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Ethnic Church Planting:
A Documentation of the Work of Dr. Chris Thomas
Nancy Kruger, Spring 1994
Introduction, Ministry Focus and Challenge (Part 1 of 5)
In 1988, Dr. Chris Thomas began an inter-cultural ministry in the Seattle area that would result in the planting of twelve ethnic churches and home fellowships serving refugees and immigrants who have come to live in the U.S. Dr. Thomas, born in Madras, India, formerly served as a missionary in Singapore and Malaysia. He received his Masters in Biblical Studies from Seattle Pacific University and his Doctorate in Missiology from the School of World Mission at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California.
The purpose of this project is to document the strategies that Dr. Thomas has incorporated in establishing these churches, the growth that has taken place in them, the struggles that are inherent in the planting of ethnic churches and the principles that are most important to ensure that worship is meaningful for each group in varying cultural contexts.
In some cases, Dr. Thomas has found that a desire to learn English has been the key "drawing" element of people to form a church. For instance, in the Vietnamese community, the teenagers were interested in learning the English language and American customs. Once a class was started, the parents were visited in their homes and the fellowship and evangelism grew from that.
However, in other cases, refugees are referred to Dr. Thomas by any one of five organizations that he networks with, in order to help refugees become established in American culture. Three of the organizations are denominationally affiliated (Catholic, Lutheran and Episcopalian) and the other two are World Relief and the Council of Churches. Most often, people who have just arrived in the country are in need of locating housing, furnishings, jobs, or transportation to the Department of Social Services, and Dr. Thomas (or sometimes a volunteer from the Neighborhood Church) can be of help with these needs. The formation of that particular ethnic group into a church begins with this process as these people are formed into fellowships.
Dr. Thomas has found that much of his role in the planting of ethnic churches has been in helping people in these areas, and more! During tax season, it is not unusual that a stack of 1040-EZ forms is found on the comer of his desk, waiting to be prepared for ethnic church members. The following stories are all examples of ministry that has been essential to those who have only recently come to the U.S., a brand new culture and a brand new way of life. Try to put yourself in their place and imagine the confusion...
A 15-year old Russian boy from Renton is out stealing cars. His family has been in the U.S. for six months, but has not attempted to learn the English language, or how to fit into American culture. The boy is not doing well in school, and his parents don't have the ability to monitor his progress. Communication with the teachers has proved difficult for the parents as well as the boy, and the boy has just stopped going to school. He is stealing cars to survive, and looking for something, anything to relate to from his own culture and background ..... something familiar.
A Ukrainian man is pulled ever for a traffic violation, but does not understand the American laws. His culture teaches him not to sign anything that he does not know about, so he, out of confusion, refuses to sign the traffic ticket. The police take him to jail for this, and the man becomes so upset that he has a heart attack in the police station. He is taken to the hospital, but how can his family be contacted and notified of the crisis when no one can speak their language?
A neighbor calls police with a domestic violence report. A Russian man is reported to have shouted, "I'll kill you!" at his wife, and the police arrive to charge him with violence. Although the wife did not charge her husband, he was ordered to obtain professional counseling. Since there is none available in the Russian language, the man was put in jail and assigned a court date. (Dr. Thomas was able to assist by getting him out of jail!)
Dr. Thomas' involvement with these ethnic churches is much more than just pastoral, it addresses the life needs of the individual. For instance, in the case of the domestic violence, the man went to court with Dr. Thomas as his representative, and the outcome was that the man was released under the supervision of Dr. Thomas. The ethnic church planter is also a "doctor, lawyer, advisor and counselor, a total human being!" says Dr. Thomas. "Trust is very difficult for anyone who doesn't speak English (in the U.S.), and we must work to build that trust level as more and more ethnic people groups are coming into our urban areas."
According to figures obtained by World Relief, there are already over 80 languages spoken in the City of Seattle school district alone. Ministry to these ethnic people has never been more vital than it has become in recent years, and the Gospel has never been more relevant to America as a cross-cultural mission field than it is today. (See Who Lives in Your State for demographic information on your community).
Most of the churches that Dr. Thomas has worked with started with the financial support of a "mother" church. This is especially helpful since this early stage of growth is the most critical for establishing the church and keeping it growing. The financial assistance of a mother church is vital at the beginning because of the many needs that the church and its people have. There are expenses for the purchase of Bibles, literature, study materials, music and songbooks, as well as various social concerns for the physical needs of the people. Refugees and immigrants to the U.S. often arrive with only one suitcase and are in need of clothing, food, medical care, and help finding housing. Financial assistance may continue for a period of six months to one year, but then the new church should try to become a "self- supporting, self-governing and self-propagating, indigenous church."
Translation is one of the first problems that must be addressed in the planting of an ethnic church. When a nucleus of people is established to form the congregation, it is necessary to find a person or several people who can speak both the language of the people and English so that translation can be possible.
