folks that didn’t grow up in church about the importance of missions.”

Given its impact and financial strength, Tilton says it’s time for missions. To plant such seeds, he liked the idea of coming home and working with Appalachian Outreach, Carson-Newman’s auxiliary ministry.

For members of Georgia’s Johnson Ferry Baptist Church, it was indeed words from the pulpit that planted the seeds of what in just two years has become a fruitful relationship with Appalachian Outreach. The call to involvement was reiterated from the Sunday school lectern, by their teacher, George Wright, who in early 2009 asked Mike and Gail Kumpf to check out possible projects and put something feasible together for a group whose members “average between 65 and 68 years old.”

“Our pastor has said, ‘If you’re in this church, you are going to serve. If you don’t want to serve, well, there are (other) churches you can go to,” noted Gail, who found out about AO last year through a link on Bridge, a service matching website offered by the North American Mission Board (NAMB).

Members of the class like the idea of knowing their pastor, Bryant Wright, is carrying that message with him in his second term as the Southern Baptist Convention’s president. They also hear a family resemblance, which is fitting since their teacher happens to be the pastor’s father.

Connecting with AO has been what Gail calls “a God thing.” She started looking for an opportunity that offered a variety of service options and was within easy driving distance of Atlanta. “We knew we couldn’t travel too far because we have some elderly people who also wanted to come help.”

Whereas some mission outlets offer one type of service, Mike Kumpf said the added beauty of Appalachian Outreach is that “it has some home remodeling and construction work, the kid’s corner (held in a subsidized housing project) … and … for people who can’t physically do a lot of strenuous things, there is a clothing and food distribution center… It’s just absolutely ideal.”

It took just one trip by one JFBC Sunday school class last year to create what the Kumpfs expect will become a stream of service. After members went home with a dual message of need and blessing, the response included a second class that arranged its own week earlier this summer. “We had two weeks this year; by next year we hope to have a month’s worth,” said Gail.

The model of AO as incubator for missions is not new, according to Steve Wynn and others who annually bring a team of young people from FBC-New Bern, a 200-year-old congregation located on the North Carolina coast.

“Our bus will hold 37 and we will pack it every time,” said Wynn, who has been an AO volunteer for 17 years. “Why, most of this group wasn’t even born when I started coming,” he laughed.

Open to high school students – from rising freshmen to those on the cusp of their senior year – the week has become a rite of passage, said the ”start to finish” contractor who enjoys seeing personal and spiritual development that comes with love and sweat.

“It’s amazing, and it blows my mind every year. You see them mature; they get closer and closer to the Lord. They go home and tell their friends. They don’t have to be church members; if they are part of the youth group, they are more than welcome to come.”

Wynn said one of the elements that moves him most is watching when groups “congeal and grow together” as they work to serve God by helping His people. He said another blessing is seeing the long-term effects of the mission opportunity. “They are so sad when they finish high school because they’ll miss coming here. In fact, we have some who can’t wait to turn 21 and come back as chaperones.”

The sense of returning to C-N and AO was part of Tilton’s motivation to bring a group this summer. He credits Wilson, his campus minister of 20 years ago, with granting him “opportunities to invest my life in ways that had eternal significance.”

The pastor hopes that the joy reaped by the group that sought to serve the Lord in Southern Appalachia will have the same results in their lives and in their church.