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Ethnic Church Planting:
A Documentation of the Work of Dr. Chris Thomas

Nancy Kruger, Spring 1994

Case Study: An Hispanic Church (Part 3 of 5)


Hosanna Asamblea de Dios (Assembly of God) began as a Spanish-speaking fellowship group within the Neighborhood Church in Bellevue. The group began meeting at the prompting of Dr. Thomas, who approached one of Neighborhood's members, Josie Lopez, with the idea in May 1988. Yvonne Grauten, who had spent a summer in Mexico and is fluent in Spanish, Annette Dooley, a Spanish teacher at Northwest College, and Manuel Lopez, Josie's husband, were also involved in organizing the group.

At first the group was mostly social in nature, meeting twice a week in homes for Spanish movies and popcorn, food, conversation and fellowship. The meetings began on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, but after about six months, the Thursday night group switched to Friday nights. The group met also as a prayer fellowship, a Bible study and a basis for encouraging each other as Christian people from Latin culture, living in America. At this early stage, the group gave their fellowship the name 'Iglesia del Barrio' (the Spanish translation for Neighborhood Church). About 21 people, made up of students from Northwest College, exchange students and people who were preparing for mission assignments in Latin America, came to these meetings regularly. Dr. Thomas remembers that the "exchange students came by the busload!"

Within only two months, in July 1988, Miguel Perry became the first "pastor" (leader) of the group. He had a vision that the fellowship would become its own church, and already there were the beginnings or "seeds" of this fellowship becoming a mission church and eventually a separate church under its own leadership. Miguel worked full time in construction, and put in many hours without pay as leader for the fellowship. Publicity became a focus for the fellowship so that other Spanish-speaking and Latin people would have an opportunity to come to the meetings. Groups of people began going door to door in subdivisions and apartment complexes looking for Spanish last names, and inviting them to come to services. Flyers were put up in Mexican restaurants and areas in Bellevue where it was known that there were people of Latin culture.

Steps of Growth and Leadership

In July 1989, although still officially under the Neighborhood Church, the fellowship became a "home missions church" with Miguel continuing as pastor. Sunday services began in the Neighborhood Church building, and Sunday Bible classes were also offered (even though in the early days, only 3-5 people attended regularly). Tithes went into the Neighborhood Church general budget but were allocated to the Spanish ministry. The Neighborhood Church began to subsidize Miguel's income, and he was considered staff. He continued to lead the group until September 1989, when he left to serve as a missionary in Spain.

The church was without a pastor for eight months, and leadership became a "committee", overseen by Dr. Thomas. All the committee members had full time jobs, and sacrificed a great deal of time, work and effort to keeping the fellowship strong.

In June 1990, one of the members of the fellowship, Tim Burtis, graduated from Northwest College and became pastor of the fellowship. At this time, the fellowship became a separate, self-supporting church, and had grown to 40 steady members. Tithes that were received went directly into Hosanna's budget, a logo was designed, and separate accounts were opened. The church established an office within the Neighborhood Church building for a rental fee of only ten percent of the tithes received. Tim, as Hosanna's first full-time pastor, was paid a modest salary. In March 1991, he chose to step down in order to work with Renton Assembly of God.

Pastor Ron Stewart was added to the leadership committee to help with the growing leadership needs of the church. For ten months, Manuel Lopez served as interim pastor and his wife Josie worked as the church secretary. Ten months is a long time to go without a full time pastor, especially when so many of the members were new Christians or in need of constant spiritual care. However, it was felt that it was very important to take the time to carefully choose the right person, and to wait on God's leading as to who that person might be.

In January 1993 the church called Pastor Victor Villeda, who is currently the pastor at Hosanna. Victor is from El Salvador, and he is a strong leader and teacher for the church.

Factors for Growth

After Miguel left, the group continued as it had, but changed its name to "Hosanna Asamblea de Dios". The Friday night meeting was especially popular, growing to a regular attendance of about 35 people. One of the things that attributed to this growth rate, according to Dr. Thomas, is that the Hispanic culture is very predominant and established in American society. Another factor that is very clear in talking with the Lopez's, is that the process of establishing this church was very organized, and the committee worked extremely well together as a team to carry out the tasks that are required to keep a young church going strong. Above all, prayer was the focus for the work, and the leadership team felt strongly that a commitment to individual and team prayer was vital to the strength and cohesiveness of the team.

