By Thom S. Rainer
The perimeter of First Baptist Duluth’s worship center is lined with the flags of 35 nations. A visitor might assume the flags represent the countries where First Duluth supports international missions. The church is most certainly reaching the nations, but they are reaching them right in their own backyard. These flags symbolize the nationalities represented at the Atlanta-area church.
My friend Mark Hearn will celebrate his 6th year as First Duluth’s pastor this March. “Change is a constant for Duluth,” says Mark. An understatement if there ever was one. In 2000, Duluth was 70 percent white. Today the town is 41 percent white.
“When we moved to Duluth six years ago, our neighbors were from India, Korea, Zimbabwe, and South Africa—a small snapshot of our surrounding community,” says Mark. “That opened my eyes to the need for our church to become more reflective of our community.”
Since 2010, First Duluth has seen the portion of its new members who are non-Anglo grow from 8 percent to 48 percent. “The church’s goal is to reach all nations,” says Mark. “We want to see people of different language groups all worshiping together in the same body.”
According to census projections, the U.S. population will be “majority-minority” by 2044. By that measure, Duluth is 30 years ahead of the curve. Mark says the changes they’ve made to reach their diverse community haven’t always been easy, but they have been rewarding. He offers some advice for churches as they respond to America’s changing demographics.
1. Study the community. The church conducted a demographic study to find the most unreached and unengaged people groups in their community. They identified Southeast Asians and Hispanics—two fast-growing groups that were not being reached with the gospel.
2. Find persons of peace. Find individuals who represent the culture you are trying to reach. Meet with them on a regular basis, ask questions, and invest in them as you learn about their culture.
3. Form cross-cultural, cross-generational small groups. At First Duluth, these are 8-week Bible studies that meet in members’ homes. Each group has at least three people groups represented and a 30-year span from the youngest to the oldest participant. Mark says starting these groups was a major turning point in the life of the church.
4. Provide interpreters. On Sunday mornings, First Duluth provides live language interpretation in the key language groups of the community—Spanish, Korean, and Chinese. Churchgoers can check out a receiver and headset so they can hear a live interpretation of the sermon in their language. The church also provides the worship guide and sermon notes in Spanish.
5. Celebrate multicultural events. First Duluth has begun to incorporate traditional celebrations such as Indian Independence Day and Mexican Pasada into the church calendar. “We cross all cultures with these events. Korean people come to the Pasada, Hispanic people come to Indian Independence Day,” says Mark. “A lovely mosaic begins to form as these different people groups come together.”
6. Highlight the church’s diversity in worship. While Mark admits worship has been the most difficult transition for their church, they try to incorporate cultural elements into their worship services on an ongoing basis. At Easter, Mark asked individuals representing different people groups in the church to walk on stage and say “Jesus is risen” in their native language.
On another Sunday, the worship pastor invited a group of women to perform a traditional Korean fan dance. The mostly English-speaking choir has even sung special anthems in Spanish.
7. Recruit endlessly. Most ethnic people who come to a predominantly Anglo church still feel like guests even after they’ve become members. They often wait to be asked to join a group or participate in an activity. Seeing different ethnicities in leadership or volunteer roles offers a visual of the church’s diversity and helps guests and members feel more at home.
“Change is never easy,” says Mark, “but we are going to see wonderful things happen as we begin to better reflect the diversity of our community.”
THOM S. RAINER (@ThomRainer) is President and CEO of Lifeway Christian Resources.
This article appeared in our Winter 2016 issue. You can read the entire issue online. Also, make sure you subscribe to our print edition to receive the Spring 2016 issue delivered to your home or church for free.