In Houston, missions specialists discuss ways to evangelize without ‘Americanizing’ the nation’s many ethnic groups.
In Hollywood, California, a fast-food establishment run by Koreans sells Kosher tacos. Students in the Los Angeles Unified School District collectively speak more than 100 languages. Miami is the world’s second-largest Cuban city, and Chicago is the second-largest Polish city. Further, more blacks live in the United States than in any country except Nigeria.
With facts like these, missiologist C. Peter Wagner last month illustrated the ethnic diversity that pervades America, in his keynote address to Houston ’85, the National Convocation on Evangelizing Ethnic America. Sponsored by the North American Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization, it was the first major consultation of its kind to be held in the United States. More than 47 Protestant denominations and organizations were represented, with nearly 700 registrants representing 63 language/culture groups.
“The teeming multitudes of all colors, languages, smells, and cultures are not just a quaint sideline in our nation,” Wagner said. “They are America.” A professor of church growth at Fuller Theological Seminary, Wagner noted that “Anglos now comprise only about 30 percent of America’s population, even though most of the national cultural structures and forms remain Anglo.”
Wagner’s observations came as no surprise to representatives of churches and denominations that already have extensive programs to reach ethnics with the gospel. The leader in this field is the Southern Baptist Convention. Across the nation each Sunday, some 4,600 Southern Baptist ethnic congregations worship in a total of 87 languages.
The Southern Baptist Convention’s successful model was the main reason the Lausanne Committee chose Oscar Romo to serve as Houston ’85 conference chairman. Director of the language missions division of the Southern Baptist Home Mission Board, Romo directs the denomination’s ministry to non-Anglo populations in the United States.
“America is not a melting pot,” Romo said. “It never was.” He noted that his Hispanic ancestors lived in the southwestern United States long before the Pilgrims arrived in what is now Massachusetts.
Romo said the Southern Baptist Convention, the Assemblies of God, and other congregational-style denominations have been doing more to evangelize ethnics because they are not limited by hierarchical structures. “There is no need to have programs approved from the top,” he said. “The local church simply rises to meet the spiritual needs of the people.”
Romo and other conference organizers emphasized the importance of attaining unity in the body of Christ, but not at the expense of destroying ethnic diversity. “We’re seeking to evangelize,” Romo said, “not to Americanize.”
Thus, Houston’s South Main Baptist Church was an appropriate conference site. Some urban congregations, faced with an influx of ethnic groups, have opted to move to the suburbs. But some 20 years ago, South Main Baptist Church decided to stay. It initiated programs to help immigrants adjust to their new land. Today, three ethnic congregations—Korean, Hispanic, and Cambodian—operate under the umbrella of South Main Baptist Church, which also conducts a full program for its English-speaking congregation.
The use of South Main’s facilities and programs has eased the financial burden of these ethnic congregations and has allowed them to concentrate on evangelizing and nurturing within their own ethnic groups. Every three months South Main holds a combined celebration service that brings together the entire church family.
One goal of Houston ’85 was to supply resources and contacts for those interested in beginning or strengthening ministries to ethnics. Another was to educate participants about the peculiarities of particular ethnic groups in order to increase the effectiveness of evangelism.
In a major address, Toronto-based Indian evangelist Ravi Zacharias discussed the need for intellectual credibility to permeate evangelistic witness. “There are thousands and thousands of people,” he said, “who cannot be led to the Lord under a tree with a little booklet pointing to a diagram and asking them to identify their lives on that diagram.” He said such methods are “terribly simplistic” for the millions of people of the world “who have been raised with sophisticated philosophies.”
Zacharias observed that the Hindu mind does not ascribe to the principle that if something is true, its opposite must be false. He said scores of ethnics have responded to altar calls at evangelistic crusades only to “add what they’ve heard to what they already believe.” He said Christians should help Hindus realize that they “must learn to disbelieve something before they can take a true step toward Jesus Christ.”
Houston ’85 focused on Asians, Caribbeans, Europeans, Hispanics, international students and visitors, Middle Easterners, Native Americans, Pacific Islanders, refugees, and deaf people. James Banks, who works with ministries to the deaf for the Assemblies of God Division of Home Missions, explained that deaf people identify with deaf culture more than they identify with any particular race.
The conference did not, however, include all of America’s ethnic groups, something that touched a tender nerve among blacks attending Houston ’85. “We felt deep in our hearts that there was a great opportunity missed that we [blacks] could have shared in,” said Michael Patterson, an ordained Assemblies of God clergyman. Patterson was born in South America, but he said he came to the United States in 1970 and made a conscious choice to identify with black America.
Twenty-seven black Americans attended a caucus meeting the night before the conference ended. With Fuller Seminary’s Wagner and North American Lausanne Committee chairman Robert Coleman sitting in, the blacks discussed some of the problems facing black America, including the dissolution of the family and a high rate of crime.
They lamented what they said was a lost opportunity at the conference to address these problems, and they asked for a formal apology. Patterson pointed out that he and others had voiced their concerns about the exclusion of blacks when the conference was still in the early planning stages.
In a statement released to the news media, conference officials explained that “[the] Central Planning Committee felt what the Lord wanted from Houston ’85 was a focus on the ethnic peoples ‘whose language and/or culure is other than English.’ ” The statement extended an invitation to those who felt excluded to participate “as evangelizers, not as evangelized.”
Robert Harrison, the first black pastor to be ordained by the Assemblies of God, said the exclusion of blacks at the conference was a symptom of the poor relationship between black and white Christians. “Historically, blacks have been invited to events that have already been organized and structured,” he said. “What we’d like is to be in on the ground level.”
At a news conference, Wagner said the Houston ’85 organizers “may well have made the wrong judgment. We knew that [our decision] would be somewhat controversial. I don’t think we realized it would be this controversial.”
Evangelist Leighton Ford expressed concern, during his closing address, that some feelings had been hurt, saying, “I am grieved and sorry for any misunderstanding.”
At the closing banquet, Patterson told the conferees, “We have had a problem here, and we must not deny it. We must not sweep it under the rug.” However, he said he wanted to stress possibilities, not missed opportunities. The black caucus selected Patterson to head up a task force aimed at assessing the state of black America, contexualizing the gospel for grassroots black America, and interfacing with the white church by providing input in the next major Lausanne Conference on World Evangelization, planned for 1989.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.