On Spanish ministry and ethnic churches

I’ve been involved in Spanish-language ministry for the past seven years. In December 2014 I was called as a bi-vocational youth pastor at Enfoque, a Spanish-speaking congregation connected to Fall Creek Baptist Church in Indianapolis, Indiana. When I publicly announced that I was moving to Buffalo, New York, it took most people by surprise. Moving to la frontera (the border) should have placed me somewhere in the Southwest, not the Northeast.

Although it was an HR job that opened up the opportunity to move to Buffalo, it was the 40,000+ Hispanics and lack of an SBC-aligned Hispanic church in Buffalo that led our family to say goodbye to everything in Indiana to move here. I fully believe that God has brought us here to Buffalo to start a ministry with Spanish speakers.

Before I host a Bible study, rent some property, and put up a sign reading “Iglesia Bautista,” I should explain what I envision for ministry in Buffalo. I don’t necessarily want to start a Hispanic, Spanish-language church per se. I’d much rather see a church with both English and Spanish services. There are two main reasons why:

First, Spanish isn’t strong enough to keep a church together in the long run. In the U.S., Spanish is the primary language of immigrants and foreigners, not people who grew up here there whole lives. Depending on immigration trends, it may be that some areas of the country will always have a sufficient influx of Spanish speakers to keep a Hispanic church alive indefinitely. But every foreign language-based church I’ve heard of has the same problem—keeping the second and third generation.

With these later generations English becomes the dominant and preferred language. Many in the second generation are bilingual and can worship and serve in a Spanish-speaking church environment, but even then Spanish fluency tend to diminish with each successive child as they are raised with siblings who communicate with them in English. By the third generation Spanish fluency is usually so weak that a Spanish-language church feels more like an awkward cross-cultural trip than a serious encounter with God.

Most Spanish-language churches don’t offer a youth group experience that fully appreciates their place between two cultures. Many teenagers stop coming to church at all and their parents can’t or won’t force them to come. Those who manage to stick it out though high school find the Spanish church has nothing to offer them as adults and they leave. If language, such a fundamental aspect of a church, results in families being unable to worship together, something is wrong. There’s no reason why this has to happen.

As long as we have immigrants coming to the U.S., language-based ministries must exist. But a fully integrated church that can offer two services—English and Spanish—can benefit from having one common English-based children’s ministry, one common English-based youth group, and one place where parents and children can worship together, albeit not always in the same service, in a language they each understand.

Second, English-speaking churches need to be more culturally diverse. If you were to ask the average white pastor to identify an “ethnic” church in his community, he’d probably point out a black church, a Vietnamese church, a Korean church, or a Hispanic church, but he would never consider his own predominantly white church to be “ethnic.”

I once met a white pastor who had a decent number of black families attending his church. When I asked him about their music program, he was very proud to point out that his church didn’t “pander” to the musical styles of any particular cultural group in order to reach people. His church was “generic” and their music was “like what you hear on Christian radio.” In other words, they didn’t play gospel music or have a church choir in order to get blacks to attend. Now, I’m not saying they should have gospel music and a church choir—just because someone is black and Christian doesn’t mean they like those things. The point is, however, that this white pastor didn’t realize that much of what he considered “generic” was actually just indicative of white culture. After all, isn’t most of the worship music you hear on Christian radio written and/or performed by white people?

I believe that many “ethnic churches” (from a white-as-baseline point of view) exist precisely because whites expect minorities to adopt their “generic” church culture rather than try to understand and incorporate the cultural perspectives and values of the minorities in their midst. Perhaps there wouldn’t be as many black churches, Vietnamese churches, Korean churches, or even Hispanic churches if our white churches didn’t expect black, Vietnamese, Korean, and Hispanic Christians to check their cultures at the door.

My vision for ministry in Buffalo isn’t a white church that lets the Spanish-speakers use their building. It isn’t even a white church with a Spanish service. It’s for a church where Hispanics feel welcome, not as outsiders or minorities, but as full members who contribute to the life and culture of the whole church. I praise God that Paul established churches made up of Jews and Gentiles. This led to all kinds of cultural misunderstandings, tensions, and awkward moments, but it also led to churches to find unity, not in a common culture or language, but in one common Savior. Isn’t that the kind of church that Paul describes in Ephesians (particularly chapter 2)?

