Every Culture Welcome: How Growing Churches Are Reaching Different Ethnic Groups

This article is from the September/October issue of Outreach magazine. Subscribe today!

Churches on the Outreach 100 Fastest-Growing Churches list are unique and varied, but one characteristic they share that often goes unnoticed is that many of them are reaching different ethnic groups. While these churches’ stories are as diverse as their members, the principles they follow can help a church, no matter its size, reach its entire community.

Starting Point

Elevate Life Church (No. 7) in Jacksonville, Florida, has always had a vision to reach all nations, tribes and ethnicities. The launch team was comprised of a similar number of Black families and white families.

According to Founding and Lead Pastor Tim Staier, the desire to reach people of different ethnicities was something he wanted for Elevate. “At the end of the day, the church is going to reflect not so much what we teach as who we are.” 

That ingrained longing to reach diverse cultures doesn’t match the white, rural church in which he grew up. Staier recalls a time when he was around 12 years old when a family of color came to visit his church. They didn’t stay, however, because they were quickly directed to what church leaders considered to be the “appropriate” house of worship for them. 

“I was young, but not so young that I didn’t know that was wrong,” says Staier. 

After seminary, he interned and worked on staff at a predominantly Black urban church. That experience became a filter through which he envisioned his church and his city.

In Rocky Mount, Virginia, Franklin Heights Church (No. 98) was predominantly a white church until a layperson with a heart for Hispanics communicated his desire to reach that population for Christ. What God placed in his heart began to grow within the congregation. 

The church decided to adopt the Mixtec people in Mexico and began doing a couple mission trips there a year. When they learned that thousands of Mixtecos live three hours away from the church in Richmond, Virginia, the congregation began a ministry to them. This opened their eyes to the Hispanic population living right around their church, which led Franklin Heights to start an English as a Second Language (ESL) ministry and then to hire a Hispanic pastor. 

At Discovery Church (No. 33) in Bakersfield, California, the congregation has always been very multicultural with noticeable populations of Hispanic, Filipino and different people groups from India, and continues to see new attendees who are a great representation of their community. Leaders at Discovery began a Filipino ministry after realizing they had about 80 Filipinos already attending, most of whom also belonged to a Filipino church that had lost their pastor. The group ended up merging into Discovery Church and now attend the same service together with a potluck afterward.

Gateway Church (No. 17), with campuses throughout Dallas and Fort Worth, Texas, always has had a heart for missions. But Lorena Valle, the executive pastor of connect ministries, noticed most congregants didn’t travel outside the U.S. for mission trips. In 2013, Gateway’s mission department brought in worship pastors from different churches for a global weekend. The church enjoyed the represented ethnic groups as the pastors sang in their own languages. 

“It started shifting how we see different cultures,” Valle says.

Having the Intention

Despite their many differences, the churches reaching multiple ethnic groups have a common characteristic: They have leaders with a deep-seated desire to minister to other ethnicities. 

At Arise Church (No. 74) in Brandon, Florida, Executive Pastor Ken McAnulty says this priority wasn’t foundational when the church started in 1959. But current Lead Pastor Brent Simpson began welcoming a diversity of people and cultures. Early on, it was simply through relationships. Then it emerged in positive messaging from the stage and through including different ethnicities in leadership. 

Also in Florida, Jason Hitte, lead pastor at Lakeside Church (No. 6) in Oakland, echoes this desire to reach multiple groups. His church’s vision from the beginning was to be multiethnic. 

“We wanted the church to be an accurate reflection of what heaven was going to look like,” he says.

This desire is naturally part of Hitte’s makeup. Many of his connections and close friends are of different nationalities. 

“[Reaching different ethnicities] would be challenging for somebody who doesn’t have any diverse circles to reach diverse people,” he says.

Forming a Goal

Many churches that reach multiple ethnicities resist the idea that they are targeting certain groups. They say their goal is simply for their church to reflect their community.

