Integrating Our Culturally Divided Churches
I can’t quite remember how Juan Lopez and I got to know each other. We were just suddenly online friends, and I’m pretty thankful. He’s a sincere and humble guy, a youth pastor in Bell Gardens, CA, a writer, an avid runner, and a family man.
We were talking about the challenges English and Spanish churches have integrating, and Juan said, “Yeah, I could definitely write a post about that.” So I convinced him to do it here.
You can follow him at Running the Race.
Los Angeles’ segregated churches
Los Angeles and neighboring Orange County is a city divided by race, wealth, and denomination. Its many freeways give anyone an opportunity to travel to any part of the city while avoiding other communities along the way. From the beautiful megachurches in the OC to the many pop-up churches in rented strip malls, Los Angeles has many Christians. They just don’t always talk to each other.
My Spanish-speaking congregation rents the sanctuary in an English speaking church. The church is primarily Caucasian and Latino. With much prayer and patience both churches are working together now, although it wasn’t always that way.
There were days you could cut the tension with a knife. There isn’t one specific cause that we could pinpoint, but for a few years there was an US vs THEM attitude anytime the two congregations were in the same room. Our congregation took a “we pay rent, so we can do what we want” stance. The other congregation went with “you’re just the renters and you can’t do what you want” stance.
We attempted to hold combined services which resulted in boycotts from members of both congregations. This started a cycle of gossip, misunderstanding, and an unhealthy environment in BOTH Churches.
All this culminated with a petition passed around one Sunday morning asking the “Spanish Church” to move back to the small room where we first started having services. This alienated the Spanish speaking congregants in the English church. Both Churches were left asking: Is this what being a Christian is like? It would be so easy to finger point or find blame but that is not the point of Christian community. What I did notice was a few things that happened that turned things around:
Both pastors asked difficult questions.
Things moved toward reconciliation when brave men and women in charge began to ask questions—not to find the blame but to force people to talk to each other. Culture differences were a major barrier in the breaking down of communication. Latinos have a tendency to scream “Aleluya!’ when they like a sermon.
Sometimes people leave, but that doesn’t mean they were the problem. Sometimes the best thing to do is begin again elsewhere. This is resurrection.
Sometimes people stay—even when they are the problem. This is my personal favorite because it forces those of us who talk about grace and forgiveness to practice what we preach. Jesus can be very inconvenient when he’s making us forgive those we don’t agree with. Over time people who wouldn’t talk to each other began to have meaningful conversations. This is reconciliation.
Both congregations grew. The Holy Spirit added people who had no idea what had happened and they edified the church. This is the body.
We stopped being scared of each other.
A little communication goes a long way. The moment we decided to talk to each other we realized that we both had the same fears. We learned that we were both wrong. Our eyes were opened to the suffering of our brothers and sisters—regardless of cultural differences and language barriers.
We worshiped together.
We began having combined revival meetings during major holidays. A translator was brought in and the Spirit did his work. We laughed, cried, and prayed together. It was painfully obvious that this is what Christianity truly is. This is unity in the Spirit.
The Word of God was preached.
Time and time again the message of church unity was preached to both congregations. Every time a preacher was invited the Spirit had the same message. Unity. Be one. Love one another.
At the last combined service our churches had the “English” Church sat on the right and the “Spanish” church sat on the left. Not everyone greeted each other. It doesn’t matter. The atmosphere is different.
We all know that reconciliation is a work in progress. The painful work of the Spirit is like a slow breeze and at times like a hurricane. Things are moving forward in an undeniable way. I’ve learned that Jesus cares for his church—even as we try to force things.