Every Sunday morning at 10 a.m., worshipers fill wooden pews in the sanctuary that once housed Thirty-sixth Street Christian Reformed Church in Wyoming, Michigan, a Grand Rapids suburb.
Ninety minutes later, as the first group streams down the center aisle to shake hands with the pastor at the back of the church, another set of worshipers enters from doors on either side of the pulpit area.
On this final Sunday before Christmas, both groups use the same Advent candle wreath. The banners (in Spanish and English) and the pulpit and communion table linens are the same. The same Bibles and frayed hymnals (in Spanish) fill pew racks. People at either service listen to translators through the same earphones.
Morning light filters through blocks of colored windows, creating a rainbow effect on gathered worshipers—a reminder that in Christ there is no east or west.
But these two groups are separate congregations. The first, Emmanuel Hispanic Christian Reformed Church (CRC), owns the building. The second, Korean Grace CRC, pays rent. The congregations split utility costs.
These welcoming congregations are part of a trend that has helped the Christian Reformed Church grow beyond its Dutch immigrant roots. Though many Emmanuel Hispanic and Korean Grace worshipers lack a common language, the congregations do have several things in common with each other and with the body of Christ as a whole.
Hispanic Members Here to Stay
Worshipers from more informal churches would recognize much of the feel—though probably not the songs—at Emmanuel Hispanic. The service starts with a praise team, accompanied by keyboard, drum set, and bongos. Sometimes they use taped accompaniment for a prelude solo or offering. People mainly sing in unison.
Mario Alfaro, a deacon who also translates during Emmanuel services, estimates that his church is about half immigrants, half refugees. Most of the 20 percent born in the United States are children. Worshipers come from fourteen countries in the Caribbean and Americas.
Alfaro, a landscaper, estimates that only 20 percent of Emmanuel adults speak English fluently. “It’s hard to get higher education,” he says.
“Like many Latinos, I grew up thinking of myself as Catholic, even though we went to church two or three times a year and didn’t learn the Scriptures. When I met my wife, she invited me on a youth group trip. I thought, There’s gotta be a reason why these kids are happy just camping, roasting marshmallows, and singing—but not drinking. I started going to church more and paying attention. I realized happiness comes from God.”
As do evangelical churches in Mexico, Emmanuel values reverence and the Bible. The congregation always stands for the gospel reading. Alfaro says that being Reformed means “being bound to what the Bible teaches and really getting to know it.”
On the Sunday before Christmas, worshipers responded almost in unison when Pastor Carlos Tapanes asked what they’d learned as children about the wise men. When he reassured them that God—powerful, majestic, yet caring—would help them be patient with wayward children, addicted spouses, and less-than-ideal jobs, several people sniffled or wiped away tears.
Alfaro says it’s sometimes hard for Hispanics to talk about “our church” instead of “the pastor’s church.” But he believes Emmanuel members see their church as a place to grow, learn, have fellowship, and be part of a family.
“We invite people in and try to make everyone feel welcome. God has blessed us in that people have acquired respect for tithing and offerings,” he adds.
Most Emmanuel members are here in the U.S. for good. Like the first Dutch immigrant members in their denomination, they struggle with generational language issues.
Carla Tapanes leads a bilingual service for children during the morning service. Teaching in English, she uses the same themes that her husband preaches on in Spanish upstairs. “Our kids are so focused on English in school. We include some Spanish for them too because we don’t want them to forget how to speak or read it,” Alfaro says.
All ages come together for Emmanuel’s evening services, where kids sometimes lead in drama or song. They also join for Christmas and Easter programs or parties and for fellowship after morning services.
Sharing Christ in East and West
Korean Grace CRC has many of the same goals Emmanuel Hispanic does—welcoming immigrants, growing in grace and knowledge, and passing on the faith from generation to generation.
People from churches where people dress formally, use hymnbooks, and sing in four-part harmony would feel quite at home at Korean Grace. On the Sunday before Christmas, the service included “Shine, Jesus, Shine,” a beautiful choral anthem and cantata, and familiar Christmas hymns.
About 95 percent of the members were born in South Korea. Older members, who came in the 1970s, have less education and less English than those in their thirties and forties. Many parishioners own dry cleaners, restaurants, or convenience stores.
“Most were not Christians in Korea. They came to America and we reached out, or they came to church with friends. We emphasize personal and relational evangelism,” says pastor Moon Bae Kim.
His sermons urge people to discipline, prayer, and Bible study. Worshipers bring their own Korean-English hymnals and Korean-language Bibles, often bound together in one volume.
The church is divided into Bible-reading groups, and weekly bulletins post the number of chapters read by each group.
Services include a typically Korean “concert of prayer,” where everyone prays aloud at once. “The tremendous time put into prayer makes the Korean church grow. That and the seriousness of their Bible study,” says Mark Klompien (see sidebar).
Korean Grace includes about twenty college students and ten seminarian families, some of whom plan to return to Korea.
Seminarians lead bilingual worship for kindergarteners and elementary students. College-age people may worship together in English or join the Korean service.
“I like worshiping in my own language. It’s a good balance of traditional and contemporary worship. I can be in contact with Korean culture, share my faith with the college group, and also gain much from our pastor’s sermons,” says Grace Kim, who was born in South Korea but grew up in the Philippines. This congregation’s solemn worship style reminds Grace of Korean Presbyterian services elsewhere, because most Koreans use the same hymnal across denominations.
Once a month, all ages at Korean Grace worship together in a combined morning service. They also join for Christmas, Easter, and Thanksgiving. Everyone also has lunch together after the Sunday morning service.
The Hispanic and Korean church councils meet jointly twice a year to coordinate plans—a necessity with both churches sponsoring so many activities each week.
Kim hopes his congregation will soon acquire a building that will be large enough to add programs and still offer space to Hispanic and African-American congregations in the new neighborhood.
Meanwhile, he says that sharing a building is “a really good tool to challenge church members that we are not the only ones who worship God.”
Alfaro agrees: “When we’re downstairs having fellowship, they are upstairs worshiping the same God. You get the sensation that, wow, God is awesome. He speaks to us in so many languages.”
These congregations are experiencing that being in Christ makes them each part of “one great fellowship of love throughout the whole wide earth.”
- Emmanuel Hispanic CRC began as a mission church in 1962 and was officially organized in 1981. Now in its fifth location, it has 84 confessing and baptized members. Emmanuel has one full-time staff member, Rev. Carlos Tapanes, the church’s fourth pastor.
- Korean Grace CRC, organized in 2000, is led by Moon Bae Kim, formerly pastor of Hahn-In CRC. Kim is the only full-time staff member. The church has 113 confessing and baptized members.
- Learn more about immigrant churches by scrolling down to “New ethnic churches: visit one soon” in the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship online story collection: www.calvin.edu/worship; type “Vital Worship” in the search box.
Identifying with Christ
While adults worship in Korean, seminarians Mark Klompien and his wife, Jinhee, lead an English-language service in the church chapel for thirty kids in grades 7-12. Mark Klompien preaches in English, and students lead music, pray, and collect offerings.
“Parents want teens to be successful—and retain their language and heritage,” says Mark. “Kids push back and say, ‘We are Americans.’ I encourage them to appreciate their heritage. But life is not primarily about how Korean or American you are. It’s about what unifies us—Christ and the gospel.”