There is another way (slightly more expensive!) to solve the problem of providing clear translation. Recognizing the need to reach the growing numbers of ethnic people who have come to America without knowledge of the English language, Dr. Thomas has utilized the idea of "simultaneous translation" he observed during his missionary work in Singapore.
Personal earphones enable people to hear a translation of the service in their own language, which is in most cases, the only way (or the most comfortable way) for them to understand what is happening in the service.
When the service can be led by people from their own language group, however, translation need only be provided for that portion of the service which would be in English (for instance, when Dr. Thomas speaks), unless, of course, the church is bilingual. If it is only serving the language of one group, most often someone from the congregation with a good knowledge of the English language would be called upon to interpret. Dr. Thomas has found that the best translator is often a young man from the congregation. Young people typically have the strongest language skills and employing them as translators and song leaders helps attract other young people to the church.
A Three-fold Focus
From the very beginning, Dr. Thomas sees the critical activity and task of the church to be threefold:
- Evangelism - All members are to be involved in the sharing of their faith in Jesus Christ, with a vision to bring the unsaved to Christ.
- Church Planting - Members are involved in the ongoing establishment and growth of the church.
- Leadership Training - Since them is generally no lay leadership at the beginning, leaders within the ethnic group must be trained and prepared for the task of future leadership of the church. Bible study is of primary importance for this purpose, as well as for the spiritual growth of the believers in the congregation.
These three areas of concentration are the focus simultaneously in the establishment and initial growth of the new ethnic congregation.
Leadership training is an important focus because it is necessary that the leadership of the church be turned over as quickly as possible to a leader within the ethnic group itself. The type of person who is considered to be a "leadership candidate" would possess the following qualifications:
- Someone trained in theology and knowledge of the Bible through classes offered This person is not necessarily seminary trained since most prospective leaders could not go to seminary, but Bible school training, even non-accredited, is enough to become an elder or deacon. In the Assemblies of God (Dr. Thomas' denomination), one can be licensed to preach upon passing district required comes.
- A natural leader; someone who has the respect of the people. As Dr. Thomas puts it: "When he talks, people listen!"
The Challenge for Ministry
Ethnocentricity, or even racism, are tremendous barriers to effective ministry in dealing with people from other cultures. For one who is working among the great numbers of refugees and immigrants coming into the U.S., there must be an understanding of their differences in background, culture, values and behavior. This focus is evident in all of the cultural situations researched in this report and is a primary concern for Dr. Thomas.
People from other cultural backgrounds come into this country as "misplaced" individuals in our society. They may be poor, unkempt and untidy, or appear to us to be lazy or "unwilling" to get a job. An inability to speak English may cause them to become isolated as a people group, choosing only to fellowship with each other in a society where they are the minority. This deepens their growing sense of insecurity, fear, withdrawal and frustration. They may hold to a very different set of moral or ethical standards than is normally acceptable in our culture, or they may have very different behavior in social situations (overly distant and "cold" or overly dependent ).
Again, Dr. Thomas emphasizes the focus in ministry on forgiveness, compassion for all people, awareness and understanding of cultural differences, and tolerance for these differences even when they are hard to accept. "We can't condemn people or talk negatively about them," says Dr. Thomas. "We must understand and be non-judgmental, we must have compassion for them, pray for them and be willing to help them financially. We can and we must identify with them, but we are not just like them".
This attitude of total non-judgmentalism can sometimes be a bigger problem for us than most of us would like to admit. We can easily encounter misunderstandings in communication with people of our own language and culture! Even when we are cross- culturally sensitive, it is much more likely that among people of other cultures, behavior will be misunderstood and judgments or wrong assumptions made. The inability (or possible inappropriateness) to effectively communicate feelings regarding an incident of misunderstanding creates unwanted barriers to ministry for both the individual who is in ministry and for the individual being ministered to. For the individual in ministry, the judgment of the other person itself is the initial barrier. The immigrant or refugee who senses these feelings may become distant, resentful, mistrustful or angry, thus continuing (or deepening) the process of communication breakdown.
An example of how a small misunderstanding can create barriers in cross-cultural communication occurred during the research and preparation for this project. After a service one evening at the Slavik church, I approached a woman whom Dr. Thomas had said would be helpful in answering some questions about the process in which she and her family had come to America. I introduced myself, explained the purpose of the project and that it was for World Relief. When I asked if it would be okay to talk with her for a few minutes, she seemed very hurried and said that she would not have the time to talk with me. I assured her that it would only take a few minutes, and she seemed to relax a little.
