The small Baptist church was dying, really. Just ten elderly members came. But then 100 Karen refugees from Burma moved into the cheap apartments nearby. Decades before their history had intersected with Baptist missionary to Burma, Adoniram Judson; they were looking for a Baptist church.
Before you know it, a 75-year-old who hadn’t seen a kid in her Sunday school class in years now had 35 of them, and they didn’t speak English. The church members had the maturity not to be threatened or frightened. They recognized the opportunity before them and gave unstintingly of their time and resources to serve the new congregation. A service in the Karen language was soon attracting 200, and 10-15 joined the 10 Americans in their English service.
In time the Karen congregation outgrew the facilities and recognized they would need to move, but the Americans saw that their building could continue to find new life as the home to a multi-ethnic congregation, and were willing to do whatever it would take to see that happen. The senior pastor stepped aside. A cross-cultural missionary was brought in and given free rein to reinvent the church.
The new guy, Jeff, had served in the Philippines and worked with Bhutanese refugees in Nepal. Problems with his health had brought him back to the States. But all that was under control now and he was ready to serve. The church got a new name and a new lease on life as an intentionally international church.
As he stepped into serving the city’s refugees, Jeff found himself as much a case manager as a pastor. He helped with food stamps, doctor appointments, letters, phone calls, and paperwork. He helped refugees get settled, find work, learn to drive, and get their kids in school. Jeff was having the time of his life, but the challenges could be overwhelming at times. He was glad when a Bhutanese pastor joined the congregation, then a Syrian one too. The multiethnic church is reaching out to Bhutanese, Chin, Assyrian Iraqis, and Filipinos.
Sure it’s crazy. The kids run wild. Anyone accustomed to a tame American church ministry might find it too much. “White flight” is almost inevitable if a church reaching out to its ethnic neighbors is not intentional about communicating the vision and helping people embrace it and navigate the obstacles.
“It’s madness,” says Jeff. “It’s missions!”
Those who want to help out have to learn, too, that it may be hard to measure success. “I tell them to just focus on a person, or one family, and know it may take a long time to feel that things are really working,” he explains.
Small group Bible studies use some of the “Bible storying” material that is being developed for oral cultures around the world. Worship is evolving: The Karen and Chin have their own traditions of church music, and that helps. Some in the congregation are starting to write their own music. “We have a great version of ‘How Great Thou Art’ in five languages!” says Jeff. “Each group sings their section when we get to it. But what I’d love to see is truly multi-ethnic worship, celebrating it, with everyone willing to sing in every language.”