For his first sermon at the
new church Tom Richter wanted to do his best and seeing people whispering to
one another while he spoke didn’t exactly evoke feelings of confidence. Not
until after the service did he realize they were not being rude, but were
translating for family members.
“That’s when it hit me – we
aren’t in Kentucky anymore,” Richter said.
Richter first left his small
Kentucky town when a campus minister at Murray State University advised him to
“step out of the bubble” for seminary. He went to Princeton Theological
Seminary in New Jersey and because New York City was only one hour by train and
visiting the city was the “cool thing to do,” Richter did.
By the time seminary was
over, Richter had his fill of the northeast and was ready to go back to
Then he met the pastor of a
church near Atlanta, Ga., who asked him to consider leading their church plant
in Jamaica, Queens.
“I told him he was crazy,” Richter said. But he went to see
and never forgot what he saw, nor what he heard.
“When you walk through my neighborhood you don’t just hear a
little Spanish here and there. You hear countless languages,” he said.
For seven years Richter has
lived in Queens and pastored New Hope Christian Church. The church, like its
community, is diverse. His wife is a first grade teacher and one year the 26
students in her classroom represented 26 different nations.
“No two children were from the same country and not one child
could say he had a grandparent born on U.S. soil,” Richter said.
Richter’s associate pastor
grew up Hindu and married a woman who grew up Greek Orthodox. Both are now
believers in Jesus Christ. The church is so diverse Richter joked that they
considered changing the name to “New Hope Jewish and Gentile followers together
of the Jewish Messiah Jesus Church. But who could afford the signage?” he said.
Being a church of great
diversity means “no one is going to be completely comfortable with every kind
of worship style,” Richter said. “And I as the pastor am often the least
comfortable. If it were up to me we’d have hymns and an old organ.” He knows
some people may not come to New Hope because of choices they make, such as
music style, but that is not what really matters. “The gospel is the point.
That’s what transcends,” he said.
New Hope meets Sundays at 6
p.m. in a Lutheran church. The Lutheran congregation meets Sunday mornings and
New Hope rents the building Sunday, Tuesday and Friday nights. Before that they
rented space in a YMCA, storefront and Chinese church. “It’s pretty common for
churches to meet in and use the space of another church,” Richter said.
Living in Queens and being
among the nations means living among religions of the nations. Almost overnight
Richter has seen entire neighborhoods go from Catholic to Muslim. Evangelism
among Muslims is one of the greatest needs for his community. “I’m not sure
everyone gets the urgency,” he said. “This is not 50 years away from Raleigh.
This is not five years away. This is here.”
Evangelism is only going to
happen when the church owns its responsibility to the Great Commission.
“I don’t think the
attraction model will work in our neighborhood,” Richter said. “That really
doesn’t impress someone if they’re coming from another cultural background. The
only way to do it is for each church member to take seriously their circle of
To equip his congregation
for this task, Richter takes discipleship seriously. “No program has ever made
a disciple,” he said. What does work is “the Holy Spirit working in the lives
of people as people pour into people.”
In his seven years serving
in New York City Richter has learned to rely on God’s provision and to stop
praying for things that “work God out of the equation.” Instead of praying for
his daily bread, Richter often found himself praying for a huge budget so the
daily bread would no longer be needed. Now, this pastor has learned that God
provides when he prays for daily bread.
Richter said his purpose in
being at New Hope is to continually point the church to the Head of the Body.
Their vision is clear: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all
your soul and with all your mind” and “love your neighbor as yourself.”
Native son prays for change