A Church for a Changing Miami: An Interview with Felipe Assis (Part 1)

Immanuel Presbyterian Church was an aging, monocultural church in an increasingly younger and ethnically diverse neighborhood in South Miami. City to City spoke with pastor Felipe Assis to see how contextualizing ministry resulted in a church revitalization.

CTC: As far as you know, was the ministry of Immanuel successful at connecting with the neighborhood between the time it was planted and the 1990s when the demographics changed?

Felipe Assis: Sure. The church peaked in the mid 1990s. At the time, they had a Brazilian, a Jamaican, and an Anglo congregation all meeting in the same facilities. I think they peaked at about 450 in size. But then after Hurricane Andrew in 1992, a lot of people left not only the church, but the region. The pastor left shortly thereafter.

Then the church just had a series of pastors who couldn’t pull things together. The church started to dwindle from there.

CTC: There had been a lot of immigration to Miami in the early 1980s. What was happening in the city at the time?

Felipe Assis: It’s something I’ve been trying to understand since I moved here. There have been several waves of immigration. Often the church is slow to catch up with the culture, so they can get away with not changing for a little while, but soon enough the changes catch up to the church. That’s what happened here as well.

Basically the first wave of immigration to Miami was the elite class of Cubans. They came after Communism started to establish itself in Cuba.

The second wave of immigration was not the cultural elite of Cuba. For a period in the late 1960’s to early 70’s, the US and Cuba actually cooperated to bring hundreds of thousands of Cubans here.

And then the Mariel boatlift in 1980 brought in another huge wave of refugees, only this time they were poor.

CTC: That’s a lot of change in a short time.

Felipe Assis: That’s right. And you saw the effects of this immigration in the TV shows and movies that were made about that period in the 80’s, like Miami Vice and Cocaine Cowboys. All sorts of shady business was happening in Miami.

Now the first Cubans who came in were really hard workers, some of them doctors and lawyers who were now in blue collar jobs. But when South Beach started to be taken over by crime, then a lot of white people started to move out because the culture began to change substantially. A lot of people moved all the way north along the east coast. Some people moved to the next county, which is Broward County. Others went to Palm Beach County. I think when that began to happen, Miami became a predominantly Latin city.

As a result of that, anything that happened after that in South America, whether it was in Colombia, or when things started to get unsafe in Ecuador or Peru or Chile, or nowadays in Venezuela or Brazil, Miami was the first place immigrants would pick to move their families and establish themselves. The most recent wave of immigration here in Miami has been the South Americans, and they’re still coming.

CTC: I’m guessing that change happened a lot faster in the city than in the church.

Felipe Assis: Exactly. The whitest neighborhood here in Miami today is only 40% white. The culture kept changing but the church stayed white. The city started growing and the church started dying.

CTC: The church leadership realized there was a problem. What did they think they should do?

Felipe Assis: They got to a critical point where they were not able to pay the bills.

So the church gave Terry Gyger, the founding pastor, a courtesy call. They knew that Terry was at Redeemer Church Planting Center at the time (now called Redeemer City to City). They called Terry and explained the situation. They said, “One of the options that we currently have in front of us is to sell the building and take the money and distribute it with a bunch of parachurch organizations, or even to CTC.” They could help to fuel other church plants with what they were able to get here for a pretty valuable property, a piece of land in the middle of Miami.

Terry took that opportunity, guided by the Spirit, to say, “Have you guys thought about replanting?” He said, “We could use the current assets and the leadership you have in place to welcome a new pastor that can both pastor the existing congregation and give birth to a new congregation.”

That’s where the conversation started. They agreed to that and began the conversation with City to City. CTC was in charge of finding a planter. Immanuel agreed that as long as his theological values were in line with what they were about, he didn’t have to be in the PCA, and the church could actually go nondenominational or even join another denomination. They were that open.

At the time, I was in Brazil pastoring a church that I had planted with the assistance of CTC. Terry was my contact, too. So in a conversation we were having over lunch, he shared with me what was going on. He said, “I think you could do this job.”

CTC: So you had some existing leadership from Immanuel when you entered the picture.

Felipe Assis: Yes, there were elders. Immanuel had no pastor. They had an interim pastor, but when I got there, even the interim pastor had been gone for about a month. There were probably about 50 members in the church, mostly white, mostly affluent. The average age was about 65 years old. That was the makeup of the church.

CTC: To reach a new segment of the population, you needed to contextualize.

Felipe Assis: That’s right.

CTC: How would you define contextualization?

Felipe Assis : I think the simplest way to define contextualization is translation. Oftentimes I’m in a context where I have to speak in one language and I’m translating into another language. When people are being translated, it’s not just enough for you to translate word for word, but you have to translate intent too. That’s a picture of contextualization. You take what someone is saying in one language with the understanding that you know where they’re coming from culturally and then you translate that to the audience that’s receiving the message.

CTC: How does that work of translation apply to ministry?

Contextualization in the context of ministry is applying the Gospel to particular people in ways that take into consideration how they live and what they value. It requires promoting the changes that are necessary, not the ones that aren’t necessary.

For example, missionaries of the past are often accused of going in and bringing American culture with the Gospel. You don’t want to do that. You want the people you are contextualizing for to become more of who they are. If they are Hispanic, you want them to become more Hispanic, not less. You don’t want to make them more like you. You want them to receive the treasure of the Gospel in a way that it makes sense in their culture.

Continue to Part 2.

Felipe Assis re-planted Crossbridge Church in Miami, Florida in 2008.

Felipe was born in Brazil but had part of his upbringing in the United States. Felipe founded and pastored two churches in Recife, Brazil. In 2008 he moved to Miami at the invitation of City to City with his wife Beth and two young children to plant Crossbridge Church and serve as a catalyst to a gospel movement in Miami.

This interview is part of a course called “Understanding Your Ministry Context.” This course is about becoming a student of the particular people you are trying to reach. See all of our online courses at learn.redeemercitytocity.com.

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