When asked about the transition period in Europe between leaving the Ukraine and coming to Seattle, she explained that they had stayed in very good hotels and received three meals a day. She knew that this had not been paid for by the Russian government and "appeared" rather flippant in saying "I don't know who paid, I just know that somebody, maybe World Relief, did." It occurred to me then how easy it would have been to judge her motives - my first instinct, in fact, was to do just that! Even though she thought World Relief might have sponsored her "freedom", she appeared to have little time, motivation to help in return, or appreciation for the help given to her.
The fact that I had already spent ten weeks attending this church and had gotten to know the culture a little helped me to realize, however, that the behavior of the Russian- Ukrainian individual may easily communicate to us a rigid, distant and cold demeanor. (It is also not helpful in any communication to make judgments based on one incident!) I had seen this woman give much time to interpretation and leadership in the music for the services, and had already learned from Dr. Thomas of her transformation in adjusting to American culture. She is a dedicated individual, a committed Christian and a faithful servant.
Most people who are tying to survive in a foreign culture can be expected to have a difficult time adjusting. But when the change is a result of oppression or persecution, or it has been from a poor culture to our affluent culture, the pressures are enormous. It is no wonder that there was little time (and energy) for this woman to spare.
Another example might be the tendency of many people who appear to be unwilling to work. Do we really take the time to understand how we would feel if we were the ones in a foreign country, driven out of our familiar homeland, unable to communicate with other people and unable to understand why things are done the way they are? In defense of the lack of compassion for the situation, some have asked "Why do they come here if they don't want to adjust to doing things our way?" If we have been born into the American culture, we must recognize and honestly deal with how easy it is for this thinking to creep up on us! The attitude of superiority, judgmentalism and arrogance in thinking this way has no place in ministry and it must be guarded against very carefully. Who of us can ever really say that we are free from all cultural bias or value judgment acquired from our own society?
Just when we think we are incapable of being so "narrow-minded", we may find this the easiest time to make wrong assumptions or judgments about people, no matter how small or subtle they are.
Dr. Thomas points out that by the time the second generation grows to an age where they become leadership of the church, the communication problems decrease greatly. Since they have grown up in American culture, have studied English in the American school system, and for the most part have adapted American culture, the ability to communicate effectively with English-speaking Americans is not a major problem. Also, having made the transition at an earlier age than did their parents, the adjustment would very likely have been much easier for them. Since the children need to go to school they do not have the choice of adhering to their first language or isolating themselves into communication only with people from their own ethnicity. Being more resilient, they are thrown into the new and unfamiliar experience of learning to cope with life in a different land. While the adjustments are not without difficulty, by the time they reach adulthood, they have usually been able to learn to function efficiently in their new culture.
Tolerance and compassion are important in ministry to ethnics, but how should we approach problems of moral indiscretion, violence or other such behavior that is Biblically wrong and socially unacceptable in our culture, but culturally acceptable for others? Dr. Thomas stresses, again, the need for sensitivity to good timing and spiritual discretion in such matters. "We must watch for sin and syncretistic practice of religion," he says, "but we must also be very careful that we are not communicating a Gospel that comes with conditions." Jesus did not expect people to completely straighten out their lives before He allowed them to believe in Him! He accepted people, all people, right where, they were, and promised the Holy Spirit to convict and bring growth.
Ministry among ethnic people requires the flexibility of a person who can let go of doing things his or her own way, often deferring to the cultural ways of the people group. When the "ways" are clearly unbiblical and "sinful" it is very difficult to let it go, even for a while, unaddressed. With people of other cultures (in most cases), conversion does not occur instantaneously. Dr. Thomas explains the need for much patience-. "It takes a long time to help a person to really understand Christianity and the meaning of salvation". Untimely judgment of culturally accepted behavior can be extremely detrimental to this process.
We all bring our past experiences with us into new surroundings; they have formed our personalities, behavior, self-worth and identification. Our world view is based on the value assumptions we make based on these experiences! It is no different for any other ethnic group who may have had life experiences based on a totally different set of values. They may make similar value judgments, based on Scriptural truth or our behavior! For example, the importance of consumerism and reliance on acquiring material wealth and property for the social status of most Americans is clearly unbiblical. With television and the media promoting these things as socially acceptable, it is no wonder that even the church has too often accepted this philosophy! What "value judgments" might people from other cultures, having lived in poverty, form of American Christians? An understanding of cross-cultural values, taking an "inventory" of our own personal shortcomings and spiritual poverty, and recognizing the full impact of "spiritual value judgments" on effective communication of the Gospel are all essential. keys to developing the patience, wisdom and understanding that is necessary for an ethnic church planter in urban America.
"Ethnic Church Planting: A Documentation of the Work of Dr. Chris Thomas"
Nancy Kruger, Spring 1994.
Introduction, Ministry Focus and Challenges
Case Study: Slavik Church
Case Study: Hispanic Church
Case Study: Vietnamese Church
Summary of Observations Regarding Ethnic Ministry
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