One Church, Two Languages

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For many years, Southwayside Baptist Church in Fort Worth sought to reach the growing Hispanic community around them, but without any success. Mission after mission, attempts to plant a Hispanic church in their neighborhood failed. Meanwhile, the congregation’s membership continued to dwindle as members moved to other neighborhoods, became homebound or went to be with the Lord.

In 2000, under the leadership of its Senior Pastor, Dr. Alvin Southerland, the congregation began to study their options for the future as they sought to continue reaching out to their community in spite of the cultural and language barriers that existed. The only options at that point were to start another Hispanic mission or to share the church’s facilities with a growing Hispanic congregation. After much consideration, sharing facilities became the best option.

In 2002, Southwayside leadership began conversations with a growing Hispanic church in the south side of Fort Worth and invited them to consider sharing facilities with them. The plan was that as Southwayside decreased in membership and presence, the Hispanic congregation would continue to grow, own the property and carry on with the ministry. But when the time came for the Hispanic church to vote, they didn’t have the majority required to make the move. 

This came as a major blow to the people at Southwayside, but also to some families from the Hispanic congregation that had come to love the Southwayside family, had grasped their vision and had come to love the Hispanic community around them as their own.  As a result, in August 2003, several families, couples and young adults from the Hispanic church came and joined Southwayside as members, following God’s call upon their lives. 

Wow!  Southwayside had plans, but God had slightly different ones.  It wasn’t a mission. It wasn’t a department. It wasn’t another church. It was Southwayside, but with the ability to minister in two languages!  Southwayside Baptist Church now looked like the community it longed to reach! Soon, a Spanish worship service and a Spanish Sunday School were started.  English classes began to be offered at no cost to people in the community.  Children and youth ministries began to grow.  Community outreach events and Vacation Bible School now had a greater impact than before.

Shortly after the new members arrived, in the fall of 2003, Southwayside began to strategically place Hispanic members in key church committees. Many were asked to serve as leaders in different ministries and as children and youth teachers. When the time came for the church to elect new deacons, Hispanics came to serve as part of the deacon body. The commitment to reach the community for Christ grew even more.

After several months of holding Spanish worship services in the church fellowship hall, and realizing that this was hindering the service’s growth, the church decided to move the traditional English service in the sanctuary to 9 a.m. and moved the Spanish service to the sanctuary at the 11 a.m. time. This was an unprecedented decision that made an immediate impact in the church’s ministry to Spanish speakers. But an even more unprecedented decision would come five years later when the church elected a Hispanic as its Senior Pastor.

In December 2008, Dr. Alvin Southerland, Southwayside’s Senior Pastor for nearly a decade, was called to pastor Sandy Plains Baptist Church in Georgia. After three and a half months of prayer and consideration by the deacons and the congregation, on April 19, 2009, Southwayside Baptist Church called Rev. Rubén Martínez as its Senior Pastor, a critical step in the congregation’s vision to become a church that effectively reaches the community around it. What a great milestone to celebrate!

Many churches in our state are where Southwayside Baptist Church was almost 6 years ago. I am not saying that this needs to be the experience of every church. But I wonder, what would happen if more of our congregations saw ministry to Hispanics/Spanish speakers in a whole different way?

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6 Responses to “One Church, Two Languages”

  1. Manny Longoria Says:

    Gabe, thanks for sharing this story with us. It is so encouraging to see what God is doing in and through these godly people in Ft. Worth. I know this could not have been easy for the folks of Southwayside, nor was it easy for the Hispanic families who left their Hispanic church to be a part of what God was doing at Southwayside BC. I am certain there was a great deal of prayer, soul-searching, and humility demonstrated by all involved. I pray for the day when people no longer fear or resent the growing Hispanic presence in our great state. I am grateful that the people of FBC, Marshall ministered to me and my family when I was a young boy, leading me to faith in Christ and encouraging me as I responded to God’s call on my life. They could have “created a department” for me and my family. Instead, they accepted us, loved us, and ministered to us. I wish more churches would do the same. I have great hopes for what God is doing in Texas. I believe other churches will find great blessings in opening up to their changing communities as well. I now serve as pastor of FBC, South Houston. FBCSH is another historic, traditional, and predominantly Anglo church surrounded by a community that quickly became overwhelmingly Hispanic. They too have demonstrated a willingness to adapt so God can use them to reach the surrounding community. I am humbled to be their pastor and to be a part of what God is doing in Texas today. May God grant us all the grace to love our new neighbors (and they are not all Hispanic) as He has so deeply loved us. Grace and Peace, Manny Longoria

  2. graceshaker Says:

    having grown up in a multicultural church im always a little baffled by church integration strategies.

  3. TheDeeZone Says:

    That is very cool and quite fitting for the neighborhood. It is great that Southwayside has decided to adapt and stay in the neighborhood rather than move like other churches in the area have done.

  4. Arnie Adkison Says:

    Gabriel, great story of both how messy and how awesome cross-cultural communities can be. May the tribe increase!

  5. Albert Reyes Says:

    Gabriel, thanks for sharing your testimony. There are lots of ways to be the church. However, it is interesting to see the ways God seems to be blessing for the Kingdom. I have seen the multi-congregational approach really blossom. Integration and a willingness to transition leadership takes lots of faith and maturity. It is very hard for churches to do this. North Temple Baptist Church and Home Gardens Baptist Church, both in Dallas did this kind of work. You don’t hear about these churches because they disbanded and gave the ministry resources and their name to Hispanic Baptists. They passed on their legacy.

  6. Manuel Casso Sr. Says:

    Gabe, thank you for the insite of your Congregations crosscultural experience. One of the blessed experiences of many churches with vision for the lost and kingdom growth don’t come easily without going through the trials of breakthrough. Those of which take time and prayer as God continues to lead us through those processes. However, the greater blessing that is unknown, but yet are revealed in time, is that God is still in control. We just have to be willing to go with Him through that journey, whether were Hispanic, Anglo, Asian or African American.

    Sadly not all members are willing to make that kind of committment. As a Pastor I’ve learned to make the best of those that are with you than those who are unwilling. In our state of Texas and across the Nation, Kingdom minded individuals can learn from your Congregations experiences. You should consider writing it into a book, we all could benefit and grow spiritually from it. God bless us all!

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