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Meeting challenges of ethnic church planting


Jim Burton

Bhutanese Chandra Nroula prays and reads scripture before worship at First Agape Baptist Church.

ATLANTA — The face of Georgia is changing. No one knows that better than the Georgia Baptist Convention’s Intercultural Church Planting and Missions Ministries team. State missionary Jerry Baker has been watching the change for 35 years.

Much of the change began in 1965 when the Hart-Cellar Act replaced a quota system based on countries of origin that favored Europeans. The new policy focused more on immigrants’ skills and existing relationships in the United States, particularly family. That legislation opened the door for more Asians to enter the United States, according to Baker.

By the mid 1970s, the U.S. was seeing an influx of immigrants from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, plus many Hmong, a Southeast Asia people group without defined borders. Meanwhile, a strengthening South Korean economy allowed families there to send their children to college in the U.S., noted state missionary An Van Pham. And American soldiers were bringing their Korean wives back to the states.

The net result was that these immigrants were the front edge of a new wave of Asians. The trend is not likely to end soon.

As an example, Baker points to refugees from Bhutan, a landlocked country wedged between India and China. Sometimes called the forgotten people, an estimated 105,000 Bhutanese live in refugee camps in Nepal. These refugees represent a Nepali immigrant population to Bhutan that fell out of favor with their government, which began to imprison and torture them.

The U.S. government plans to resettle 70,000 Bhutanese refugees from Nepal, and 19,000 will come to Georgia, according to Baker. He estimates that 9,000 to 10,000 Bhutanese are already here.

Many Bhutanese have settled in metro Atlanta, where local churches have responded by assisting with Bhutanese church plants in Clarkston, Tucker, and Dunwoody. Churches have repeated that pattern among multiple other ethnic groups, including Burmese and Chinese.

Though most are in metro Atlanta, Georgia Baptists now cite approximately 330 ethnic-related congregations statewide, Baker said while noting that the count includes deaf churches. Of those 330 congregations, 25 percent are Asian. In recent years, half of the new church plants in Georgia were Asian.

Pham has worked in intercultural missions in Georgia for 25 years, serving first as a language missions coordinator in Savannah Baptist Association and later in a similar role with Atlanta Baptist Association before joining the GBC in 1988.

Jim Burton

Samson Dharnal, 13, plays drums during worship at the Bhutanese First Agape Baptist Church.

“The GBC saw the need of the lost and dying people,” Pham said. “We worked hard to start new work [churches] to reach lost ethnics.”

“Ethnic churches in Georgia will grow, some faster than others. But we can see that they will grow.”

An Van Pham
GBC Intercultural Church Planting and Missions Ministries

In the beginning when Georgia Baptists needed ethnic pastors, calls would go out to California and Texas to find leaders. Today, with better theological education opportunities and more Christians migrating to Georgia from within the ethnic populations, leadership is emerging more frequently within the state.

The GBC ethnic church growth rate is cause for a celebration, which occurred recently at a GBC-sponsored Asian Bridges Celebration, hosted by North Peachtree Baptist Church in Dunwoody. Conducted in a manner similar to former denominational emphasis programs and Better Bridges conferences, the GBC welcomes ethnic churches in this Atlanta metro-wide emphasis.

Jim Burton

Tek Dharnal, pastor of the Bhutanese First Agape Baptist Church, leads a small congregation that has already started other Bhutanese congregations.

Not all refugees come with Christian backgrounds, and if they do, they were likely not familiar with Southern Baptist missions. One of the challenges of assimilating ethnic churches into GBC life is teaching them about the Cooperative Program (CP).

At the Asian Bridges event in March, participating ethnic churches learned more about CP. Both Pham and Baker see a growing understanding and appreciation for CP among ethnic churches. Ethnic pastors understand that they have benefitted from CP, and they want likewise to help others.

Pham sees another major draw to the GBC for ethnic churches. Ethnics want freedom, including freedom from hierarchical denominational structures.

“If they were Christians before coming here, you know that their system is different from Southern Baptists,” Pham observed, knowing that many had top-to-bottom polity.

“Ethnic pastors see Baptists as more free than other denominations,” Pham added. The new ethnic Baptists understand that “the local church is key.”

No one sees a change in the trend of ethnic church growth. “Ethnic churches in Georgia will grow, some faster than others,” Pham said. “But we can see that they will grow.”

A strong local church, association, GBC, and North American Mission Board partnership will remain key to ethnic church growth. Through CP, pastors receive some financial support for the first few years. Further, the GBC provides opportunities like Asian Bridges, free dental care from the mobile dental clinic, training for church planters, Bibles for distribution, and more, according to Baker.

Baker credits the Woman’s Missionary Union with growing CP awareness and participation among Korean and Hispanic churches, which are scheduled to be the featured population segments in the next two annual Bridges celebrations.

And as the face of Georgia continues to change, the GBC will continue to build bridges to new ethnic communities.


Jim Burton is a photojournalist living in Cumming and the bivocational pastor of Suwanee International Fellowship in Suwanee.