Reaching every nation in our nation
Jesus Christ commanded His church to take the gospel Òto the ends of the earthÓ (Acts 1:8, NIV). Churches in America are discovering the Òends of the earthÓ can be right next door. America's diversity continues to increase with its growing population, inviting innovative ministry from Assemblies of God congregations across the country.
Robyn Wilkerson and her husband, Rich, are senior pastors of Trinity Church in Miami, Fla. She directs the church's Peacemakers Family Center. Isaac Canales is senior pastor of Mision Ebenezer Family Church in Carson, Calif. Zollie L. Smith Jr. is the executive secretary of the New Jersey District and is president of the National Black Fellowship of the Assemblies of God.
Wilkerson, Canales and Smith spoke with Jennifer McClure and Scott Harrup of Today's Pentecostal Evangel about the growing opportunities to share the gospel cross-culturally.
tpe: What do you observe the Assemblies of God doing in your part of the country to connect everyone with the gospel?
WILKERSON: Miami is the largest poor city in the United States. We have the richest of the rich and poorest of the poor living just blocks from each other.
Our outreaches specifically target issues among ethnic populations. We have a very extensive program we have developed in partnership with hundreds of different organizations. We offer a wide variety of social service programs, including job placement, healthy marriage training, low-income childcare and a food bank.
Before I can talk to someone about Christ, I need to address any upfront issues. At Peacemakers Family Center we offer a one-stop service center. People in crisis can come to our Assemblies of God church and connect with someone who will help them create an action plan to pull their life together. After seven years, we have five full-time social workers on staff. They are all Christians.
CANALES: The Southern California and Southern Pacific Latin districts have developed a real spirit of fellowship. Recent statistics point to the growing diversity in the Assemblies of God in this part of the country, and not just through Hispanic growth. We have Romanian, Samoan, African, American, Filipino, Latino and other groups here.
I spoke at a district council a few years ago and was happily surprised at what the Lord was doing. The praise and worship was all ethnic. Many ethnic groups were represented. The Assemblies of God in Southern California is vigorously reaching the nations with the gospel.
There is a joy in this multicultural harvest and a spirit of brotherhood between our superintendents, Brother Sergio Navarrete and Brother Ray Rachels. At the academic level, Vanguard University is in conversation with Latin American Bible Institute to identify ways to work together.
SMITH: More and more ethnic fellowship groups are being represented and nationally recognized in the Assemblies of God. Now we can have input on projects and programs we are pursuing with the representation of every ethnic group so that the decisions in terms of evangelism or discipleship will have the broadest impact.
Local districts have also adopted the mandate of the Executive Presbytery to recognize ethnic fellowships and representatives.
One of the exciting areas we see this inclusion being effective in is church planting. We are rallying around men and women who are committed to opening churches among ethnic groups.
tpe: Jesus' Great Commission mandates multicultural ministry. Yet many churches develop an almost monochrome outreach. Why does this happen?
SMITH: You have to be intentional in order to bring true diversity in any congregation. It starts with the leadership. When diversity is demonstrated at the top levels of leadership, people realize they are welcome regardless of their ethnic background. Too often, churches narrow their opportunities to be inclusive when they limit their leadership exposure.
In a broader sense, society has impacted the way we do church. Segregation has not been totally eradicated. Some people groups still feel stigmatized. We have not truly overcome the ills that divided our society years ago, and it's unfortunate. In some regards, the church is still the most segregated of all the institutions in this country today. Intentionality is the only resolve.
WILKERSON: For most Christians, opening our church to people of a different culture feels like opening our homes and our families. Church, for many Christians, is like our second family. It is tempting to hang onto some false sense of security in believing everyone around us is just like us.
From a leadership perspective, it's just comfortable to create ministry and programs that are targeted to people who are just like we are. The challenge for me in my ministry has been to recognize there are needs in other peoples' lives that are not in my life, and I need to design ministry that will minister to those needs.
We have geared our ministry, our style, the flavor of our church, to meet the needs and the culture of the people around us.
CANALES: In some ways you don't want to blame churches — whether they are black, white, Hispanic or Samoan — for preserving their sense of culture. Sometimes there are fears that you just don't know how to reach out to another person, another culture. Whenever there's fear and there's no knowledge on how to cross a cultural barrier, people tend to pull into their own circles.
Our Lord commissioned us to reach all the nations. As the urban reality forces us all together, it forces us to accept the fact if we are going to be together in heaven we'd better get used to it here. It is good when we see the urban realities forcing people together at work, in school, in recreation, in restaurants, in public places and we realize we're in the very environment Jesus envisioned when He said, ÒGo out and preach to all nations.Ó
As we get used to becoming more civil to one another in the public sector and forced to deal with each other, we will be learning how to do that at church.
tpe: Why is reaching into every ethnic corner of your community a recipe for church growth?
CANALES: Jesus accepted everybody, and people were attracted to Jesus because of His unconditional love. Paralytics, blind, Samaritans, Jews, even Greeks came seeking Him, saying, ÒSir, we want to see Jesus.Ó People have a hunger to see Jesus.
When a church reaches out to the ethnic corners, it's following a very biblical experience. When we follow Jesus' example, we discover people are just hungry to be brought into a place where they can come and hear the word of Jesus and be healed and have fellowship with everybody and know their color is not separating them.
SMITH: We are mandated by the Great Commission to do so. If that is Christ's plan for His church, then it's the best plan for church growth. Once we begin to evangelize from an inclusive standpoint, we discover that's the heartbeat of God. His church is made up of Òwhosoever will.Ó
When we take that approach to church growth, honestly, our target groups are going to be Òwhosoever will,Ó which means we're going to be able to grow at a pace that we once limited to groups we once targeted.
WILKERSON: If you look at the most successful business and media organizations in the United States, you can see they are trying to reach every customer, not just a certain customer. Church growth can only take place when everyone is welcomed.
tpe: What do you believe the U.S. Assemblies of God will look like in 20 years?
SMITH: I pray we will look like the biblical mandate for the church found in the Book of Revelation — all kindred, all tongues, all nations in common with one thing, and that is the true worship of God.
We're on the verge of it, but it has not taken place and it will not really take place until this multiethnic, diverse church becomes one.
WILKERSON: It will look just like the United States' population — if we survive, we will look the same.
CANALES: The Assemblies of God will be browner, but I don't believe it will be completely brown. I believe it will be like cafŽ con leche. There will still be a preservation of cultures and identities, a celebration of cultural distinction and cultural identity. But there will be more of a blending that will be typical of what God wants in His kingdom. And it's nothing to be afraid of — it's just a celebration of the Assemblies of God doing it the right way by saying ÒyesÓ to God's multicultural mandate in Scripture.
tpe: How do you maintain your passion for communicating the gospel to the widest possible audience?
WILKERSON: I want to make my life count. I want to make a difference so that when my children remember me, they will know my priority was to care for people.
CANALES: It all starts with communicating with one person. When you start seeing people come to the Lord through your ministry, you will start having passion for preaching to the masses. To whatever extent God has blessed me in my ministry these years it is because I focused on loving one person, bringing one soul at a time to Christ.
SMITH: In Vietnam I was pinned down by enemy fire and wounded. I saw two of my comrades coming to rescue me, only to die in the process. From that point, I felt obligated to help others because I just could not live with the idea of those men dying in vain.
When I became a Christian and realized Jesus had died for me to rescue me from the lake of fire, I felt obligated to God to reach people with the most powerful gospel message of redemption and deliverance in the world. I cannot see myself doing anything else because eternal life is the most precious gift to humanity.
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