A Church for a Changing Miami (Part 2)

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.

Read Part 1 of the interview.

CTC: When you started replanting, then, what kinds of changes did you think needed to take place to contextualize the ministry in South Miami?

Felipe Assis: There were things that were obvious and there were things that were not so obvious. However, just because they were not so obvious didn’t mean that they were not the most important things.

Obviously, Miami is a young city. You have new immigrants moving in all the time. The church building sits at the crossroads of three neighborhoods. There’s a lot of great schools around the church which indicate that there are a lot of young families there. Very diverse — about 75% Latino, and then you also have Chinese, you have Caribbeans. The church did not reflect that diversity at all.

The worship service was typical of the mid 80s. I think they got stuck with their glory days there. This is what worked in the past and they kept on doing it. Also the church had a fairly modern architecture, but the furniture and the environment was old and dirty. Miami is a vibrant modern sort of city, so those were the apparent things that needed to change.

Now, one of the things that was not so apparent is that the church was not a gospel centered church. They were an evangelical biblical type of church. You had people that really loved Jesus and were faithful stewards of the resources that they’ve been granted in terms of the people and the property and that sort of thing, but not a gospel centered approach.

The other thing was that the church was really inward focused. The programs they had — Sunday school, and Bible studies in the homes, Wednesday night dinners, and all those things — weren’t bad, but they were only geared towards caring for the needs of the existing congregation. There was no preoccupation for reaching out to the neighborhood around them.

Contextually, you had a very conservative political leaning in the church, in a city where that’s very off-putting. If the average person from Miami walks into a church where everybody’s white, older, affluent, and are always speaking of issues on the political right, that’s a huge deterrent for them to assimilate to the life of the church.

CTC: So where did you start?

Felipe Assis: The most important thing in terms of revitalization and replanting is reestablishing the church culture. At the end of the day it’s not about the strategy. I like what Peter Drucker used to say, that culture eats strategy for breakfast. If the culture remains the same, there’s no strategy that’s going to work.

So the first thing was to establish a real gospel-centered, grace-based culture. I knew that if they really understood the gospel, if they really embraced it, then whether people were coming in fresh off the street or were existing members, then they would have a disposition toward outsiders, toward those who were on the fringes, those who in the past they had not welcomed. It would be easier to have the conversation about what does worship look like, because worship would be guided by the need to contextualize the gospel for the outsider. Then every program that we suggested would be influenced by this understanding.

The main thing is to change the soil that the plant is replanted in. Collect it from one soil and plant it into a soil with gospel nutrients, so that plant could grow.

The first soil might be a soil of legalism or moralism — what Tim Keller refers to as “religion.” Or, it might be a soil of secularism. Either way, you have to remove it from one soil and put it in a gospel soil. I started to rework the soil. Obviously you do that primarily through preaching and teaching. I led gospel conversations during the week with leaders and other people, just trying to instill that — to beat them upside the head with the gospel!

What we began to see is that there were people committed to moralism, not only at Immanuel, but people coming from other churches, hearing the gospel and saying “I thought I was a Christian” but then converting. Then we began to see people coming in off the street with a nominal Christianity or no religious background at all and converting. All it takes is about three or four conversions in a plant or a replant for people to see, “Man, this thing is powerful. This thing is actually working.”

When the culture began to change, we began to have conversations about contextualization. I kept things really simple in the beginning. I actually stripped down the worship. I brought in my brother, who was a worship leader at another church on Sunday nights. So he’d come in on Sunday mornings, a young guy with just an acoustic guitar and vocals that fit singing hymns, just kept it simple. It was the middle ground.

The response was, “Okay, hymns are fine. But what did you do with all of our Maranatha songs?”

I was like, “Guys, no one sings those songs anymore. Those are not modern songs.”

CTC: We need to talk about the definition of “modern.”

Felipe Assis: Yeah.

So we decided to just do the old for now. With Sunday school, I told them, “If you guys want to keep doing Sunday school, be my guest, but I’m not going to invest any of my energy in Sunday school.” We were slowly starting to dwindle down in all of those things. We started to implement new things, but kept things very basic so that we’d continue to foster that gospel culture among them.

CTC: Was your preaching affected by trying to instill a gospel culture?

Felipe Assis: I believe that the gospel ought to be preached to both Christians and non Christians. The premise is that the human heart has idolatry either way. We’re always trying to contrast the gospel to religion, to go after those who think everything is fine and they’re pleasing God and they’re living as God expects them to. At the same time, we’re trying to go after those who are the younger brother [in the parable of the Prodigal Son], those that do not have a religious lifestyle or aren’t even thinking about it.

I think in the beginning, I made a lot more gospel applications to Christians and religion. Trying to relate why the gospel is good news to the way which they’re living their lives and the things that they’re dealing with emotionally or professionally.

CTC: I assume most of the Latino and Caribbean populations in Miami have at least a nominal Catholic background. Do you think their background in Catholicism affects the way they hear the gospel or engage it?

Felipe Assis: Yeah. The new converts we had were a lot of people coming out of Catholic backgrounds. There are two types of Catholics. I learned this when I planted in Brazil. There are people that have a negative experience with the Catholic Church, and there are people that have a positive experience with the Catholic Church.

The ones that have had a negative experience with the Catholic Church want something that’s completely different in terms of worship. They want nothing that resembles their experience in the Catholic Church. Those who have had a positive experience, although they didn’t really grow in terms of their understanding of the Bible and God, they felt good when they attended the mass. They feel that the Catholic Church stands for good moral values and that sort of thing. They’re happy to raise their families in that context. It still has something good to offer.

At Crossbridge, the first type that we welcomed were people that had a positive experience with the Catholic Church. We were a little bit more liturgical back then. We had communion more often. Then for some reason, we started reaching a lot of Catholics that have had a bad experience with Catholic churches. The Catholics that are coming into the country now are not your first generation Catholics who grew up in mass. They’ve been secularized and they’re nominal Catholics. They’re disappointed with all the scandals of the Catholic Church in recent years. We’ve made a point to sort of break away a little bit from that association. Our church has progressively become less liturgical.

Continue to Part 3.

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 the course, “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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