McAnulty doesn’t recall any intentionality to be multiethnic at Arise Church. He describes their mentality: “We are going to love people, and we’re going to celebrate different ethnic backgrounds and the benefit that they bring to the kingdom of God and can bring to our church if we’ll simply make space for it.”

George Mathew, the location pastor for Arise Church’s India campus in Brandon, Florida, explains the impact that love has when ethnic minorities visit. “It is by the Holy Spirit that we are part of this church. I see the beauty. I see the love. I see how much we’ve been accepted. We never felt like we were something foreign. Rather, we feel like family.”

McAnulty describes the Tampa and Brandon area as very diverse. “We want to be like our city. We believe that the church should model the ethnic diversity of the area around it.”

Elevate Life Church has added technology to allow for a Spanish translation of their services. But beyond meeting that language need, Staier says there is nothing they do to target a particular ethnic group. 

“We do what we do in a way that is conscious that it needs to be able to communicate to a wide variety of people,” he says, adding that the goal is that “everybody could walk in and feel like they belong and see people who represent them and feel like, I’m not out of place here.”

Matt Mason, executive pastor at Community Bible Church (No. 10) in San Antonio, agrees. “[Different ethnic groups] are not a target for mission. They’re very much a part of the house. We want their family to feel like they’re part of the community.”

Thinking Holistically

Gateway Church’s campuses have expanded to parts of the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex that are much more diverse than the church’s original campus. 

“We have a very intentional direction when it comes to the diversity of our teams of volunteers and staff that reflect that community for us,” says Valle. 

Because the largest ethnic minority in the area is Hispanic, that has been their largest focus. First, Gateway Church surveyed their Spanish-speaking attendees to find out what was working and what needed improvement. Because their group’s ministry was already reaching the Spanish-speaking community, they began offering their Equip and membership classes in Spanish. They also translated multiple websites that had previously been English only.

Serving, however, was one of the most difficult areas for Spanish speakers to get involved. 

“Spanish-speaking communities are very inclined to serving,” says Valle, but noted that can be difficult in a very American church.

Gateway Church went to every campus to identify spaces where volunteers who don’t speak English could serve. They created a bilingual ministry liaison position that oversees the Spanish-speaking volunteers at each campus. They also used their membership class to connect people to these serving opportunities.

In addition, since Gateway transmits a Spanish translation of their worship services, they hear from many people who miss being able to worship in their native language. So, the church added Spanish Nights of Worship that rotate between campuses.

Making Changes

Community Bible Church had established a separate Spanish-speaking worship service before realizing it was splitting families. Second-generation Hispanics are often bilingual, and the third generation frequently are English-speaking only. Community Bible’s lead pastor, Ed Newton, is a second-generation sign language speaker whose children cannot communicate with their deaf grandparents, so he is sensitive to the issue of language barriers.

The church’s solution was to move to a Spanish-English bilingual service. Similarly, their deaf community wanted inclusion rather than a separate service. There was pushback from some English-only speakers who felt they were losing something in “their” service. Mason describes this as a discipleship issue. 

“We had to communicate it in such a way that the non-Spanish speakers didn’t feel as if they were being forgotten,” he says. “One couple was frustrated at the beginning but came around. They said, ‘I look over and I see my neighbor with tears coming down, singing in their native language, and it’s a beautiful thing that leads me to worship.’”

Hope Community Church (No. 50) in Raleigh, North Carolina, made a similar move from a separate Spanish-speaking worship service to offering translation of the English service. Hispanic Ministries Coordinator Robert Rada says, “I felt as if we were going in circles. We weren’t really growing.” 

In 2021, about 20 Hispanic people attended. Now, around 90 are involved. By also including Spanish lyrics in the worship songs, leaders communicated they wanted to be one church with one mission. As for the Hispanic attendees, they have created a designated area called Hope en Español where they can gather and have a conversation when they pick up and drop off their translation devices. 

“Usually, we’re the last people to leave the church,” says Rada. 

