When Andy and Sarah Kim bought a row house on Wingohocking Street in the Hunting Park section of North Philadelphia a few years ago, they did so because they wanted to be a part of the community and ministry of Spirit and Truth Fellowship. They are raising their three children among neighbors who are mostly Puerto Rican and African American. Andy, a graduate of nearby Westminster Seminary, is a social worker in the city, serves as an elder at the church, and leads one of the Wednesday night “growth cells” at his home.
Around the corner, at Sixth and Cayuga, stands a former Baptist church. The European Americans who worshiped there are gone to other neighborhoods and to the suburbs. This neighborhood now houses Puerto Ricans, Koreans, African Americans, and Anglos who walk or drive five to ten minutes to this church building and make up about 60 to 70 percent of the congregation. The rest are families from the suburbs, medical students from Center City, seminary students from the suburbs, and college students from city and suburban campuses. On Sunday mornings they stream into the building, now home of Spirit and Truth Fellowship, a Christian Reformed congregation, reversing the common experience of many urban neighborhoods where each ethnic group has its own church.
The Treasure Chest of Multiethnicity
Harvie M. Conn writes, “Into a world where class, power and ancestry divided rich from poor, free from slave, men from women, came a society that welcomed all who bore the name of Jesus (1 Cor 1:26-29). . . . [Yet today,] Black, White, Hispanic and Asian Christians still watch each other pour out of their church buildings on street intersections that are often their only common meeting ground. . . . But there is another model for the church. . . . In neighborhoods in New York and Los Angeles the multiethnic church reechoes New Testament themes as diverse cultures and social classes share ministry and leadership in local congregations. . . . [They] open the treasure chest of multiethnicity and rejoice.”
This quote is from Conn’s forward to One New People: Models for Developing a Multiethnic Church (InterVarsity, 1996), written by Manuel Ortiz, pastor of Spirit and Truth Fellowship, drawing on his experience in Chicago and here in Philadelphia. Besides leading this congregation, Ortiz also teaches urban and global missions at Westminster Seminary.
This North Philadelphia congregation is what Isaiah saw (2:3): “Many people shall come and say, ‘Let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his way and we may walk in his paths.” As the cultural groups of Philadelphia come into Sprit and Truth, they gather around the Word to learn God’s ways and go out to walk the streets of the city following in his paths.
Worship with Freshness and Familiarity
On a typical Sunday morning the congregation gathers during the fifteen to twenty minutes before the service begins at eleven, some coming in from the street, but most coming from various Sunday school classes and visiting with each other along the way. The crowd is mostly young: a few babies with parents, plus children and young adults through age thirty, with a scattering of older folks. Latin and Afro skin colors (all shades) are interspersed with Asian and Caucasian faces.
Band members of all races take their places, adjust their instruments (piano, keyboard, a few guitars, and lots of percussion). By the time they are all assembled, more than 200 people are crowded into the church (about 70 came to the early service, a total of far more than the church’s 168 official members). The place is abuzz with energy, exchanged greetings, and anticipation for the presence of God.
As the service begins, the worship band plays softly and Pastor Ortiz quiets the crowd. A hush descends. People are silently praying, some kneeling up front, some standing with raised hands, others seated with heads bowed. This is a time of focusing on God and preparing. After a while, the band segues into “You Are Holy” from the Black church tradition. The pastor picks up his flute and the people begin to sing, their voices at first subdued but later rising in intensity. Andres Fajardo, Andy Kim, and Gregory Archer read Matthew 24:36-39 in Spanish, Korean, and English, leading into more singing.
“Surrender” is sung while the deacons take the offering. After that, there is time for announcements. When the children are released to the nursery or for children’s church, elder Randy Baker prays with them before they go. Then Baker leads in prayer for Ortiz, who, before he preaches, leads the congregation in a sending prayer for elder Andres Fajardo, who is about to travel to California and Russia to see family and engage in short-term mission work.
Ortiz then reads Genesis 6:1-13 and preaches for about forty minutes. The message is a rich mixture of street realism, biblical exposition, and pastoral care. If you are listening with theologically trained ears you hear the influence of the Reformed tradition and Gerhardus Vos’s biblical theology, but in language that an urban high school student can handle. The service closes with “Hallelujah! What a Savior”; people are invited forward to pray with the elders, who use this time for pastoral conversations leading to prayer. And then Ortiz sends the congregation off with the blessing of God.
In this music- and Word-driven service (see outline, p. 20), the people sing five songs, interspersed with readings, prayers, special prayer for persecuted Christians in Pakistan, and the sermon. Some mornings include a baptism or reception of new members during the singing. The songs this morning include Black gospel, Spanish corritos (choruses), praise and worship songs, and a traditional gospel song. Occasionally a soloist sings, but usually the congregation is the choir. The vision is to include everyone’s culture, so that even the first-time visitor meets something of herself at Spirit and Truth, feels at home, and is able to worship God.
Sue Baker, who plays keyboard in the band, points out, “The music has evolved over the years as the original youth-dominated congregation has matured and we have followed demographic changes. We are always looking for new, indigenous music, rather than translations borrowed from the Anglo culture. Many of the Spanish corritos are indigenous, but it’s really hard to find indigenous Korean songs. In another cultural expression, one member sometimes presents hip-hop lyrics that are solidly Reformed. We keep changing a bit here and there to avoid rigor mortis and boredom. Yet, we do this carefully to maintain continuity and stability. We want a balance of freshness and familiarity.”
