Four pastors discuss what it means to be ‘one in Christ’ today
Jesus issues a clear directive in Acts 1:8 to take the gospel to the ends of the earth. His command seems simple enough: Go and tell everyone about me. But when the ends of the earth move in next door, differences in language, religion, customs, and culture can quickly build walls between people who have the gospel and people who need to hear it.
The 2016 IBSA Annual Meeting will explore issues surrounding cross-cultural ministry, including real-life stories of pastors and churches who have sacrificed their own cultural comfort for the sake of the gospel.
The Illinois Baptist sat down with four such leaders for a special roundtable discussion about the cultural idols we all have, why the church seems to be last to change, and how to be a good neighbor. The following interview was edited for space.
Around the table: (left to right)
– Kevin Carrothers, pastor of Rochester First Baptist Church and president of IBSA
– Marvin Del Rios, pastor of Iglesia Bautista Erie in Chicago and a leader in the movement to reach second- and third-generation Hispanic peoples
– John Yi, IBSA’s second-generation church planting catalyst in Chicago, founder of a community ministry in Maywood, and a leader at Bethel SBC, a church plant in Mt. Prospect
– Adron Robinson, pastor of Hillcrest Baptist Church in Country Club Hills and vice president of IBSA
Illinois Baptist: Let’s start by defining the big topic. When we talk about ministering cross-culturally for the sake of the gospel, what does that mean to you?
Adron Robinson: In Ephesians 2, when Paul says that we are all one body of Christ, he is telling believers that we are all one new culture, and it is about tearing down our cultural idols in order to be that body of Christ.
We all have inherent cultural idols. We all come from culture and we all come with that assumption that the way we grew up is the way everybody should grow up. The gospel shows us that there is a new normal.
Marvin Del Rios: I go to the book of Acts, chapter 6, what we see between the Hellenistic Jews and the Hebrews. That is something we are living within the Hispanic and Latino churches right now. Unfortunately, the first generation can get stuck in a certain way of preaching, a certain way of leading worship, a certain way of doing church. What is happening is that there is an exodus of the second and third generations from the church. My thing with cross-cultural ministry is that even though I am called to go and preach to the nations, I have a burning desire to go and reach my second- and third-generation Latino culture.
IB: Do you as pastors feel the pressure to lead in that way, to help your churches to move beyond those inherent cultural biases?
Kevin Carrothers: I will certainly agree that that is our responsibility. I was talking to Pastor Adron earlier about Jeremiah 29 and how God spoke through Jeremiah about the exile. The verse that sticks out in my mind is Jeremiah 29:7. It says, “Seek the welfare of the city I have deported you to; pray to the Lord on its behalf for when it has prosperity, you will prosper.”
Sometimes we feel like we are living in exile wherever we are. But we are called to wherever we are. God has planted us there, and we need to have transformational ministry in our communities. That does mean crossing all kinds of cultural divides.
Robinson: The other side of that, of God telling them to seek the welfare of the city, is them overcoming their nationalism.
Carrothers: That’s right.
Robinson: For them, Jerusalem was the pinnacle. God says, “Well, now you are in Babylon and you are to make Babylon a better place. You have been planted there sovereignly for a purpose.” Part of that is laying down our love for our old culture and doing what God has called us to do in a new context.
IB: We know that communities change over the years—your churches have experienced those shifting demographics in their neighborhoods. How does community change affect a church’s ability to reach across cultures?
Robinson: Hillcrest started as an Anglo church in an Anglo community. As the community transitioned to a more blended community, the church is always the last thing to change. The community was predominately African-American and the church was still predominately Anglo. They become known in the community as “that” church, not “our” church.
When they called me as pastor, the first thing we started to do is to try to reach our neighbors. Our first priority was to get out and meet the community and build relationships so that we could have conversations about faith going forward. We connected with a high school across the street. We connected with City Hall. We started to look for ways to be incarnational. How can we take the gospel out to other places?
IB: You mentioned the church is always the last thing to change. Do you think that’s true of most churches?
