Week of Prayer for Annie Armstrong Easter Offering
Campus Church Planting Missionary David Proffitt
Says Virginia Students Understand Life’s Uncertainties
By Mickey Noah
HARRISONBURG, Va. – For North American missionaries David and Shirley Proffitt, their passion is winning the next generation to Christ by planting new churches near college campuses. And this passion has turned into a family affair.
Seven years ago, the Proffitts left Southern California – where the couple and their grown son and daughter had been planting new churches for 25 years – for Virginia. In Virginia, they have been planting new collegiate churches as missionaries supported by the North American Mission Board (NAMB) and the Southern Baptist Conservatives of Virginia (SBCV).
David and Shirley are two of more than 5,000 missionaries in the United States, Canada and their territories supported by the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering® for North American Missions. The Proffitts will be featured as part of the annual Week of Prayer, March 2-9, 2008, the theme of which is “Live with Urgency: Seize Your Divine Moment.” The 2008 Annie Armstrong Easter Offering’s goal is $61 million, 100 percent of which is used for missionaries like the Proffitts.
At James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., the Proffitts’ first Virginia church plant, Aletheia (Greek for “truth”) Church, has grown in six years from four members to the some 400 who regularly attend Sunday worship service.
The Proffitts’ son, Aaron, 29, is Aletheia’s worship leader and pastor, a missionary for NAMB and a church planter for SBCV. Amy, their 30-year-old daughter, serves as a counselor for the church, which meets in a renovated warehouse in Harrisonburg. Aaron’s wife, Ashlee, is a semester missionary while Amy’s husband, Jon, also is on Aletheia’s leadership team.
“Three-quarters of the 400 are students,” says David. “The rest of them were probably former students who have gotten married and now have their own children. This is a church that has leadership, supports the Cooperative Program, sends missionaries out, disciples, trains and teaches,” he said.
James Madison University is located in scenic Shenandoah Valley, and has an enrollment of some 17,000 students, 4,000 of them freshman, the largest freshman class in the school’s history. Most of the students are from Fairfax County and northern Virginia.
The 57-year-old Proffitt – who pulls up roots, relocates and plants new campus churches much like itinerant missionary Johnny Appleseed planted apple trees – says starting new churches on a college campus comes with its own special challenges.
“The challenges come when the university is not friendly toward a Christian organization, Christian ministry, churches and Christian campus organizations,” he explained. “They’ve been pretty friendly here in Virginia.
“We have to realize that each place is a unique setting. Even though they’re college and university students, they still are different no matter where.”
Proffitt said one reason he enjoys working with college students is because of the varied demographics they represent.
“College students are mobile. They are ready for risk-taking and challenges. They’re ready to pursue whatever might be next. They’re developing their values. They are in transition. Usually they’re more flexible. They usually don’t have much debt and don’t have to worry about a house to sell. They’re teachable and open. They love to get together, they love to study and they don’t want to be ‘dumbed’ down.
“They love the Word. They’re not as hard to reach evangelistically as a lot of people think. As we train and teach them, and show them how to do hands-on ministry, the more interested they become. The more they are taught and the more they get equipped, the more focused they become, and the more loyal they become,” Proffitt said.
When it became clear that Aletheia Church in Harrisonburg was in the good hands of son Aaron, daughter Amy and their spouses, Ashlee and Jon, David and Shirley next moved on to Richmond, home of Virginia Commonwealth University, the largest university in Virginia with 32,000 students. There, they launched yet another church, also called Aletheia, in downtown Richmond.
When they first planted the Richmond church, the Proffitts began by holding a series of Bible studies. For each Bible study, Shirley would invite and feed up to 18 people in their campus apartment.
“Shirley has been our hospitality leader and always prepares terrific meals for all the people we invite over. She uses hospitality to assist with the evangelism process,” said Proffitt.
“Every day a team of US/C2 and semester missionaries are going out on the campus of VCU and to surrounding housing and talking to students, building relationships and doing intentional evangelism,” said Proffitt.
“We’ve seen hundreds and hundreds of people become Christians,” Proffitt says. “We have even baptized new believers in the James River.”
The VCU campus is multicultural, and includes more than 1,500 international students, many from second-generation, international homes.
“At VCU, there are lots of Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus, and a lot of people who just haven’t made up their minds about God yet. Some of our greatest challenges involve seeing the many Muslim friends we’ve made come to an understanding that Jesus is God and loves them and desires to become connected through repentance and faith.”
Because of the heavy international student population at VCU, Proffitt said his ministry, Richmond’s Grove Avenue Baptist Church, and some other SBC ministries combined efforts and resources to hold an international student Thanksgiving dinner last November. About 300 — mostly international students stuck on campus with no place to go during the holidays — attended and enjoyed the 11 roast turkeys Grove Avenue Church members prepared, along with all the trimmings.
With Aletheia Church in Richmond now running about 200 people each Sunday, David and Shirley have since moved on to Norfolk to plant a third new church, the Old Dominion University branch of Aletheia Church.
Proffitt feels strongly about the need for Southern Baptists to be involved in ministry on the college campus.
“It’s important because it’s the future of the Southern Baptist Convention as a denomination. I grew up as a Southern Baptist. But the people who were the older people in the church I grew up in are gone now. They’re in heaven. So we have to continue to think about the next generation, preparing the next generation, getting the next generation ready.
“The next generation can go in any direction,” Proffitt said. “We want to lead them in a spiritual direction – understanding who God is, understanding that He sent His son, Jesus Christ, and that they can have a personal relationship with Him.”
The heart of Proffitt’s ministry, he said, is the dozen or so US/C2, summer and semester missionaries from NAMB who serve as his assistants and support staff during a school year.
“These student missionaries are amazing,” he says. “They do everything from office work, pick up students, disciple, lead small groups and evangelize. They can organize, provide hospitality, connect, create PowerPoint presentations and graphic art, crunch numbers – anything we ask them to do.
“The beauty of our cooperation with NAMB is that we train the students and NAMB helps fund them as interns and support staff for church planting.”
Proffitt asks Southern Baptists to pray that God would continue to give him and his team open and amiable relationships with the college and university administrations with whom he works. He also prays that the students will be open to the message, so they come to Christ.
When Proffitt is asked which part of his ministry brings him the greatest joy, he has a ready answer.
“First of all, it’s really encouraging to see my own family – the son and daughter I’ve invested so much in over the years – doing their own ministry. They’re actually helping to plant new churches. My second joy, evangelistically, is to see a student, or anybody in the community, become a Christian – to see them get discipled, baptized, equipped, involved, experienced and confident in ministry. And the third thing that really encourages me is to see people going global, fulfilling the Great Commission.”
“Live with Urgency,” the theme for the 2008 Annie Armstrong Easter Offering, are not just empty words for those in the Commonwealth of Virginia, Proffitt said, because of the tragic mass killing of 32 students, faculty and staff at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg last spring.
“Because of Virginia Tech, we know how short life can be. Because we work among young people, we realize that life can be short and can move on very, very quickly. Before you know it, students are in a phase of life where they’re not as flexible, not as willing to hear, to change, and to allow spiritual alterations in their lives.”