First Baptist embraces its increasingly colorful community

Baptist Press
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Posted: Oct 16, 2013 4:52 PM
EDITOR'S NOTE: First Baptist Church in Lilburn, Ga., exemplifies the commitment of churches across the Southern Baptist Convention to support state, national and international missions and ministry through the Cooperative Program. October is Cooperative Program Emphasis Month in the SBC. For an overview of this key channel of support for Southern Baptist work, go to www.cpmissions.net.

LILBURN, Ga. (BP) -- Locals say the once-cozy country town of Lilburn, Ga., began to attract immigrants and experience "white flight" after the 1996 Olympics.

The majority of Lilburn's First Baptist Church members -- despite being faced with a drastically changing community and the decision of other local churches to relocate -- chose to stand firm where God had planted them in 1840.

By the time Ken Hall was called as pastor in 2003, the congregation had determined its God-given responsibility for reaching whomever God brought to their community northeast of Atlanta's I-285 beltway.

Many congregations, one church

First Baptist Church has become a microcosm of the multicultural SBC, with 15 distinct congregations, three of which worship in English. Together, the various congregations reported 1,091 in Sunday morning worship, 94 baptisms and a bit more than 10 percent of undesignated receipts given through Southern Baptists' Cooperative Program in the SBC's 2012 Annual Church Profile.

Through the church's ethnic congregations, it is able to reach the world God has sent to its town. Between 1990 and 2010, Lilburn's Anglo population declined from 95.2 percent in 1990 to 69.1 percent in 2000, to only 52.7 percent in 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Today First Lilburn's congregations include Hispanic and Asian Indian, both with services in the "heart language" (for first- and second-generation immigrants) and English (to reach the younger generations). Other ethnic congregations are Korean, Mandarin Chinese, Cantonese Chinese, Vietnamese, Hmong, Haitian, Ethiopian, Bhutanese, Arabic and Persian (Farsi-speaking) as well as English.

"I'm from this area so I knew the changes," Hall said. "Gwinnett County was a white, middle- to upper-middle-class area. The world came to Atlanta for the Olympics, liked what they saw, and came back. Now Lilburn has a larger majority of ethnics than Caucasians.... We just began to pray and God began to systematically open doors to reach different groups."

Initially, Lilburn tried to become a truly international congregation.

"It totally flopped," Hall said. "We were quite puzzled about that because we felt it was a great need. But we came to realize every group wants to worship in their own heart language and culture.

"If we were going to reach them, we would have to focus on language-specific groups," the pastor said. "When we first began the process, we were focusing on first- and second-generation, so we needed someone who could speak the language. For that reason, we decided to not start a congregation if we don't have leadership for it."

Hall said he and the ethnic pastors have learned that most first- and second-generation immigrants want to worship in their own language. On the other hand, many third- and fourth-generation Americans want to worship in English, but in their parents' cultural context. Fifth- and sixth-generation immigrants are usually fully "Americanized" and often are more comfortable in an English-speaking congregation.

Hispanic congregations

A ministry to Spanish-speaking children living in an apartment complex near the church became the first language congregation. It started as a children's ministry, grew to include their parents, and now holds services in Spanish and in English, each of which numbers about 70 in worship. Julio Crespo, the bivocational Hispanic pastor, leads both congregations while working as a computer engineer for a transit authority.

"Planting a church is a difficult task," Crespo said. "Sometimes church planters are thrown out there, all on their own. To have a local church pray for us and be with us during that process is very helpful, a huge blessing. You don't have the sense you're out there alone.

"We have 12 countries .... We have a very diverse community but we have learned from First to reach them where they are, in their heart."

Asian Indian congregations

Just down the street from First Baptist stands the second-largest Hindu temple outside of India. With many Asian Indians moving to the area, Raj Nagi, a bivocational pastor who also manages a restaurant, began to minister to that group. Six years ago they became a part of First Baptist.

Last year Nagi also began reaching out to local Bhutanese people who speak a close dialect of the Hindi language.

"We were finding a place to meet at one house or another house," Nagi said of the time before he joined with First Baptist. "Now everyone is comfortable. That's very good.

