Look Like Heaven: Language differences strengthen ministry of merged churches

LUFKIN For about six years two Lufkin churches have met in the same building—two independent congregations, two different languages but each working toward the same goal. Their kingdom work brought them together for mission trips and local ministries, and instead of letting their language differences act as a barrier, they realized what bound them together was greater than what separated them. 

Eventually, the two churches who shared the use of one building and ministry work in their community decided to become one congregation. Practically speaking, forming one church made sense. Spiritually speaking, they realized it could make all the difference in the world for the people of Angelina County.

“There is no more ‘us’ and ‘them’—what a picture of heaven [this] will be,” Randy Brown, pastor of Southside Baptist Church in Lufkin said during the May 7 service celebrating the uniting of Templo Bautista Jesús es El Señor with Southside. “After today, we will truly be one staff working for the kingdom.”

With the use of a translator, Brown and Ricardo Coss, pastor of the Spanish-language congregation, told the joint congregation that their work together as “One church, Two Languages” will be a witness to the people in their community. 

“This is the Lord’s will to unite the people in church,” Coss told the congregation. “It does not matter the ethnic group or skin color.”

Six years ago, following a change of church leadership at their former meeting location, the Spanish-language congregation of 20-30 people was asked to find a new place to worship. Southside welcomed the congregation to use their facilities.

In 2014 and 2015 the pastors of both congregations left for new ministry opportunities, and Coss and Brown took the leadership roles at their respective churches, keeping the existing partnership in place.

Moving beyond sharing a building to becoming a single congregation soon became an issue to address, and both pastors entered the new relationship with hope and a healthy sense of the growing pains that may result.

“One of the biggest problems is the breakdown in language and culture,” Brown told the TEXAN. “I also believe that there will be a little bit of struggle with working within the church structure of getting things done in an orderly manner.”

Mike Gonzalez, Southern Baptist of Texas Convention director of Hispanic Ministries, who assisted with the transition, said churches are increasingly choosing to merge instead of simply share space. Traditionally a fledgling Spanish-language church would rent church space from a larger English-language (Anglo) congregation. Gonzalez called that the “two churches, one location model.”

Additional models included the Anglo church planting a Spanish-language “mission” church or creating a Spanish-language “department” within the church.

Coss and Brown recognized more things tied the two churches than separated them.

“To be honest most of our people already thought that we were one [church],” Brown told the TEXAN.

That unity was most evident among the children and youth, Gonzalez said. Many of the children attend the same schools and speak English, often acting as a bridge between the Spanish and English-speaking members.

The pastors recognized the confluence of circumstances that made a merger of the two congregations inevitable—and welcome. Brown noted the three-fold growth of the Templo Bautista Jesús es El Señor under Coss. And Coss knew that growth required organization as a church body.

After seeking counsel from SBTC Hispanic Ministries staff, the two congregations decided the One Church, Two Languages model would best serve the needs of both congregations and their community. They realize they have begun a journey that will have difficulties, but Coss said that is to be expected and will not overshadow the work God has for the new church, which will retain the name Southside Baptist Church.

“The church is like a lab from God,” Coss told the congregation. “Here is where we learn to live together, to forgive each other, and to accept each other. That’s the Lord’s will.”

Brown said their efforts are already bearing fruit.

“I can’t tell you how many people who have asked me to share what is going on,” Brown said. “Our country is so divided now; it’s time for the church to tear down the barriers that divide us. As we seek to be a multi-ethnic church, it bears witness to our community that Jesus and his commands are real in our lives.”

The month of July has been set aside as the statewide emphasis for the Look Like Heaven initiative, which is designed to encourage cross-cultural interchange among SBTC churches. For more information, visit sbtexas.com/looklikeheaven.

TEXAN Correspondent
Bonnie Pritchett
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