As of this writing (in 1994), the church maintains an average attendance in the Sunday afternoon services of about 70 people. Victor's arrival with his wife and family seemed to create an impact of growth in the drawing of more families to the church, which up until his arrival, had remained largely a fellowship of college-age individuals. This points to the impact and importance that the pastor's presence has on the growth of a congregation. Studies show that most people come to a church because someone personally invites them, but another large factor is that of the personality, preaching and ministry of the pastor.

It is also very important to keep people active and involved. Currently, there are at least three home fellowship groups that meet once weekly. Since people who attend this church travel some distance to come to services on Sunday, the home fellowships are important as a tool for ministry during the week. There is a group that meets at the church in Bellevue on Wednesday nights, but other groups meet in the homes of members in West Seattle, Kirkland and Bellingham. Since members drive from as far as Bellingham and Marysville on Sundays, the church makes it possible for people to come and stay all day by providing a meal and fellowship between the afternoon and the evening services. Meeting this cultural need of "social orientation" is also one of the major contributors to the growth of the fellowship, according to Dr. Thomas.

Confronting Problems

One problem facing the Hispanic church was a situation where several individuals were gossiping and causing conflict and dissension within the church. This problem was serious enough that the Senior Pastor of the Neighborhood Church was called in for counsel. In the process of confrontation and resolution, several individuals ended up leaving Hosanna.

Another problem arose when an outside group (non-denominational) began phoning members of Hosanna to ask them to go to their fellowship. This apparent "sheep stealing" may happen unintentionally when a congregation is building an ethnic fellowship, since any individuals of that ethnic heritage met through work, shopping or at an apartment may be invited. But of course members should never be intentionally recruited away from another church. In this case a phone call from the leadership of Hosanna to the pastor of the offending fellowship was sufficient to resolve the issue.

A common problem for people from Latin America is that of obtaining legal residence in the United States. Many Hispanics are here illegally, and dealing with this issue in a sensitive, yet ethical manner can cause a problem for the church. Some individuals are very honest about their illegal status, but expect that the church will help them obtain work and/or legal (or "fake") documents. They may not consider seeking resident status because lawyers are expensive, and most illegals new to America would not trust them anyway.

Many churches dealing with this issue have established a program to help teach people about gaining legal citizenship. It is very important to approach illegal residents sensitively and with understanding in their struggle. They live with a great deal of fear, "always running, afraid of getting caught," according to Josie Lopez. If someone does get caught, the church has the challenge and opportunity of becoming a spokesperson to offer aid and stand beside the individual as they face the consequences. The following story illustrates how Hosanna stood beside one young man in a very difficult situation:

A 12 or 13 year old illegal immigrant from Central America was selling drugs on the streets of Seattle in order to survive. One of the visitation members found him one day, and asked him to come to Hosanna church. The boy found out how to get there, and showed up at a service on Sunday. As is rather untypical for Latin Americans, the boy came up to the altar after the service, in tears, and asked to accept Jesus as his Savior! But this left church leaders with the problem of what to do with his illegal alien status. A Hispanic family arranged for papers for him, legally adopted the boy, and helped him financially. He still attends the church, and is today an active Christian young man!

Many immigrants find that they are not able to use their credentials or training here in the U.S. Too often, the only jobs available for them are labor, cleaning or restaurant jobs. People migrate where the work is, and in Washington State many Hispanics go where the field jobs are (Eastern Washington, Bellingham, Mt. Vernon, Linden, etc). There is also a transitional nature to these migrations - people may work for five months, send money to their families, and return home after they have earned enough to pay for their immediate needs. If they find it possible or desirable to stay, they may send for their families and try to settle in the area where they have found suitable work.

