By JOHN FORTMEYER
PORTLAND — For many people, the word “mission” sparks images of missionaries spreading the gospel of Christ in overseas lands. Picture, for example, the many ministries featured each January at the big Mission ConneXion Northwest conference in the Portland area.
For other people, the word “mission” brings up images of Christian shelter outreaches and recovery centers in major American cities. Think of Portland Rescue Mission, the Union Gospel Missions in Portland and Salem, or the former Peniel Mission in Portland, known since the late 1990s as part of California-based Cityteam International’s facilities nationally.
Could those two “mission” perspectives — the focus on reaching wide populations seen in international work, and the potential to restore individual lives seen in the local shelters — come together in a way to greatly impact the Pacific Northwest?
That’s the vision of Paul Watson, Cityteam’s executive director in Portland. Watson came to the Rose City last January from Texas to take the helm of Cityteam’s local program at 526 S.E. Grand Ave. even though he grew up — in the words of CityTeam staff member Mike Lowry — as “a very international missionary kid.”
But Watson’s background in missions is perhaps a bit unusual because of the example shown by his father, David, who is now Cityteam’s vice president of global church planting. As outlined in the book Miraculous Movements by Jerry Trousdale, Cityteam’s director of international ministries, the elder Watson brought to the organization a whole new way to effectively spread the gospel and make disciple-makers.
About a decade ago, Cityteam and its traditional “rescue mission” programs nationally were doing unmistakably good work, touching the lives of more than 500,000 needy urban dwellers each year. But its leaders also realized a big weakness — the ministry was failing to disciple its converts to see real transformation in communities.
However, in 2003 Trousdale met David Watson, a missionary of Southern Baptist background who had experienced both high points and low points in traditional outreach work. Watson had come to a crisis point in the early 1990s when several people he had discipled were martyred in the process of planting churches among a very challenging people group in India. In the resulting grief and discouragement, Watson pleaded with God to remove his call to missions, “but God refused,” according to his son. “So he prayed, ‘God, you’re going to have to show me something new.’ ’’
Turning to the Bible for direction, David Watson discovered principles that addressed the barriers that keep the gospel from rapidly reproducing in spiritually challenged regions of the world.
“It was a new strategy,” explained Paul. “Jesus never converted anyone; he made disciples of them. What if we look for people that the Holy Spirit has brought to a point of being discipled, and then disciple families, not just individuals?”
The result, he said, was amazing. Over the past 18 years, roughly 80,000 churches have been planted and 2 million new believers baptized not only in India but also in Southeast Asia through the strategy discerned by his father.
David Watson came to Cityteam’s attention while teaching at a conference in the U.S., and he was invited to spend a week at the ministry’s headquarters in San Jose. By 2006, Watson, Trousdale and Cityteam had joined forces in a new focus not just on compassionately serving those living in poverty, but also on equipping ordinary people to become disciples who, in turn, care for the needs of their neighbors and communities plus train others to disciple their communities. Since then, Cityteam has planted more than 18,000 new churches, with more than 600,000 new believers worldwide. Today, City-team not only works in five American cities but also has partnerships in 47 nations.
“This stuff is jumping all over the globe,” said the younger Watson, whose own work in international missions has primarily been in the United Kingdom, Egypt and Lebanon, but who has embraced his new duties in the Northwest corner of America with enthusiasm. He said Cityteam’s shift in focus has been a major one for an organization to make within a seven-year period, and is somewhat unprecedented.
“Now, a rescue mission, which was unknown in the missions world, is training others to do this disciple-making,” he said.
That’s where Watson’s vision for reaching the Northwest takes shape. He believes that the strategies that have worked so remarkably overseas can also be effective in America.
“Cityteam is bringing the experience of working with forgotten peoples, and experience in catalyzing movements overseas, and applying these to the Pacific Northwest. We believe God wants to be involved in the Pacific Northwest.”
Why such optimism? Watson points to California’s Bay Area, where Cityteam is headquartered. A staggering 647 discipleship groups have been formed there alone in recent years, and the multiplication just goes on. For example, Watson said, several Cityteam volunteers prayed around an apartment complex there for an opening to start a Bible study. After that study began, a woman of Nicaraguan background met Christ and started eight more Bible studies back in her homeland. That has since expanded to 100 discipleship groups in that nation.
The same kind of results can grow out of Portland, Watson firmly believes. Already, homeless men housed at the Cityteam shelter who get involved in basic Bible studies are being equipped to go out on the streets and share what they have learned. And during such traditional work as distributing food boxes and backpacks, CityTeam mimicks the global strategy by looking locally for what it describes as local “persons of peace.” These are people that Watson says the Holy Spirit has readied ahead of time to encounter the Gospel and who are in a position to influence many others.
“We believe God is already at work in people’s lives,” Watson said. “We’re not just wanting to ‘blast’ people with the Gospel, but look for those who are already looking.”
Just in his short time in Portland, Watson sees evidence, while walking through the city’s neighborhoods, of people who are spiritually seeking. He said Cityteam is eager to share its strategy with the city’s other missions and outreaches and that he has already enjoyed meeting leaders of those and other ministries.
“When I look at Portland, I just see opportunity,” he said.
For more information, phone Cityteam at 503-231-9334 or go to Cityteam.org.