Breaking the language barrier, and the trend
The congregation of about 150 members used to be predominantly white, minister Patrick Odum said. But in the 1980s, members started reaching out to the large influx of Hispanics near their building. In the mid-1990s, the church launched a similar outreach to the burgeoning Korean community.
“As we have tried to share the gospel with our neighbors, we have discovered who our neighbors are — and that they aren’t all the same as us,” Odum said.
Nationwide, the neighborhoods around Churches of Christ are becomingmore diverse. Census estimates indicate that 33.5 million foreign-bornpeople live in the United States, and more than 17 percent of Americansspeak a language other than English at home.
But only about 3.4 percent of the nation’s nearly 13,000 Churches of Christ offer services in a language other than English, according to the 2006 edition of Churches of Christ in the United States, a directory published by 21st Century Christian and compiled by statistician Carl Royster in consultation with Mac Lynn.
Churches of Christ tend to be Southern, mostly white and English-speaking. Many have been slow to reach the increasing number of non-English speakers in the United States, several church leaders told The Christian Chronicle. That could help explain why the United States as a whole grew at a rate about 20 times faster than Church of Christ membership from 1980 to 2006.
An increasing number of churches see the need to minister to their communities’ changing demographics. But becoming a multicultural congregation isn’t easy, Odum said. It requires patience and a willingness to adapt to new styles of church life.
Churches of Christ are ready for those changes “to a certain degree,” said Steve Shaffer, minister for the Carbondale, Ill., church. “We’re ready to be friendly and include people into the fellowship. I’m not sure we are prepared for the challenges of multicultural worship.”
TEACHING ENGLISH, OPENING DOORS
Though worship at the 90-member Carbondale church is English only, the congregation recently launched a program designed to reach non-English speakers, especially international students at nearby Southern Illinois University.
The church is one of about 150 congregations and campus ministries using FriendSpeak, a program that teaches conversational English using the Bible. The Bedford, Texas-based ministry grew out of Let’s Start Talking, an English training program used by mission teams around the globe. The ministry recently launched an independent Web site, www.friendspeak.org.
“People came back from mission trips, saw that their next-door neighbors were from other countries and said, ‘Why can’t we do the same thing right now, right here?’” director Ben Woodward said.
Members of the Cheyenne, Wyo., church recently completed training for their FriendSpeak program, said member Beth Sheldon. The city is home to many foreign-language speakers, including the spouses of officers stationed at nearby Warren Air Force Base, Sheldon said.
FriendSpeak workers also recently helped launch a program at the University of Wisconsin.
SEPARATE SERVICES OR TRANSLATION?
Though only about 515 Churches of Christ offered foreign-language services in 2006, that’s more than triple the number listed in the 1983 edition of the church directory. About 10 churches offer services in three or more languages.
Multilingual churches vary in approaches to ministry. The Woodward Park church in Fresno, Calif., offers separate-language services for about 150 Laotians, 25 Cambodians and 50 Hmong, an ethnic minority in Laos with their own language, minister Jim Gardner said.
In Louisiana, the South Baton Rouge church has ministries — but not separate services — for Spanish- and Chinese-speaking members.
“We could easily separate into three different worship services,” said David Finch, minister for the Chinese speakers. Instead, interpreters translate Sunday morning sermons into Spanish and Chinese simultaneously.
“On any Sunday morning, you will see a great diversity of brothers serving the Lord’s table together,” Finch said.
In Sarasota, Fla., the Central church launched a ministry for Portuguese speakers after a couple from Curitiba, Brazil, began worshipping with the church about 16 years ago, minister Rod Myers said. The church used to have a separate Portuguese service, but eventually the Brazilians decided to re-integrate with the English service.
“Now, there’s just no difference,” Myers said.
MULTICULTURAL, AND MORE LIKELY TO GROW
Congregations that incorporate multiple ethnicities are the exception to the rule in Churches of Christ — and most other religious groups in the U.S.
About 95 percent of religious bodies in the U.S. — churches, synagogues, temples and mosques — are composed predominantly of a single ethnic group. That’s according to the 2000 Faith Communities Today survey, or FACTs, which compiled responses from 14,000 congregations in the U.S., including Churches of Christ.
Though greatly outnumbered, religious bodies comprised of multiple ethnic groups are more likely to grow than their homogenous counterparts, according to a 2005 FACTs update. Sixty-one percent of churches the study classified as “multi-racial” experienced significant growth in the past five years, compared to 31 percent of predominantly “Anglo” churches.
Despite this finding, many churches don’t see reaching multiple ethnicities as a key to growth, said Odum, the Northwest church’s minister. “The principle of homogeneity dominates much of the church growth literature,” he said, “because it is simpler to grow a church that shares a basic ethnicity, culture and language.”
In choosing where to live and where to worship, people tend to gravitate toward those who look, act and think like they do, Odum said.
The Northwest church’s leaders make a conscious effort to break down cultural barriers and make their congregation a unified family.
“What we find, though, is that the unity we’re looking for is already accomplished by the Holy Spirit living in and among us,” Odum said.
“All we’re really doing is looking for ways to work in the same direction the Spirit is already leading us and equipping us to go.”