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Texas church reaches the world at its doorstep

EDITORS’ NOTE: The following story is part of a monthly Baptist Press series to explore and describe how individuals, churches, associations and conventions exhibit a passion for Christ and His Kingdom.

DALLAS (BP)–In 2003, Tim Ahlen took a trip that changed his life. He and several other American church planter strategists traveled overseas to learn how God was moving among people groups on the international mission field.

The more Ahlen and the group of strategists saw how God was working through the efforts of International Mission Board missionaries overseas, the more they wanted the same thing to happen back in the United States.

“We looked at each other and said, ‘God’s not doing that in North America,'” Ahlen recounted. “So we covenanted with each other to find out why and to determine if there was anything we could do about it.”

God kept stirring Ahlen’s heart to reach the people groups that were making their way from all over the world to North America. Soon after, Ahlen quit his job as director of church planting with the Dallas Baptist Association and became lead pastor at Forest Meadow Baptist Church on Dallas’ north side. The church had rapidly declined in attendance as Anglo members died or moved out of the city. The surrounding community was becoming increasingly ethnic.

Ahlen began to pray about how the church could more effectively reach the new people filling the neighborhoods around the church. He took things slow with the 30 or so church members who still attended regularly.

“I promised I wouldn’t make any changes to the 11 o’clock service if they gave me the freedom to reach out to the community,” Ahlen said.

Today Ahlen’s vision has grown into four generations of new churches, numbering 38 congregations that reach an average of 6,500 in attendance most weekends. Most are Anglo churches, but there also are Hispanic churches reaching Mexican immigrants and congregations specifically for South American and Central American immigrants. Other churches reach Sudanese people. Another is a Zambian congregation. There also is a network of house churches and a church that ministers to mentally ill adults.

Forest Meadow also has planted congregations overseas — in Guatemala and the Sudan. Four of the stateside churches still meet in the Forest Meadow building; others have their own buildings and some meet in houses. Some are contemporary and others traditional. Some of the pastors draw a salary; others are bivocational. Many of the 38 congregations were started from the original churches Ahlen and the Forest Meadow congregation began several years ago, and even the second-generation churches are starting new works.

Even though the Forest Meadow phenomenon is somewhat unique in North America, Ahlen said the ministry has “not been all that complicated.

“You have to do a lot of hard work. You have to do a lot of research,” Ahlen said. “You have to resist the temptation to go in with a generic North American method of sharing the Gospel.”

A big part of successfully reaching out to a people group is understanding their culture and worldview, Ahlen said.

“You learn to identify parts of their worldview that match up with biblical teaching,” he explained. “And where you see worldview issues that don’t match up, you have to overcome that by showing the superiority of the biblical story over theirs.

“You have to be able to shift in approaches,” Ahlen added. “A Guatemalan of European descent will respond to principles of guilt and innocence, and so you want to stress that Jesus takes away the guilt arising from their sin. If you’re speaking to a Sudanese, you need to speak in terms of honor and shame. In other words, stress that Jesus will remove their sense of shame arising from their sin. In both cases you are giving accurate, biblical descriptions of what a relationship with Jesus accomplishes. But because of their different worldviews, the Guatemalans will respond to the issue of their guiltiness before God; the Sudanese will respond to the issue of their shame before God.”

There are practical considerations as well. Ahlen said today’s immigrants are more likely to hold on to their heart language, which makes language more of a barrier. Other challenges are financial. When outside funding for the Sudanese congregation ran out, Ahlen expected members of the congregation to take up the responsibility of paying their pastor’s salary.

“The Sudanese leadership said to me, ‘In our culture, leaders take care of their followers; followers do not take care of their leaders. That is why we do not pay our pastors.'” So the Sudanese pastor now has an outside job that provides for his financial needs.

Are all churches called to reach the world around them as Forest Meadows has?

“I believe from the bottom of my soul that it is the responsibility of the church to follow the Great Commission [Matt. 28:18-20],” Ahlen said. “The church is to make disciples of all the ethnic groups it finds, in its Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth. They don’t have to do it using my methods, but they are responsible before God to do it.”

While Ahlen said he doesn’t believe in “models” for how other churches can succeed in ministering to people groups, he has developed the Great Commission Initiative, a principles-based training process to help churches develop their own outreach ministry. Created in consultation with personnel from the International and North American Mission boards, directors of missions and state convention strategists, those principles and other information about training can be found at www.pantataethne.org.

This article is adapted from the fall issue of On Mission magazine (onmission.com). Mike Ebert is publications and media relations coordinator for the North American Mission Board.

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  • Mike Ebert