Beyond welcoming and enabling all, and even more important, is the experience of offering the triune God the variegated gifts of his people. Ortiz works to make the service “God-centered rather than I-centered. We try to put the focus on worship as the kingdom expression of all the nations. That’s not always reflected in the songs the people like to sing. Once, when we had just finished singing ‘I love you, Lord,’ I remarked, ‘You perhaps just sinned more than you realize.’” Overcoming American self-centered individualism as expressed in popular songs, secular or religious, takes time and constant vigilance.
In One New People, Ortiz writes, “The multiethnic church provides us with a more comprehensive understanding of the Scriptures. . . . The insights of others help us to see things that our blinders shut out before. It tells us that we need each other (1 Cor. 12:12-27); one part cannot tell another, ‘I have no need of you.’” Worship at Spirit and Truth brings participants to a similarly comprehensive understanding of God’s creating abundance expressed through the cultures of his world. Here the people celebrate their differences and embrace them, using them in a way that draws them closer to each other and closer to God.
This brings Revelation 21:26 to mind, where John saw the nations bringing their glory and wealth into Jerusalem, a mirror image of Isaiah 60:11, where the nations bring their wealth through the open gates of Zion. Such wealth is not just coin, it is culture (Conn’s multiethnic treasure chest); all their wealth and glory, yet nothing unclean (Rev. 21:27).
Although the band has carefully chosen the songs, rehearsed them, and planned their sequence, anticipating other elements that will fit in among the songs, it is Pastor Manny Ortiz who does the final orchestration, guiding the service as he senses the temperature of the congregation and the needs of the moment, even dropping or adding songs. It looks very informal, but inside that appearance is a disciplined, skillful team enabling all these diverse peoples to worship the Lord. Ortiz says, “We clothe a strong center with spontaneity and our mixture of cultures. I’ve learned that, along with preaching, this is a pastoral role in the service that I shouldn’t delegate. It’s a bit like shooting the rapids, needing steady hands on the paddles and quick response time. You have to love worship and enjoy it to the hilt.”
A Culture of “Interculturation”
According to Shannon Geiger, writing in the fall 2000 Westminster Seminary Bulletin, as soon as Ortiz arrived in Philadelphia in 1987 from Chicago, where he had led in planting five urban congregations, he and his wife Blanca began inviting friends of their high school- and college-age children to their home for small group Bible study. Soon, a small church—Spirit and Truth Fellowship—formed out of this group. They bought their church building in North Philadelphia’s Hunting Park neighborhood in 1996. Members of the church have started a community outreach center called Ayuda (help) and a Christian school.
Sometimes the term “crosscultural” is used to describe situations like Spirit and Truth. But that gives the impression of a visitor experiencing other cultures on an occasional basis. A better term for those who are here week by week is “intercultural”—a two-way street. When missiologists and liturgical scholars began to think seriously about culture in the 1970s, they searched for a vocabulary to describe what they saw in Scripture and the world around them. They tried “enculturaltion” and “inculturation” (Anscar J. Chupungco, Liturgical Inculturation, Pueblo, 1992, and other post-Vatican II writers), “contextualization” (Harvie M. Conn and several evangelical missiologists), and “interculturation” (Aylward Shorter, Toward a Theology of Inculturation, Orbis, 1988).
The latter term captured what Shorter thought to be the ideal. No one culture imperializes others (what Paulo Friere calls “cultural invasion”). Rather, when they come together they act upon each other. The sending church’s message and liturgy is affected by the receiving culture and the result, whether a liturgy or a theology, shows the result of that mutual interchange. Peter Phan (“Liturgical Inculturation,” Liturgy in a Postmodern World, ed. Keith Pecklers, Continuum, 2003) similarly calls for a dialog between cultures. Conn’s Eternal Word and Changing Worlds (Zondervan, 1984) comes to much the same conclusion. It is this kind of intercultural dialogue of cultures that has led to the multiethnic worship at Spirit and Truth Fellowship.
Manny and Blanca Ortiz are fully Puerto Rican and grew up in Spanish Harlem. They live in a predominantly African-American neighborhood in the Germantown section of Philadelphia. He works at Westminster Seminary, a predominantly European-American but increasingly multicultural institution. And he leads Spirit and Truth. He moves among these worlds all the time and thinks multiethnicly. So do Randy and Sue Baker, with their conservative white middle-class suburban roots and long years of working with the Ortizes in Chicago and Philadelphia. As others come into Spirit and Truth from their cultural comfort zones, they are stretched, energized, and transformed by seeing God’s glory in other clothes, in the glory of other nations.
Order of Service
This simple outline was used as a framework by worship leaders.
Prayer: “You Are Holy”
Scripture: Matthew 24:36-39
“I Came Today” (a new song written by Margaret Shrack, a member of the congregation, was introduced that Sunday)
“Who Is Like the Lord?”
“Levanto Mia Manos”
“All Creatures of Our God and King”
Song: “Hallelujah! What A Savior”
One New People: Models for Developing a Multiethnic Church
Manuel Ortiz, InterVarsity
Press, 1996. Paperback, $14.00
Capturing the Vision
Who Is My Neighbor?
The Purpose of Multiethnic Church
Multicongregational Church Models
Multiethnic Church Models
Preparing the Church for Multiethnic
Building a New Humanity
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