O’FALLON – Southern Baptists have built new church starts for decades upon an expectation that church plants should be autonomous within three years.
The time that is needed for an ethnic church to achieve independence varies, but one thing is certain: the world has come to Missouri.
Ken McCune, head of ethnic church planting at the Missouri Baptist Convention (MBC), said the ethnic population in the state grew 53.8 percent between 2000-2010 and that 45 percent of the ethnic population came here since 2000.
He said the MBC currently has about 65 ethnic churches and more are planned. Because of mobility in and out of the state and for other reasons,tracking ethnic groups is sometimes difficult. However, Darren Casper, who works with the St. Louis Metro Baptist Association in planting ethnic churches, said there are about 100 people groups in his ministry area.
Ethnic church planters naturally talk about the differences between those congregations and the traditional Southern Baptist church. However, Casper said Missouri Baptists should focus on important commonalities among all people.
“Whatever ethnic group we’re talking about there are still two similarities among all people groups,” he said. “The first is that all people are born into sin. The second is that the never-changing gospel is universal and the only answer for all peoples.”
How best to communicate that information to people with very different perspectives is the challenge of ethnic church planting.
“We need to conceptualize (the gospel) for them so they understand it … and connect to it,” said Luis Mendoza, a church planter in Kansas City and a field assistant with the MBC.
“We can’t reach them the way we deal with Anglos. Their worldview is different.”
He explained that the common concepts of sin, guilt, and repentance that Christians here accept may be foreign ideas to people from other cultures or may be understood differently.
Mendoza also heads the Multi-Ethnic Church Planting Center in Kansas City. The center is a new work in an old Presbyterian church building on the city’s north side that is planned as meeting place and resource center for launching new ethnic churches.
Ethnic groups are often identified as having a distinctly different language and cultural perspective from native-born Americans. Those two elements are often cited as the top challenges in launching churches in ethnic communities.
“When I think of ethnic church planting, I think of those with other worldviews, cultural contexts, and speaking other languages,” Casper said.
McCune agreed. His personal definition of an ethnic group is “someone whose language, religious, or culture background is significantly distinct from what is often thought of as the norm” here.
America still represents opportunity for many people around the world. The resources of this nation are sometimes not available elsewhere.
“We have so many nations in Missouri,” McCune said.
Tracking those different people groups is not always precise. Some may consist of a few individuals in an area. Some may be sub-groups of larger ones, and easy mobility means people may move in or out rather quickly.
Those differences should not be seen negatively by Christians.
“As Christians, we need to understand that this is an opportunity instead of a problem,” McCune said. “There are some additional challenges in doing ethnic church planting. There are also a lot of opportunities.”
A new ethnic church has the best possibility of success when someone from the culture is leading it. Still, even a common nationality or ethnic label can be a challenge because of cultural differences between similar groups. Hispanics, for example, are Spanish-speaking people from Mexico, Central America, South America, some Caribbean nations, and the United States if they grew up in Latino communities. That represents dozens of countries, cultural differences and — perhaps even — language.
Between groups with a common language there may also be class distinctions. People see others of their own ethnicity differently.
For example, Casper said among Asians from India and other Hindu cultures “You can’t have a person of one caste trying to be the leader of another caste.”
Understanding the differences—even the most subtle ones—among people groups is critical in reaching them for Christ, say ethnic church planters.
“The more I learn, the more prepared I’ll be to share the gospel and more effective in reaching them,” Mendoza said.
Friendship is crucial.
“Remember the model of Jesus: He loved people,”Casper said. “He was known as a friend of sinners. Ethnic people need to have friends from Missouri Baptists.”
Getting a new church off the ground is always challenging. With all new church starts in Missouri groups must provide their own funding—often requiring a bi-vocational pastor—until they have at least one baptism and critical mass in attendance. After that, the MBC can partner with the local association, and local church partners help fund the new group until it can become self-sustaining.
“If they come to know Christ here, some will stay while others will take that back with them to their country of origin,” McCune said. “Because of this both Missouri missions and international missions happen.”