I grew up in a small town tucked away in the mountains of Pulaski, Va. This beautiful Appalachian upbringing provided great vistas and wonderful childhood memories. However, it did little to prepare me to be a ministry leader in an increasingly diverse context.
After 35 years of pastoral ministry, I wonder if anything could have prepared me for what I encounter today.
In early 2010, my wife Glenda and I moved from our predominantly monocultural neighborhood in the suburbs of Indianapolis to our new church, First Baptist Church, Duluth, Ga. This quaint Southern town outside Atlanta is diversifying at an astonishing rate.
Longtime residents can recall when Duluth amounted to a single road with a single stoplight. But in the late '80s and early '90s, Duluth became a residential hot spot in suburban Atlanta. Professional athletes, CEOs, and wealthy entrepreneurs built massive homes, and the standard of living soared.
A colossal event in 1996 changed the trajectory of this community for the next generation: Atlanta hosted the Olympics. The nations came to our city. International leaders had a delightful first experience in the mild climate and robust economic atmosphere of Atlanta's suburbs. As a result, people from a variety of nations began to populate Duluth in record numbers during the early 2000s.
When I arrived in 2010, Duluth was on its way to becoming one of the most diverse cities in America. In our mayor's "state of the city" address that year, I heard a startling statistic that has motivated me ever since.
Mayor Nancy Harris illustrated the changing nature of our community with one statement: "There are 57 languages spoken daily at Duluth High School." I wrote this down and challenged the mayor afterward. Surely she had misspoken! I didn't think there were 57 languages in the entire world, much less at our local high school.
I left that event pondering, "If First Baptist Church is going to be relevant in this community, we have to learn to carry the life-changing truth of the Gospel to 57 different language groups." I spent the next six months forming a biblical strategy that I shared with the church in a Sunday morning message.
Since that time, people from 41 nations have become members of our church or partners in ministry. We now offer our services with live interpretation through headsets in Spanish, Korean and Arabic (we hope to add Mandarin Chinese soon). We join with our community and celebrate international holidays, such as El Día de Los Tres Reyes Magos (Three Kings' Day), a Spanish celebration, at Christmastime; East Asian New Year, for those who observe the lunar calendar; and India's Independence Day.
Our church is making arrangements to be one of two American celebrations of the release of a new African study Bible written by Africans for Africans to be distributed throughout the continent and made available for African-born people residing in other parts of the world.
The changes at our church all began with the establishment of rich relationships that provided the impetus to show how much we care for one another. My friend and mentor Mark DeYmaz explains this as the difference between being "assimilating" and being "accommodating."
Most churches do a good job at assimilation. Many churches have a staff position dedicated to assimilation. Assimilating churches do their best to provide all the necessary information for you to become one of us, become like us and adopt our culture.
Accommodation, on the other hand, begins with me wanting to know about you. How can I help you to become all God intends you to be? Tell me about your cultural nuances and how to make a Gospel impact in your cultural setting.
Recently, I had the privilege of baptizing Hwajin Lee, who came to our church through our English classes offered on Wednesday evenings. During a class break, her instructor told me Lee wanted to know how to become a member of the church.
A classmate served as my interpreter into her native language of Korean. Lee shared how she was reared in a believing home in Korea and had been attending a predominantly Korean church in America. However, since coming to First Baptist Church Duluth, she had experienced a spiritual call to be a part of something beyond her culture and beyond her language.
People like Lee remind me of the spiritual task of building a ministry that is relevant to our local community. After experiencing the spiritual dynamics of a multicultural church, I do not ever desire to return to a monocultural world. As Lee shared with me that evening, "There is a spiritual call to something beyond my comfort zone."
The beautiful picture of heavenly worship in Revelation 7:9 might be beyond our comfort zone, but it is happening every week at our church. I feel incredibly blessed.