Language issues raise a less serious but still important problem. Many Hispanics are bilingual, but recent immigrants may have little English and second-generation children may speak little Spanish. The lack of a common language can become a barrier to communication, and there may be disagreement about how often translation is needed at meetings. At Hosanna, interpreters translate the sermons via transistor earphones, but they are not available every week. If a family speaks Spanish in the home, their children will learn the language. But for many second generation children, English is their first, and often only, language. Hosanna's Sunday School is taught primarily in English, and there is a growing demand to offer English translation at other services.

Cultural Differences

Americans who attend Hosanna experience are in for some surprises. For instance, the church offers meetings almost every night of the week, and all day on Sunday! The 1 p.m. Sunday service usually lasts until about 3:30 p.m., followed by food and fellowship until the evening service begins at 6 p.m. The evening service lasts until almost 9 p.m., when people finally go home! Most Americans are not accustomed to the long services and constant togetherness. In fact, one of the first things that most Hispanics recognize about the Americans they meet is their individualism. Latinos enjoy lots of togetherness. As one member put it "we're always like a big neighborhood where everybody does everything as a unit. We like being together!" In this church, the same people always sit together, and it does appear to be a truly 'networked' community!

Another difference is that in the Latin church, children typically stay in the service with their parents. This can be quite disruptive to the worship of Americans who are accustomed to the practice of sending children to the nursery (or Sunday School)! But again, this is consistent with the cohesiveness of the family and the close bonds between children and their parents (especially mothers).

Latin people are typically emotional and, unlike most Americans, they are open and honest with others about their feelings and weaknesses. They are insightful, and will pick up on everything, making first impressions very important for them. A great deal of acceptance is needed, especially as a newcomer to this culture. If acceptance is not there, verbalized or not, they will know it. Many have become wary, having experienced past rejection as they have tried to adapt to American culture. One member told me, "One bad experience is enough. It is hard to trust people once you've been ripped off."

Dr. Thomas stressed a particular cultural difference that has implications for how the Gospel message is communicated to people of Hispanic background. In many Latin cultures, marriage is not highly revered and is often considered unnecessary. Many couples make the decision to marry after there are two or three children. Some women consider a pregnancy outside of marriage an ordinary occurrence rather than the shocking problem that the majority of American women would think it to be. This issue must be dealt with in a sensitive manner, where spiritual judgment is not passed on as a communication of rejection or God's "disapproval". While it is true that God is the One who instituted marriage, this conflict needs to be recognized as a cultural one, not a spiritual one, so that the message of the Gospel is not hindered by feelings of judgment or condemnation. It is important to recognize that many Latinos, as well as those who are from any two-thirds world country, already have too much condemnation for themselves without us making it worse by sharing the Gospel with an emphasis on the Law!

Dr. Thomas has also observed that many immigrants from Latin America are not drawn as quickly or easily to the Gospel because they have heard about Jesus for years in a rigid, conditional or apathetic way. Christianity, for them, has too often not been presented in a way that was meaningful to them, or it might have been quite a distorted version of the Gospel message. Dr. Thomas, again, stresses the fact that "with people of other cultures, (in most cases) it takes a long time to help a person to really understand Christianity and the meaning of salvation." Time and patience, lots of prayer, and an acute sensitivity to the leading of the Holy Spirit are important (in fact, essential!) in ministry among Latin Americans.

Since Latin American people from Catholic background have always celebrated communion every week, it is important to them that communion is offered every week. As Josie Lopez said, "we must do all we can to identify with the culture!" She talks of the need to accept people who live with very poor conditions, and to become comfortable with going to their homes, and sitting on the floor to eat rice and beans. She says, "Poor people have so much to give!" Adapting this attitude of respect for people is also an essential step in effective ministry among ethnics.

Programs and Structure

Since this church was formed out of a fellowship group within the Assemblies of God denomination, many of the programs of the AG denomination are present also at Hosanna. The Friday night fellowship group continues with a large family type service at the church building in Bellevue. The children have meetings of "Royal Rangers", which would compare to the Awana groups that some other denominations have. There are also 'Missionettes' meetings, which create an awareness of mission needs for kids. Besides the Sunday services and Bible studies for adults, there are Bible studies and home fellowships on other nights of the week, so that Monday night is the only free night of the week!

"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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