“When people go there, the volunteers connect with them and invite them to groups and classes,” says Valle. “That’s a touch point that has been extremely valuable to us.”

Bear Creek Baptist Church (No. 56) in Katy, Texas, moved the opposite direction. They had about 30 Hispanic attendees using translators. Since they launched a separate Spanish-speaking service, their Hispanic attendance has swelled to 300 people. 

Executive Pastor Tim Hill says translation within a worship service did not work well for them “because, other than the message, everything was being done in English.” 

About 22 years ago, Lakepointe Church (No. 34) in Rockwall, Texas started Lakepointe Español to reach the local Hispanic community. Paul Lewis, lead pastor of Lakepointe Español, says the church did not really have any strategy or resources behind it for many years. Lakepointe simply provided a room in which they could meet.  

“[The ministry] was just there,” he says. “It wouldn’t grow. It would just maintain.” 

Almost 10 years ago when Lewis arrived, however, Lakepointe made a strategic change to recognize Lakepointe Español as a campus. As they opened Spanish campuses with Spanish services that share facilities with English campuses, they began outgrowing rooms. Lakepointe Español now represents more than 3,000 people from 22 different Spanish-speaking countries.

Reaching the Lost

McAnulty describes the evangelism they teach at Arise Church in this way: “We should be living, walking representations of God’s presence and Jesus everywhere we go.” 

This looks like doctors ministering to their patients, workers in grocery stores witnessing to customers, and teenagers sharing the gospel with their friends. Arise Church offers touch card projects, yard sign initiatives, and personal witnessing programs to empower people to share the gospel.

Gateway Church does outreach geared to what the outreach pastor and the campus pastor determine is the biggest need in the community. They’ve done feeding ministries, helped people at laundromats, and provided homework help for kids at a struggling school. In highly Hispanic communities, they have many Spanish-speaking volunteers. They pray with people and invite them to the weekend service.

“With a Spanish-speaking community, it is a lot of word of mouth. It’s extremely relational. When it comes to evangelism and even inviting those on the fringes within the church, it’s all about connection,” said Valle.

Discovery Church (No. 33) in Bakersfield, California, has a ministry among people from India. Lead Pastor Jason Hanash says, “They’ve come to the States, and they keep to themselves very tightly because American culture is seen as something that is evil, something that does not agree with their way of life. They still associate American culture with Christianity.” 

Discovery Church welcomed a pastor who came from India to be a missionary to the Hindi-speaking community. He has seen two families come to Christ in four years. Now they are looking to partner with believers who speak Punjabi, because that is the predominant language of many immigrants.

In contrast, some immigrants are already strong believers with a strong Christian faith. Bear Creek Baptist Church has welcomed many people from various African countries that have now started their own life group.

Building a Community

Several churches who are reaching multiple ethnicities say ministries for these groups provide much-needed community.

Mathew recalls meeting a widow with two kids who was born again and looking for the truth but never had a place to go. He invited her into the community at Arise. It wasn’t easy at first, but when they launched the Arise India location, this became her home. She is involved, her teenage boys are serving, and they have become thriving members looking to share the gospel. Working as a physician, she had the opportunity to lead a man to Christ who had come into the hospital restrained and suicidal.

Valle shares that a couple recently moved from Mexico and had gotten married at the justice of the peace. “They dove into the Spanish-speaking community here at Gateway,” he says. Seeing an opportunity, the church community threw the couple a wedding and paid for it.

Churches reaching multiple ethnicities have a heart for reaching everyone around their church, they take steps—not just a single or a token step—to be welcoming, and they continue to examine what they are doing from the perspective of those who will come in the future. 

As churches welcome people of different ethnicities and cultures, it has an impact. 

“It transforms how they connect to our church,” says Valle. She has heard them say, “I feel like I can be part of this community even though my language is different. 

“We want to be able to worship together and be part of what God is doing around the world and in our communities,” she adds. “God is moving in different cultures, and we want to be part of that.”