"The mother church is showing unconditional love. It's the church that loves. Because of them, I learned how to love."

Ethiopian congregation

In 2008, an Ethiopian group began gathering weekly for Bible study at the leader's place of business, a coffee shop about seven miles south of Lilburn. Tsina Yilma, the owner, mentioned the group's need to find a different place to meet in conversation with a customer.

The customer told Yilma that his pastor was praying about another ethnic church. In a long conversation with Hall, Yilma sensed "it was just a good match. We were very happy, no strings attached. We were not told to do anything or be anything, but they made sure we are doctrinally harmonious.

"We worked with other churches before," he said. "First Baptist Church in Lilburn is very unique. They just enjoy us being here.

"The first time they received us it was like coming back home. It's just like a mother expecting a baby and when the baby comes, she has the heart to care for the baby.

"We are able to use the equipment. We never feel like we are strangers. We feel like we are using our own facility," Yilma said. "They have a large heart to embrace us."

Yilma cautioned other churches that may want to do something similar: "Make sure those leading these groups or churches are sound doctrinally. Outside of that, be very open, not putting too much burden on them.

"Be praying for those churches," Yilma continued. "I believe First Baptist prays for the church and that is one major factor in why we haven't had any problems, and we've grown. There is no formula; only God."

How First Baptist works

Hosting so many groups is not without challenges. Refrigerator storage space is one example. Just as many Americans keep ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise and a variety of pickles on hand, every culture has its favorite "keepers." Sharing the space for this is manageable; the amount of forgotten leftovers isn't. "We sometimes have to remind the congregations to keep refrigerators cleaned out," said Elaine Brown, missions coordinator.

Children's behavior also can be a challenge, when standards vary among different cultures. Like the refrigerator, that issue too was addressed and resolved during a regular Tuesday morning staff meeting of all the vocational staff.

"We deal with issues straightforwardly," Hall said. "We try to be understanding; we also understand everybody has to be considerate of everybody."

Twice each year the church gathers for worship as one body: the last Sunday in April for the Festival of Nations and a Lord's Supper service in September. Also, the ethnic congregations often baptize during the Anglo service.

A respect by everyone involved for people individually, for cultures and for the facilities enables First Baptist to handle the logistical challenges of meeting the needs of the various congregations.

"We do have a large facility and we do have a number of places that can accommodate larger groups, up to 50, 60 or 70," Hall said. "We do not charge rent; we do not see these as outside groups. We consider each language pastor an associate pastor of Lilburn First in addition to being senior pastor of their respective congregations. With every congregation that comes in, we sit down and explain our philosophy, both what we do and how they relate to the church as a whole.

"They come in as a ministry to the church, just like youth or music," Hall added. "They have full access to the facilities, go through the same process to reserve the facilities, and it is first-come, first-served. If the youth, for example, want the gym and another group has reserved it, the youth just find someplace else.

"I've seen afresh and anew that when we look at the Scriptures, God has a heart for the nations," Hall reflected. "God loves all people -- not just us white bubbas. I've seen God's love for all people, regardless of who they are."

Committed to cooperation

While primarily focused on reaching its community, the church has maintained an aggressive vision of funding missions through the Cooperative Program to share in Southern Baptists' part of the Great Commission.

"I've been a Southern Baptist all my life -- saved and called to ministry as a Southern Baptist -- and I have come to a deeper and deeper appreciation of the fact we can do more together than we can separately," Hall said. "One of the greatest -- if not the greatest -- things about the Cooperative Program is that we work together to be able to accomplish more than we are able to accomplish just by ourselves.

"I think the greatest benefit to what we're doing -- what God is doing through us -- is that we're able to reach people here who come to America for school, work and freedom," Hall said. "They come for that, and find Christ. ... We're reaching people we'd never be reaching otherwise if we didn't have the language congregations. As God leads, more ethnic congregations could be in the church's future."

Karen L. Willoughby is a Southern Baptist writer recently relocated to Mapleton, Utah. This article first appeared in SBC LIFE, journal of the Southern Baptist Convention's Executive Committee.

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