I believe this fits the picture of how God wants our churches to bring together people of different cultures into one body. It requires a lot of hard work, the blessing of God, and the movement of the Holy Spirit to see fruition. I’d love to see a church established on a cultural identity—white, black, Vietnamese, or other—work towards becoming a multicultural church. As I begin making contacts and trying to reach Spanish speakers with the gospel, I also want to partner with others who want to unite with believers from other cultural backgrounds as one body.

“For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” —Galatians 3:27-28

The Story of an Established Church Pastor who Became a Church Planter… And Returned Again (by Josh Hall)

Josh Hall is the pastor of Selmore Baptist Church in Ozark, MO.

I always said I wanted to be a church planter someday. Even before church planting became “cool,” I always thought it would be a great adventure to start a new church from scratch, particularly in an under-reached area. I distinctly remember attending a conference where a bi-vocational church planter spoke, and being moved to tears by his story of walking by faith and seeing God do amazing things. I thought, “I want to try that before my ministry is done.” But then reality set in. I was the pastor of a 100 year-old church. I had been there for several years. The church was growing, it provided a good living for us, and our entire family loved the church and the community. We were firmly entrenched, and we were happy! The idea of planting a church seemed little more than a dream.

Still, as time went by, I would occasionally raise the subject with a friend or colleague. When our church began a missions partnership with an association in suburban Chicago, my heart broke for the communities of 100,000+ people who had few evangelical churches to attend. (And in some cases, none!) I would often ask myself the question, “How can I spend my life ministering in an area that has a church on every corner, when there are so many people in need of the gospel just a few hours away?”

Then came the day I got the text. One of the friends I had visited with in the past (a missions pastor of a large church) asked if I would consider planting a church in a particular metro area. At first, I was closed to the idea. But then I agreed to hear him out. To make a long story short, after much thought and prayer, we agreed to take the plunge and move to that city to plant a church. While I could go into much more detail on that part of it, let it suffice to say it was a gut-wrenching decision. One night I broke down and sobbed uncontrollably, and the tears just wouldn’t stop. In the days before we told the church, I was literally physically ill, even going to urgent care at one point with what I feared were signs of a heart attack. (It turned out I was carrying stress/tension in my shoulder/chest muscles, which was simulating heart pain.) We had been at our church for ten years and had lived in southwest Missouri our entire life. We were leaving behind family, friends, and everything that was familiar to us. In retrospect, perhaps the decision should not have been that hard. But, as they say, hindsight is 20/20.

Our church was very gracious when we told them the news. In fact, they could not have been more wonderful. Not only did they give us a very generous severance package, but 20-30 of them showed up to help us load our moving truck, and two of the church members actually drove the moving truck to our new city for us! On our final Sunday at the church, they recognized us with a plaque and a meal, and laid hands on us in prayer. Many tears were shed that day, and many hugs were shared. Never has there been a pastor any more loved. That is what we left behind when we decided to plant a church.

At this point, I could probably write a novel on all that happened once we got there. (And perhaps I will one day.) But to make a long story short, I don’t know that it was ever quite “right.” Don’t get me wrong, we had a very good experience. We came to love our city and our neighbors. It was good for us to learn that we could move to an area outside our home region and be okay. It taught us faith and reliance on God. And I have no doubt that we grew spiritually very much during that season. But, at the same time, I came to realize I didn’t have the passion for my work that I should.

Almost from the very beginning, I found myself saying, “I wish we could fast-forward to the point where I have a church to pastor!” I wasn’t enjoying the process of building a church from the ground up. In fact, I was suffering somewhat from an identity crisis. I felt like a shepherd with no sheep. I was doing some supply preaching, but it wasn’t the same as teaching the same group of people week after week. I was a square peg in a round hole. We worked very hard at getting out and meeting people, and trying different approaches to get something going, and nothing ever really clicked. We tried meeting in our home. We tried meeting at the park. We tried meeting in Pizza Hut. We finally had a series of worship services in a fire station that were seeded with members of a nearby church. Occasionally, we would see signs of progress – perhaps a visiting family or two – but nothing lasting or substantial.

