Ethnic churches nationwide have realized they need to utilize English-language worship services to reach their second and third generations.
For some, that has meant starting independent English-speaking churches or, for others, welcoming English speakers as a subgroup of the larger congregation.
Celebrating the Chinese New Year is among the cultural expressions retained by the English-language ministry of Chinese Southern Baptist Church in Seattle. The church is one of many in the U.S. navigating the transition from first-generation immigrants to their second and third generations.
Randy Adams, executive director of the Northwest Baptist Convention, highlighted this in a blog post in March, noting, “The Northwest has Korean, Russian, Japanese, Vietnamese, Romanian, Burmese and Spanish majority churches that have strong English-language ministries.”
Adams told Baptist Press (BP) he has observed this for a long time “to one degree or another” among ethnic churches across the country.
“It depends on the language group, and it depends on when they immigrated,” Adams said. “The longer an immigrant group has been here, the more they are moving toward English. Sometimes the kids will have English almost from the beginning in Sunday School classes.”
Parents at ethnic churches generally want their children to speak English, Adams said, because it’s the language of the U.S. economy, but as the children grow more distant from the mother tongue, they’re less likely to attend worship services in that language.
“A means of keeping them in the faith and in the church is to adapt the church to the English language,” Adams said. “It probably is a similar story to what happened with German and Italian immigrants in the 19th and early 20th centuries. We’re just seeing it now in the Northwest mostly among Asian and Hispanic immigrants.”
Chinese Southern Baptist Church in Seattle, the only Cantonese-speaking church in the Northwest convention, was founded in 1984 and has become a leader in Cooperative Program giving, Adams said.
The English congregation at Chinese Southern Baptist Church in Seattle initially consisted of the children of its Cantonese-speaking members, English pastor Matthew Zwitt said. “As they began to get older and get into the youth group and college, the Chinese congregation realized that this is the future of the church and it would be wise to invest in them.”
“Under the wise leadership of Pastor [Andrew] Ng, the church came to understand that as it ages, and the children grow, English would become the preferred language of second- and third-generation immigrants,” Adams wrote at randyadams.org March 11. “Also, an English-language ministry has enabled them to reach people beyond the Chinese community.”
Matthew Zwitt, who has led the English congregation at Chinese Southern Baptist Church for eight years, told BP they average 60 people per week in the 15-35-year-old age range. Most are young professionals and young marrieds just starting families, hailing from about 15 different ethnicities.
“The English side initially was the kids of the Cantonese-speaking side,” Zwitt, a New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary graduate from Mobile, Ala., said. “As they began to get older and get into the youth group and college, the Chinese congregation realized that this is the future of the church, and it would be wise to invest in them.”
In the English-speaking congregation, “they embrace the American culture in a lot of ways, and in some ways they embrace both cultures,” Zwitt said. “For most people in our congregation, English is their primary language…. It’s really important to have an English service so that they can understand, because that’s going to be the primary culture in which they experience Christianity.”
Zwitt urges Southern Baptists to continue investing not just in ethnic churches but in multiethnic churches so that the church can reflect what happened at Pentecost with people from every tribe and tongue as well as what heaven will be like when all different languages of people worship God together.
Paul Kim, Asian American relations consultant for the Southern Baptist Convention’s (SBC) Executive Committee, told BP he has been planting English-language multiethnic churches in university communities for nearly 40 years, in part because English is the language immigrant youth speak.
In Korean culture, for example, parents sacrifice for their children’s education – to get them into top-notch universities to study medicine, law and engineering. Kim is pastor emeritus of Antioch Baptist Church in Cambridge, Mass., one of the churches he founded to reach ethnic college students who speak English.
Members of the English-language congregation at Chinese Southern Baptist Church in Seattle are mainly young professionals and young marrieds just starting families, Matthew Zwitt, the congregation’s pastor, said. “They embrace the American culture in a lot of ways, and in some ways they embrace both cultures.”
A South Korean immigrant, Kim was saved in 1968 while serving in the U.S. Army. He went on to graduate from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and English was a language he felt comfortable using at his church plants.
In 1981, Kim and his wife Rebekah launched Berkland Baptist Church in Berkeley, Calif., to reach students at the University of California-Berkeley, and that congregation has since planted 40 churches worldwide, all in the English language.
Kim estimates that among the 850 Korean churches in the SBC, fewer than 25 are independent English-speaking congregations. Most churches that have English-language ministries are still under the original ethnic congregation, but Kim said he would like to see more Asian churches let their youth pastors or other leaders start an independent English language church with the support of the mother church.
Gary Floyd, a church planting catalyst with the Northwest Baptist Convention who has worked with English as a Second Language ministries, said ethnic churches moving toward English “is just a natural evolution.”
“They immigrate here, establish in the context of the culture that they came from and then begin to adapt to the culture that they are now a part of, and the ministry challenge becomes how to make that transition,” Floyd told BP.
Ethnic churches want to retain their culture, Floyd said, but they also feel a strong need to integrate with the culture around them.
Adams said Southern Baptists can pray for ethnic churches as they navigate these transitions, and they can pray for immigrants who are still coming to the United States.
“A lot of them are coming from places that are not very Christian,” Adams said. “We need to reach them.”