Not really a "miracle" church

A congregation of different cultures finding ways to work together

J. Anthony Boger is pastor of the Westminster Good Samaritan Seventh-day Adventist Church in Westminster, California.

On Sabbath, July 23,1994, a "miracle" happened: Two highly diverse congregations one predominantly African-American, Hispanic, and Brazilian, the other primarily Anglo and Asian melded into a single church.

Today, Sabbath after Sabbath almost a thousand members embrace the campuses of the Westminster Good Samaritan Seventh-day Adventist Church (WGS). People from different walks of life pack the pews elbow-to-elbow, some with tears, others with smiles, many cry ing out "Amen" in praise and worship. Some are kneeling at the altar, some holding hands, others with arms around each other . . . Whites, Blacks, Asians, and Hispanics. That 1994 Sabbath was a miraculous occasion for two South eastern California Conference churches that had worshiped separately for decades divided not only by miles, but incomes, cultures, and, yes, prejudices. The two and the many are now one.

Many have declared the merging of the old Westminster SDA church and the former Santa Ana Good Samaritan SDA church a "miracle." This is the first such recorded merger within the Adventist denomination; it may well set the pace for future church structures.

How did it happen?

The Westminster Good Samaritan (WGS) Church is founded on two fundamental presuppositions:

1. The gospel of Jesus Christ has power to transcend differences of ethnicity, culture, and socioeconomics, challenging the congregation to seek and save the lost from all walks of life.

2. Worship and praise are rooted not in the subcultural experience of ethnicity but in the transcendent experience of authentic Christianity.

These two simple presuppositions have caused many members to reevaluate the "hang-ups" that have hindered them from accepting those who do not look like, talk like, or act like what makes them most comfortable. If there is a "miracle," it is not the joining of the two congregations but the willingness of the people to be challenged and molded into something different from what they were.

Presently, the WGS church conducts five worship services, two in English and one each in Japanese, Vietnamese, and Spanish. The church aims to preserve the first generation immigrant language, while providing second and third generation children an opportunity to choose where and how they worship as they adapt to mainstream American culture. Once a quarter the church conducts joint services, using interpreters or electronic devices to translate into each person's language and to communicate to the hearing impaired. It is not the goal of the church to make race and culture insignificant; on the contrary, the goal is to educate and celebrate the gifts that make us special.

Breaking down walls

As pastor of this congregation, I have witnessed extraordinary changes in practical Christian living in many of God's people. Too often churches focus on what makes them different from other groups, without realizing that people have more in common than what appears on the surface. The issues of disease, divorce, and death are common to all, whatever their racial, ethnic, national, or cultural roots. The negatives of drugs, alcohol, and unemployment have affected every home in one way or the other. People of every color are hurting; all seek healing. The church has been called and given the opportunity to present the specific, spiritual, and practical hope that Jesus offers to the broken and the fallen.

If we fail to believe that the "impossible" is, in fact, possible through the power of God, then we need to stop calling ourselves the church. It is time to shake up the status quo, which is often rooted in the meaningless traditions that have divided us. This is not to say that tradition is unimportant; what is necessary is to find new ways to bridge tradition with what is relevant and meaningful for people today. The leadership and the people of the church should not pit one tradition, culture, or mode of worship against the other. In stead, we should create an environment that allows the Holy Spirit to move in peoples' lives and is devoid of destructive criticism and judgment of any individual.

The secular world has benefited through corporate downsizing, merging, and discovering new ways of conducting business on an international scale. How much more the church needs to develop such things! Our small children interact with each other daily without regard for color or economics; how much more should those adults who profess the name of Christ and have been baptized into His death do the same! Most people in today's workforce spend time among diverse groups on a professional level, but the church seems to be comfortable with "separate but almost equal."

The fellowship factor

Many members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church have made spiritual decisions that have caused them to be separated from family and friends who despise their new faith and lifestyle. This "spiritual decision" leaves many people wanting fellowship with fellow believers of like mind. This is one of the reasons we feel such kinship to others around the world who are also members of the body of Christ that feeling of being safe and comfortable around brothers and sisters who understand our choices because they have made the same ones. This "spiritual decision" makes us long to be close to others who do, indeed, understand. Church members want to be close to one another in mind, body, and spirit, regardless of the color of their skin or other shallow dividing factors.

Jesus gave us examples of forming relationships with "undesirables." Whether with a prostitute, tax collector, thief, Jew, or Gentile, Christ did not allow the criticisms or judgments of his day to dictate with whom He would fellowship. This example becomes our challenge: to love, accept, forgive, fellow ship, worship, and praise God together with those whose race, culture, and background differ from our own.

Of course, this form of ministry will not work everywhere or in every situation. But we owe it to the glory of God and to the edification of the church to exercise the gift of diversity wherever possible. We can achieve "association without assimilation."

In Ephesians 2:14 we are assured that we are made one by Christ, "who has made both one and has broken down the middle wall of partition be tween us." The physical barriers of wealth, power, and privilege are real, but in Christ these walls must come down. No longer can they be used to separate and segregate the household of faith.

The personal factor

Unity is a personal, spiritual choice that each individual has the opportunity to make. When we make a spiritual choice to be brothers and sisters, we are hurled into the dwelling place of some others' experiences. We come to genuinely care about each other's victories and burdens and jointly fight the good fight of faith.

The WGS church is not some kind of accidental miracle. It is the result of a choice made by a group of people willing to take God at His Word. The challenge is believing. There is no need to believe in any one human being. Our greatest need is to believe in God and what He says He can do in, for, and among us.

Many people have been on the receiving end of racial prejudice or some form of discrimination. When the haunted houses of our memories are stirred, they can lead to feelings that may very well endanger our minds and souls. Even within the walls of the church, inequities have caused great pain and hurt, so much so that groups find it necessary to live, work, and die with "their own." There is an enormous amount of dissatisfaction when people are purposely "shut out" for racial or ethnic reasons. Within the hallowed walls of the church this cannot and should not be tolerated by leaders and laity alike. We know the problem is real and that we are the ones who can, and must, through God's power, do some thing about it.

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J. Anthony Boger is pastor of the Westminster Good Samaritan Seventh-day Adventist Church in Westminster, California.

July 1999

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