(A Church Transformation Story)
by Pastor Herb Coates, Mattis Ave. FMC, Champaign, IL
Five years ago our outreach director asked, “Pastor, did you know the vast majority of those in the housing complex across the street from our church are internationals? What would you think about our church offering English conversation classes?” From that initial question five years ago, God has transformed our church.
We began offering classes to help those from other countries develop greater mastery of English. Many were visiting scholars, and their families seemed to fit perfectly within our church’s history and passion for local and world missions.
We discovered that our local university, the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, has the second largest Chinese constituency of all universities in the U.S. and that thousands of international individuals live within 20 minutes of our church.
God has blessed us as more than 500 people from more than 40 countries have taken our English conversation classes. These groups, averaging 6 to 15 each, have been led by more than 20 church volunteers and have fostered strong friendships.
Although we had occasionally offered Alpha classes (Christianity 101) in the past, our international community’s interest in learning the basics of the Christian faith led us to offer Alpha classes twice a year. Some of these are exclusively for our internationals guests and include Mandarin subtitles.
Bible studies and Sunday school classes specifically focusing on our international friends soon followed. We hired Holly Yan Burns for a new part-time position, working with Helen Kaufmann to spearhead our international ministry.
Inviting international guests to join us for special events, such as our Easter breakfast, we discovered many stayed for worship. What a joy to stand up on Easter Sunday morning and declare Jesus’ resurrection to people from around the world, several hearing the gospel for the very first time!
We also found that many of our international friends had never visited an American home during their time in the U.S. Several members of our congregation have welcomed international guests to their homes for meals. We also hosted an International Fair this year, with about half of the 150 attendees coming from other countries. Our new friends set up display booths featuring the countries represented in our current English conversation groups. We also had booths featuring FMWM and ICCM.
With 20 percent of our congregation now coming from the international community, we revamped our worship service. My sermons frequently incorporate PowerPoint slides, for example, to help those still learning English, and we translate sermons into Mandarin.
The majority of our recent baptisms have been of international believers. What a joy to hear their testimonies! Some have even been interviewed on Christian radio.
Not long ago, we presented “The Apostles’ Creed” in English, and volunteers read it aloud in Korean, Swahili and Mandarin. As I heard our faith affirmed in various languages, I recalled Revelation 7:9-12, a wonderful vision of every nation, tribe, people and language gathering before the throne and worshiping God. If that is God’s plan for all eternity, surely He smiles when we pursue His vision on earth today!