Ethnic church plants, like most, thrive on relationships, community building

SAN ANTONIO?Relational evangelism is center stage at Fellowship Community Church, a church plant located on the south side of San Antonio, where the population is 90 percent Hispanic. Founded in 2005, Fellowship Community Church was planted by Josh Tapia to reach San Antonio’s growing English-speaking Hispanic population. Tapia began the church after noticing that many of its residents
were traveling to the city’s north side for Sunday worship services.

“Our target was to get them into Sunday School and to reach the lost,” Tapia said. Today, the church has a strong core of 65 people and holds worship services in a well-known community center.

Depending on the weather, new believers are baptized in the Frio River at Garner State Park or in a large trough in the gym of the community center.

The advantage of operating out of a community center has been two-fold. First, costs are kept to a minimum. Second, the church is planted in the midst of the people. Every Tuesday evening, church members distribute bottled water in the nearby parks.

“We get there at 7 or 8 and we’ll pass out 100 bottles of water in 45 minutes,” Tapia said.
The group hands out cards with the church’s information on it to hundreds of people who gather to play basketball, take their children to the playground, and walk the grounds.

“This is where most churches miss it,” Tapia said. “We are connecting with them outside of the building. A lot of churches set up a great building, but we are engaging them where they are. And the fruit of that will be well worth it.”

But after spending time in the parks and the surrounding neighborhoods, Tapia said he began to notice Fellowship was failing to reach out to the city’s newest demographic.

“With urbanization there is one need we cannot ignore?the Spanish-speaking immigrants who are flooding the south side,” he said. “As much as I’ve tried to stay focused on English-speaking
Hispanics, I cannot ignore any longer the need to reach these Spanish-speakers.”

After realizing that the church’s numerous outreach efforts in the parks were doing little to entice Spanish-speakers to worship services, the church began to pray about offering a Sunday morning service in Spanish. Tapia said the new service will launch at the end of September.

“Our prayer is that God will provide what we will need to do it,” he said, “We want to reach people for the King. We are in a perfect situation to begin.”

Although many on the church staff are bilingual, Tapia knows that language can be a powerful barrier to ministry. “Language is key,” he said, explaining that people like to spend time with people who are similar to them.

“Normally when you go and find a Spanish-speaking family, you’ll also find a bunch of Spanish-speaking families surrounding them. They have a sense of community which is very interesting, because the church is about being a community. If we can become part of their community and introduce Christ, that would be a great thing.”

For churches looking to minister cross-culturally but do not possess language skills, Tapia suggested ministering to children first. “The children of immigrants are going to school and picking up English pretty quickly,” he said. “If you get the kids, you’ll get the parents.”

Tapia also suggested that churches near inner cities seek out parks or apartment complexes with pools for servant evangelism activities.

“You can go every week and take sno-cones for the kids, and as you are there you build relationships. Language is not necessary for that. Soon, the kid will become the mediator between his parent and the servant evangelist.”

Asian Mission
Christian Fellowship
Beyond Spanish-speakers, San Antonio’s Asian population is also on the rise. Accounting for only 2 percent of the current population, the figures have doubled in the past 10 years, according to 2005 U.S. Census information. In an effort to engage San Antonio’s growing Laotian and Thai populations, Asian Mission Christian Fellowship was planted on the city’s east side in 2003 by Sisavath Ketsatha.

Ketsatha was a member of Alamo City Christian Fellowship when God burdened his heart for his fellow Laotian and Thai residents in San Antonio, who were separated from Texas churches by language and culture.

“My church is a mixed population,” Ketsatha explained. “We have Lao, Thai, Cambodian, Philippine, and some others.” The church averages 40 to 50 members, and Sunday services are held in two languages.

Desiring to share the gospel in his people’s heart language, Ketsatha preaches in two languages. “I preach five minutes in Lao and five minutes in Thai,” he said, adding that he tries to finish the sermon in 40 minutes even though he is alternating between two languages.

The church also offers new member classes in Thai and English and other classes held in Lao. Making sure that all members have their own Bibles, Kethsatha hopes to emphasize a life of witnessing and evangelism to new community members. Most of the Asian Mission members come from transfer growth, immigrating to the U.S. by way of California. But when they finally arrive in Texas, Ketsatha is ready with open arms.

“If I know a family [has moved here], I go visit them,” he said, getting excited at the prospect. “I love that! I tell them about my church.”

In sharing with Asian people groups, Ketsatha often contends with Buddhism, a task he doesn’t view as very difficult with the strength of the gospel on his side. “I use the Bible to make disciples,” he said, choosing to keep his methods uncomplicated. “I just share the gospel.”

Jim O’Neal, associate pastor at Alamo City Christian Fellowship, encouraged Ketsatha when he first committed to plant the Asian Mission. “A church should look and smell and taste like where it’s planted,” he said. “Jesus is the only constant.”

O’Neal has watched Ketsatha grow from a mission-minded church member to a passionate church planter.

“Those people are his ethnos, and he is an example of just being faithful to where you’re called,” O’Neal said.

In the decades to come, successfully fulfilling the Great Commission in Texas will prove difficult if churches do not reach out to some of the state’s new people groups.

“We are tied to the homogeneity principle of church growth,” Bluebonnet Association’s J.K. Minton said. “We are focused on reaching our own kind. Our existing churches generally have neither the priority nor the resources to significantly address the cross-cultural challenges presented by urbanization.”

Minton noted a second challenge of urbanization?attitudes in the church regarding immigration.
“We often exhibit a rather condescending attitude toward other ethnicities, particularly those who are non-professionals,” he said. “These attitudes are obvious and demonstrate that ‘these people’ are not welcome in our congregation.”

Additionally, ethnic groups place greater value on community over an individualistic lifestyle, Minton said.

“They tend to have a much greater regard for what other members of their community [or] family think or do,” Minton said. “They are very hesitant to change their family religion or heritage. Therefore, our evangelistic efforts to target the individual, rather than the group, have been fairly ineffective.”

To address some of these social and cultural obstacles, the Bluebonnet Association seeks to empower church planters of different ethnicities “who are sensitive and equipped to reaching their own kind.”

“The focus and intention of strategic church plants is to develop multicultural and multi-ethnic members,” Minton said, noting that the association has two additional elements to help churches deal with urbanization.

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