After several months, we decided the time had come for a change. It was time to transition back into pastoral ministry. The lack of tangible “success” in our efforts certainly played into our decision, but it actually wasn’t the primary motivation. Our main reason for making the change was that I came to understand that my God-given passion and giftings are in shepherding the established church. For all the frustrations that typically come with pastoring an older congregation (bureaucracy, tradition, etc.) I found myself missing the established church. I knew it was time to get back to doing what I was truly called to do, and there was no sense in wasting any more time or resources to figure it out.

Shortly after I made it known that I was looking to transition back into pastoral ministry, our former church in Missouri contacted me to ask if I would prayerfully consider returning to serve as their senior pastor. (During the months we were away, God had not led the church to call a new pastor, so the position was still open.) Initially, I was hesitant. But again, after much thought and prayer, I accepted their invitation to come in view of a call, and the church welcomed us back with open arms. I will always remember one of our senior deacons calling me during that time of seeking God’s will and saying, “Come home.” And we are glad we did. We love our church, and have been back nearly two years for our “second term.”

In telling this story, please don’t hear me say it was a mistake for us to try church planting. I don’t know that to be true. What I do know is that we were following God’s will to the best of our understanding and ability at the time we made the decision. And while I am still sorting out everything that took place during that period of our life, I am convinced that time will reveal God’s purposes for our season as church planters – not only for us, but for the people we impacted in our planting city, and for our church in Missouri.

My main purpose in sharing this story is to be an encouragement to those pastors like me who are serving in established/traditional settings, and considering the possibility of church planting. If I could communicate only one thing to you, it would be this, “Pastoring the established church and planting a new church are not the same thing.” My advice to you would be to pray long and hard before making this transition. If you have any doubt, talk to your spiritual mentors, and let them speak into your life.

Finally, if you have a passion for church planting, but don’t believe it is your calling/gifting to plant a new church from scratch, you do have at least a couple options: 1) One option may be to replant an existing congregation. Don’t overlook this possibility. Replanting is growing in acceptance, and is excellent stewardship of God’s resources. 2) If you’re like me, you may come to the conclusion that the greatest contribution you can make to planting new churches is to lead your established congregation to support and resource new church plants. There is no shame in this, and many more churches need to step up to the plate in this area.

Please feel free to contact me by email or social media if I can be of further encouragement/support to you in this area. Blessings.

Have We Forgotten What It’s Like (by Josh Hall)

Josh Hall is the pastor of Selmore Baptist Church in Ozark, MO. He blogs at his website: http://halljosh.blogspot.com/

I recently visited with a young woman that is fairly new to our church.  In our conversation, she shared with me some of the fears she had when she first started attending.  She told me when she first started attending Sunday School (which took some time) that she would silently pray before class that the teacher would not call on her, for fear she would not know the answer to the question.  She thought she was the only one who wouldn’t know the answer.

When she attended worship, if she did not know where to locate the sermon text, she wouldn’t even try, for fear that someone sitting next to her would see her fumbling through her Bible and pick up on the fact she couldn’t find it.

Since that time, this young woman has become a faithful attender of our church.  She now loves Sunday School, and helps with our children’s ministry.  She has read through the entire New Testament, and much of the Old Testament.  She has come a long way.  But she did share with me one gesture that helped on her journey…

One night while sitting in Sunday evening worship, she didn’t know how to find the sermon text.  She closed her Bible and set it beside her.  Then, one of our ladies sitting next to her, simply opened her Bible to the right location, and handed it to this young woman.  The young woman told me that she may have otherwise taken offense to that act, but could not, because it was done in such a sweet spirit, without any judgment.  It was a turning point for her.

I say all that to say this…  I think sometimes those of us who have been in the Church for a long time, forget what it’s like for someone who is new.  We have forgotten how scary and intimidating it can be.  We are callous, and it shows in our attitude toward guests, and the way we conduct our services.

I’m not talking about being “seeker sensitive” here.  (That is to say, gearing the whole service around visitors.)   I am a firm believer that corporate worship is primarily for the membership.  I’m just talking about basic kindness.  Being a good host to guests.  Being aware.  Trying to empathize a little bit with how they may feel.

