Joel Shaffer referees a Saturday night basketball game for high school students, then leads them in a Bible study.

“Have you ever heard someone say that the Bible is not true? How would you refute this?”

Joel Shaffer of Urban Transformation Ministries begins his Thursday night Bible study with a thought-provoking question. Most of the teens gathered at Berean Baptist Church in Grand Rapids have already made a decision for Christ—Joel is discipling them to become leaders in the outreach programs. Using thought-provoking questions and contemporary illustrations, Joel leads the students in a study of the eyewitness gospel account in 1 Corinthians 15.

Joel, 42, calls himself a neighborhood missionary, ministering on a gritty corner crowded with young people who have too much time on their hands. Creston High School is only a block away, a brick bunker described as a “dropout factory” in a 2007 study at Johns Hopkins University; nearly half of the freshman class will never graduate.

“Some of their lives are a mess,” Joel says of the teens who find Christ through UTM. “We all like to catch the fish, but we don’t like to clean them.” He looks back on his own early efforts in the neighborhood, explaining the lessons he has learned along the way, and his passion for discipling young men to become the fathers they never had when growing up.

Joel grew up attending Heather Hills Baptist Church in Indianapolis, where his father, Gaylord Shaffer, was the worship pastor. Having inherited his family’s musical skills, Joel won a brass scholarship in the 1985 Talents For Christ competition, then graduated from Grand Rapids Baptist College (now Cornerstone University) with a degree in music. But by his senior year of college, Joel was developing a clear understanding of what his life’s ministry would be. “I was hiding behind my euphonium—I was an introvert, and never saw myself as a pastor or a public speaker,” he says.

During his last year of college, he lived in an apartment above an urban storefront ministry, hoping to organize a program for homeless people. His first attempt—renting a location that turned out to be a crack house—taught him valuable lessons. “My wife has sacrificed immensely for this ministry. In the early years—the height of the crack war—we got used to dropping to the ground when the gunfire got too close,” Joel says.

After several years working with another church, Joel became the executive director of Urban Transformation Ministries in 2004, a ministry supported by several GARBC churches in the Grand Rapids area.

Home of the late missionary pioneer Paul Versluis (see his obituary on page 43), Berean Baptist has had a long heritage of supporting missionary efforts. In 1993, after several years of discussion, the church voted to stay in the neighborhood, a new missionary outreach that would encourage the congregation to consider significant changes in ministry philosophy.

“It’s been fragile. We’ve tried to move slowly to preserve the unity of the church,” Joel says, adding he has personally grown from his connection to a larger network of churches. “Guys like Paul Versluis and Joe Bower are my heroes,” Joel says.

Driving through the streets today, it is hard to imagine the wealthy and prosperous beginning that Berean Baptist had in 1892. Founding church Fountain Street Baptist had planted several satellites in rapid succession: Second Baptist Church (1883), Wealthy Street Baptist Church (1886), Calvary Baptist Church (1889), and then Berean. All four church plants would eventually join the GARBC, but the mother church took a hard left turn, “so liberal that the Northern Baptist Convention kicked them out,” Joel says. He’s right. The Fountain Street building—with its stained glass window of Charles Darwin—still stands about a mile south of Berean.

Joel’s sense of history and his theological training have proven important as he ministers in a neighborhood where the Fountain Street liberalism continues to flourish. A few weeks after we visited, a local megachurch pastor released Love Wins, a new book based on the same old liberal assumption that everyone will eventually reach Heaven, somehow (see Michael Wittmer’s review on page 20).

“If you really believe in total depravity, you will do ministry differently,” Joel says. “Church groups with wrong views of the kingdom have a disconnect between social action and the local church.

“Because of my theology of the church, I’m here to serve the church.”

Kevin Mungons is managing editor of the Baptist Bulletin. Darrell Goemaat is director of photography.