A Church for a Changing Miami: An Interview with Felipe Assis (Part 3)
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: What does preaching look like now, contextualized to your Miami location? Can you give me some examples?
Felipe Assis: My preaching is very gospel centered in the mold of how Tim Keller teaches. Some of the examples that he talks about work in my context. Some don’t.
CTC: Can you give me an example of some that don’t?
Felipe Assis: For instance, I would imagine in a place like New York or even the Pacific Northwest, there is a barrier toward belief in God to begin with. You almost have to work from that standpoint of skepticism, deep skepticism towards deism, theism, or a belief of God in general.
If you’re in Miami, because of the Latin cultural background, people assume that God exists. They’re not living as if God exists, but they respect church and the clergy for the most part, even if they don’t attend church or are skeptical of the institution. You don’t have to go to great lengths to prove the existence of God before you actually talk about the implications of the gospel and why it’s good news.
I start from two steps in, you know what I’m saying?
As for contextualizing my preaching, I’m really tackling the issues of religion and practical life here. Miamians and Latinos, they’re very practical. In the beginning, I was so Kellerish that I was using all of these quotations from books. They don’t give a rip about that. They don’t know who any of those guys are. Instead I will quote their cultural authorities, mostly artists and poets, entertainers, that sort of thing.
The other thing about preaching is, it helps here to be a little bit more animated. Tim Keller says that you shouldn’t focus on that too much, but I think that because of our culture, they’ve got to feel it. Now if it’s just animated without good content, then it doesn’t work anywhere, but if you have gospel content and you can connect with them at that heart level, I think that’s appropriate.
CTC: What about your worship?
Felipe Assis: The thing about Miami is, it’s a culture in formation. It’s a very young city. All of these cultural changes were happening in a span of 50–60 years. It’s not like New York where you know what it means to be a New Yorker. We don’t know what Miami is going to be 10 years from now. There are still people moving here who are shaping the culture. You’re dealing with this constant metamorphosis in the culture.
We’ve made some changes in worship through the years. I mentioned we’ve become a little less liturgical. In the beginning, our worship was very much like some of the hipster churches in the PCA. You had folk or bluegrass music. Here in Miami, people reacted with, “What is this, the Deep South?”
I had to go back to my worship pastor and say, “Even though we’re contextualizing these hymns to modern rhythms and styles of music, it really doesn’t fit our culture because this is stuff that people sing in the South.” Miamians respond much more to contemporary worship like Bethel and Hillsong because it requires energy and participation and feelings and emotion. We’ve shifted a little bit more towards that, not because we’re trying to follow a trend, but because we think that it’s more helpful to our people.
Also, our campuses have slightly different cultures, so we have made adjustments on a campus basis. It doesn’t look uniform in the sense that you go to Brickell and it’s the same worship experience that you would have at Pinecrest or Miami Springs. We’ve made changes to contextualize worship to our neighborhoods.
CTC: Can you give one example of the differences in each neighborhood?
Felipe Assis: Brickell is the financial district of Miami, so it has a lot of young professionals. The church is probably 70% single. It’s actually the whitest campus because these are folks that come in for med school, or that come to work in the banking industry. They come from all over the world and all over the country too. At Pinecrest, which is the old location of Immanuel, the original campus, of course there are a lot of young families. And today the congregation does look like the neighborhood.
So when I preach at different campuses, in the morning sermons I’m addressing a lot of families, so I’m going to talk about the idolatry of children and of the home and of the family. Then when I preach at night at the Brickell campus, I’m going to talk about the idolatry of career and romance and that sort of thing. Even the sermon illustrations change, the way that we preach. It’s the same message, the same application, but we try to contextualize the illustrations for different realities. Worship in Brickell on Sunday night is a little bit more liturgical because of that crowd. We have communion every week there. There’s always a hangout afterwards, and a lot of community building throughout the week. It’s reflected in Sunday worship as well.
CTC: How has contextualizing the gospel and your ministry in Miami shaped the way you view the city?
Felipe Assis: I think the city serves in two ways. Sometimes the city is a mirror. Sometimes the city is a window.
The city’s a mirror because when you begin to engage and minister in the city and look at its brokenness, you realize that brokenness is a reflection of who you are. You realized you contributed to that brokenness, or you are contributing to it as well. So you see your sinfulness reflected in the city and some of the things that you’re frustrated about are things that you can spot in yourself. Like my mom used to say, “If you can spot it, you got it.”
CTC: That sounds like a mom.
Felipe Assis: It’s something like that. I’m translating it from Portuguese.
CTC: Yeah, that one comes across pretty well.
Felipe Assis: The other way the city serves is as a window. Cities are places of proximity, and with proximity you’re able to see things in a way that you’re not able from a distance. For example, when you’re walking down the street and you see something on display at a store, from a distance it looks like one thing. But when you get close you see all the details — like the price tag! With proximity, you’re able to see deficiencies or things about the city that are beautiful that you can’t see from a distance.
In Miami, one thing that changed for me was to see Miami — from a distance — as a place where people go to have fun and a vacation spot. It’s another thing to live there and be able to look into the window there and see people’s dreams and aspirations and their brokenness and be really moved by all those things and present the Gospel in a way that encourages what’s already there that’s positive, that you had no idea was there until you looked.
When I first got here, had a preconceived judgment, which was not accurate at all, and now I see it. It takes proximity to see the aspects of the city that are beautiful and be able to bring the Gospel to bear on the things that are broken about it. Unfortunately, a lot of planters who come into Miami from the outside only see it from a distance, not through the window.
CTC: If somebody’s at the beginning of this journey and they want to recontextualize or rethink their context and how they do ministry, what advice would you give them? Where do they start?
Felipe Assis: It may sound a little harsh, but the first question that they should ask is: “I know that the church needs to change. Am I the right person to bring about these changes?” And you should ask other pastors, your wife, or aresources like City to City to pray with you and help you. My guess is that when the church gets to that point [of being out of sync with the neighborhood] with a leader that’s been there for more than five years, he’s probably not the right leader. You almost have to bring someone in from the outside. You might be part of the problem even though you’re well intentioned, and you might need to move on and lead the church into a process of welcoming a new leader that can bring about those changes. That’s the first thing.
The second thing is, let’s say you’re the new leader coming into a situation of a church needing revitalization, like I was. Even though I was bicultural, even though I was coming from South America to Miami (which is a much easier adaptation than moving from the Midwest to Miami), you still have to learn the culture. That’s the main thing that I tell pastors and church re-planters that are coming in: “Look, take your time. Don’t rush through things. Be a learner of the people and of the culture. Live in the neighborhood.” If you’re making changes right now and then later on you realize, “Gosh, I should have done it a different way,” it’s too late. It’s better for you to take the time, ask a lot of questions, interact with the people, live in the neighborhood. The greatest mistake that almost all of them make is to come in and assume things and not learn.
CTC: Is there a difference between being contextual in your ministry and being relevant in your ministry?
Felipe Assis: Yeah. I think that if you are contextual, you are going to be relevant. If you err on relevance, you may be contextual for a period of time, but then because culture’s always shifting, you may not be contextual five years from now. That’s why you have to always keep learning.
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.