How does this play out practically?…

If we care about guests, we’ll have signs in our church that point them where to go.  Have you ever gone into a big clinic or office building with absolutely no direction of how to find your destination?  It is a vulnerable and frustrating feeling.

If we care about our guests, we’ll have policies/procedures in place that protect children.  Some might say, “Why do we need that?  We all know each other!”  A guest doesn’t know you.  A guest wants to know their children are safe and protected.

If we care about our guests, we’ll make a deliberate and conscious decision to look for people we don’t recognize in the worship service, and then introduce ourselves.  Have you ever been a guest in a church where you sit down in a pew, and people walk right by you like your’e a bump on a log?  Awkward, isn’t it?

Pastors, if we care about our guests, perhaps we’ll craft our sermons more carefully.  I’m not talking about watering down doctrine, or avoiding Biblical terminology.  I’m just talking about speaking in such a way that an average person can understand you.  Taking time to explain those Biblical terms.  Perhaps giving a little guidance when you announce your sermon text.  (i.e. “You will find Judges in the OT, after the book of Joshua and before the book of Ruth.”)  Perhaps even announcing the page number of the text in the pew Bible.

Little things make a big difference.  Little things communicate to a guest, “You are wanted and welcome here.”  One little thing, one little gesture, one little act of kindness (as noted above) can be a turning point in someone’s life and walk with the Lord. Think about it.

Mutual Joy—the aim of pastoring

I’ve been reading Pastoral Letters of Robert Murray M’Cheyne—it’s a short book that I could probably down in a couple of hours, but I’ve been limiting myself to a letter per day to have a chance to absorb what he communicated as pastor on sick-leave to his congregation.

Letter three, dated February 13, 1839, included the following in its opening paragraph: Believe me, it is the foremost desire of my heart that Christ may be glorified in you, both now and at his coming; that you may be a happy and a holy people, blessed and made a blessing.

As I pondered his words it reminded me much of the pastoral heart of Paul. We often limit his “pastoral letters” to the Timothys and Titus, but really each letter overflowed with the love of a shepherd for the flock, no matter how long or short and no matter how much time he had spent among them. In particular, I thought of Philippians.

Likely one of Paul’s prison letters, his words both overflowed with joy and urged great joy in the life of the church. Yes he lacked the freedom he desired to spread the gospel (though he did all he could to spread it to the guards and fellow prisoners), and yes other preachers were going around mocking him for his situation, but he would not let those things rob him of his joy. Even if they threatened his life, he would happily proclaim, “To live is Christ; to die is gain.”

In the midst of it all, Paul began by telling the church that he was thankful for them and how they brought a sense of joy to his prayers (1:3-5). Then shortly he said again how he will rejoice that Christ is proclaimed, no matter who proclaims him (1:18). He called them to a life of holiness—“Let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel”—walking in humility and the light of God (1:27-2:18). He warned of false teachers and those who twist the truth (3:2f). He asked them to follow his example (3:17). He rebuked the disunity and infighting between two ladies (4:2-3). And he urged them to a life of contentment (4:10-13).

And through it all he called them again and again to rejoice in the Lord (2:18, 2:29, 3:1, 4:4).

But also telling with this, in 2:2 Paul called the church to “complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” Then in 4:1 he challenged and encouraged them with: “Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved.”

As M’Cheyne desired for his church almost two thousand years later, so Paul desired that the Philippians live lives that glorify God through both happiness and holiness. Yet Paul also said to the church, “You are my joy.” This wasn’t a joy to replace his joy in the Lord, instead it flowed from it and especially due to how God continued to work through his church.

In essence, as Paul, they would experience more true happiness with lives set on pursuing God and holiness in Christ. And this would, in turn, produce further joy in Paul as well.

Far too often self and the world get in the way and both pastor and church seem robbed of joy. Yet when both pastor and church have eyes set on Christ, seek to live for his glory, and pursue holiness, then mutual joy builds between shepherd and flock. Instead of a downward, negative feedback cycle; we can create a positive, upward cycle.

So let mutual joy be our aim. Pastors, to take joy in God, grow in Christ, and to take joy in God’s work in his church; church, to take joy in God, grow in Christ, and seek to be a cause of rejoicing for your church leaders.

happy (mccheyne)