Within the increasingly diverse congregation that makes up Champion Forest Baptist Church (CFBC) is a family that could be the poster children for the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention’s annual “Look Like Heaven” emphasis. The Orellana family represents three continents, four languages and one Lord.
Ivan Orellana, a native of El Salvador is the worship leader for the CFBC Spanish-language services. His wife Samiko is from Japan. Their daughters Micha, 6, and Aska, 4, are Texas born and bred. The girls are homeschooled in English. Afternoons are for conversations in Japanese. Talks with Dad in the evenings are in Spanish with a little Portuguese mixed in for good measure.
“The Orellana family is representative of our church and community; we live in a multicultural world,” pastor David Fleming told the TEXAN. “They are an example of how we can achieve unity in the midst of diversity, when it’s family. We are the family of God.”
Each year the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention promotes “Looks Like Heaven,” encouraging churches once a year to combine worship services with a church of a different culture, race or language.
“It starts with the spiritual realization of the unity that comes through the Holy Spirit,” said Fleming.
On any given Sunday at CFBC one can hear English, Spanish, Portuguese, Vietnamese, Farsi and Japanese. For the hearing impaired, there is American Sign Language. Of course more languages are likely represented since Houston is one of the nation’s most international cities.
But 10 years ago, CFBC was predominantly white and English-speaking.
“We could have stayed a wealthy, white church … and declining,” said Brent Dyer, lead worship pastor for the English-language services.
Dyer said a desire to “reach the people who live in the shadow of the steeple” sent CFBC out into their neighborhoods to draw in new believers regardless of their race, culture or language. And then those people began bringing their friends and families.
The largest growth has been in the Spanish-speaking members. On any given Sunday, 7,000 people worship on three campuses in 16 distinct yet similar worship services. About 2,000 of those attend the three Spanish-language worship services on two of the three CFBC campuses.
But the Spanish-speaking population is not monolithic; there are distinctions of dialect and semantics to interpret. Orellana has learned to negotiate the nuances. Growing up in El Salvador, Spanish is his first language. But as he learned to master a second and arguably more universal language – music – his ministry took him to Portugal, Guatemala, El Salvador and Spain between 2002 and 2005 before landing in Houston.
His first experience in an English-speaking church left him feeling lost during the preaching. But when the music started all that changed.
“It’s not easy when you are in the process of learning a language because sometimes it makes it harder to connect with the others,” Orellana said. “So what we try to do is create a place where people can feel like they are part of it without being able to speak the language fluently.”
As CFBC grew so did its complexion, its voices. The church began to reflect the community in which it was planted. And the new people brought more people like themselves. Fleming knew continuity between the pastors was crucial for them to be one church and one family rather than a loosely affiliated church in name only.
“CFBC is very intentional about maintaining unity, and it starts by having unity among the staff,” Orellana said. “It’s not just about the worship services but how we Spanish speakers and English speakers work together as one church in different ministries.”
If all the church members couldn’t be in the same worship service at the same time, they could at least be on the same page. During weekly meetings, CFBC pastors and worship leaders review the next Sunday’s sermon. There will be 16 sermons, all same yet different.
Each pastor teaches from the same verses, so each member of CFBC, regardless of age or language, will hear the same passage taught. They are currently teaching through the Old Testament.
Dyer said from the weekly discussions a “big idea” emerges that will shape each sermon and worship service. The “big idea” may present itself differently in each service, but it creates unity among the people separated by time and distance.
Fleming said the goal is uniformity without denying individuality.
“They’re not all preaching my sermon,” Fleming said.
Continuity flows from familiarity. And while a church member can go from campus to campus or children’s worship service to the adult service and hear the same Bible passage taught, a sense of unity is strengthened as the pastors reinforce the notion that they shepherd the whole church, not just one segment. To that end they regularly take turns filling the pulpits on each of the three campuses.
Dyer and Orellana develop worship services through the filter of the “big idea” going so far as to create a familiar musical genre that flows from service to service. Songs are translated from English to Spanish or vice versa.
Cultural differences, even more than language, affect the dynamics of how a musical selection is interpreted, Dyer said. The worship team tries to make the differences as minimal as possible while allowing for cultural expressions in the context of any congregation. Just as in the creation of 16 sermons on the same passage, worship cannot be forced or generic.
All of that comes into play when the church – the whole church – gathers for a joint worship service each year on the Sunday between Christmas and New Year. What may appear to some as barriers, the CFBC worship and pastoral teams see it as expressions of the body of Christ.
“It’s a concerted effort all year,” Fleming said. “It wouldn’t work one service a year if we weren’t doing it all year long.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – This article appeared in the Southern Baptist TEXAN, texanonline.net, newsjournal of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention. Bonnie Pritchett is a correspondent for the TEXAN.)