Robinson: Yes, I think that’s most churches. I think we downplay how big of an idol comfort really is to us. As communities transition, churches can easily fall into the “us versus them” mentality. This is our church, we have always been here. Yeah, but the purpose of the church is to reach the community with the gospel. So if the neighborhood changes, you have new neighbors to reach.
Del Rios: We don’t change fast enough and then when we do decide to change, we are already five to ten years behind. Then we are doing the catch-up game, and I think that’s where we as leaders get tired. We feel like we are in the hamster wheel running around doing nothing.
Yi: I think the big secret that we need to bring out into the open is that every church is “that” church, it’s just a matter of which “that” you are going to be. I still remember when you talked about a church, it was, “That’s the Catholic church, that’s the Baptist church, that’s a Methodist church.” But it’s not like that anymore. I think that churches can be more proactive about helping the community define what they are.
Working around church planters, one of the things we see is leaders being very proactive about what they want their church to be known as, what their niche is. Of course, in churches, we are not supposed to be public relations people, but I think we do have to be concerned, not just with what do the people outside the church think of us, but also what do our own members think of us. What kind of church are we? I think there is a lot we can do to help shape that. We do not have millions of dollars to create that public image, but we do have a currency and that’s the way we do our ministry. The way we engage our neighbors.
Robinson: I think John touched on something important: Every church is going to be that something. People are going to say that’s the church that does this or that church does that. You need to get out front in defining what your church is going to be known for. John 13:35 comes to mind. “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Carrothers: Probably where our church has struggled the most is that we have to give away without expecting anything in return. We have done a fall festival for nine years, but it hasn’t brought a single member into the church. People have asked me why we keep doing this if we are not seeing people come into the church. My response is, if you can come up with something else where we can speak into 300-500 people’s lives in our community, then I’m all ears. Well, nobody has taken me up on that yet because we are speaking to 80 people on Sunday morning.
IB: Is expecting something in return one of those cultural idols we talked about?
Robinson: The corporate model, which is an idol from the world. One of the budget shifts Hillcrest made as far as reaching the community was to stop doing events for how much we can get back. We are doing whatever it is to extend the gospel to our community, which means that we are going to have to spend some money and sacrifice in order to reach our neighbors with the love of Christ. It’s not all going to come right back. You’re not going to have an event today and 50 new neighbors come in next week.
Yi: If you can get your congregation to think that way, that the church really is a non-profit organization, that we are not doing ministry for profit, that’s a success too. Just getting that shift in thinking.
Robinson: Getting the membership to embrace discipleship.
Carrothers: Absolutely. That’s a kingdom value.
Del Rios: We established a Halloween outreach at the church three years ago. We open the doors and the kids come in with their families. We have a little table for kids’ activities, something very simple, and they get candy and they can leave. Then, as they are leaving, the parents are there and we have adults there to have simple conversations. Some lead to gospel conversations.
Now, how many have joined the church out of the last three or four years during that process? None. But this Saturday there was a block party in our neighborhood and I went to visit and just talk to a couple of folks I know. The people I talked to introduced me to other folks, and the other folks said, “You’re the church with the Halloween stuff going on. You’re the church that gave us hot chocolate and that Spanish coffee that was delicious.” Yes, we are the church. Are they coming in? They are not, but they associate us with the church on Halloween that had the great Spanish coffee and they came in and they listened to a gospel conversation. Not a Bible-banging conversation, but a gospel conversation.
Carrothers: Isn’t it interesting that one of the things Paul talks about in Romans 12 is hospitality?
Del Rios: Yes.
Carrothers: Isn’t the heart of hospitality giving away without expecting anything in return?
Robinson: In Acts 2, we see the church breaking bread together going house to house. It’s relationships when you read the Gospels. Jesus shares his life with 12 people. He teaches them by example what it looks like to have a relationship with God and they go out and spread the gospel with more people. They are living together, eating together, hanging out together all day long. Our churches are so “Sunday meeting, Wednesday meeting.” See you next Sunday, see you next Wednesday. We started to incorporate intentional hospitality to the life of the church.
Watch for Part 2 on this blog Thursday, September 29, 2016
– Meredith Flynn, editorial contributor