As I Was Saying is a forum for a variety of perspectives to foster faith-related conversations among our readers with the goal of mutual learning, even in disagreement. Apart from articles written by editorial staff, these perspectives do not necessarily reflect the views of The Banner.
Southern California Is the World
Sid Siebenga is just retiring from a decades long co-pastorate with his wife, Adriana, at Hope International church in Arcadia. He was also the Classical Coordinator for Home Missions for the two Classes in the Los Angeles area (Classis Greater Los Angeles and Classis Southern California). Sid arranged a lunch for pastors and other church leaders at Bethany CRC in Bellflower.
As I listened to their stories and reflections on the CRC, I was again reminded of the importance of what I had been seeing in my driving around the LA area. It’s a test market, a microcosm, of a phenomenon that is happening, to some extent, around the country. The world is coming here, and adapting to that kind of cross-cultural, multiethnic ministry is crucial to our future.
I quickly learned that there is no single strategy that works, but a variety of approaches depending on the congregation and the setting.
One approach is modeled by the New City Church of North Long Beach. Carl Kromminga, who grew up in West Michigan, came to Southern California fresh out of seminary to plant a church in this multi-ethnic community. Bethany CRC Bellflower committed $50,000 for the first five years to get things started. His is one of the few church plants in this area that has survived over the years. The reason? Dogged determination and a holy zeal for Christ’s mission to baptize and disciple. This congregation now has some 140 people in attendance on a typical Sunday, including Hispanics, African Americans, and a variety of other immigrant members.
When asked about the church’s relationship with the CRC and thoughts about The Banner, Carl felt that there was too much talking from GR and not enough listening (I kept my mouth mostly shut from that time on). He also criticized The Banner for hurting more than helping by focusing on divisive issues like gay marriage (a strong taboo among most of the cultural groups in his church) and for too many highbrow articles rather than focusing on down-to-earth discipleship issues to which he could point his working-class congregation.
Carl’s point is that Grand Rapids leadership can be out of touch with what’s really happening, and rather than coming to teach or roll out programs, we need to come to listen and learn. I think he’s right in many ways. It’s a reflection of the way in which the CRC has to adapt more nimbly to the growing diversity of its churches. Part of the answer for Carl is to diversify and localize the leadership so that the communication pattern becomes less top-down and more bottom-up—a huge change in denominational culture.
Another model widely represented in California is the classic ethnic congregation, like the Vietnamese congregation in Westminster named after the commonly used term for the area: Little Saigon. Pastor Matthew Le was one of the “boat people” whose harrowing escape from Vietnam at the end of the war is a story in itself. His deepest concern, like that of the Koreans, is for the English-speaking young people, and he’s looking for an English-speaking pastor to help disciple them.
There are a dizzying variety of other ethnic ministries in the LA area: Indonesian, Chinese, Pakistani/Indian, Cambodian, Filipino, and Eastern European, to name only some. Many have indigenous pastors; often they are tied in some way to more established congregations in the area. For example, Eric Sarwar, a Pakistani pastor who studied at Calvin Seminary and is now enrolled at Fuller, was recently hired part-time by Trinity CRC in Artesia to nurture a growing Indian/Pakistani population in the Bellflower area.
Rosewood Church in Bellflower exhibited a third approach. Bellflower was a Dutch colony back in the 50s and 60s with three flourishing churches. In those days it was dairyland, but after that it was gradually transformed into a dense suburb. The Dutch CRC folks moved out further, and the churches shrank.
Today, Bellflower, is a veritable United Nations, and Rosewood church, under the long-time leadership of pastors Bonnie Mulder Behnia and Dan Brink, has adapted to its new neighbors with a transformed ministry. Visiting on a Sunday morning, I came at the end of the early service, which, I was told, was largely the “old-timers.” Many were there, but also a rich sprinkling of Bellflower’s ethnic mix. The second service was quite full, with people representing a broad array of races and cultures. One song was sung in Tagalog, Swahili, Spanish, and English, and the service included a visit from an Anglican Bishop from Africa in full bishop’s purple.
My takeaway from the LA visit was that many of the CRCs in this great metropolis were adapting significantly and innovatively to their new international neighborhoods. Importantly, most were doing so while maintaining strong ties denominationally, and upholding the essence of their Reformed theological heritage. I was deeply encouraged.