Back when I worked on church staff with Dr. Mark Hearn in my city, I often remarked that he had the gift of “visiting.” In other words, if you had a problem, he knew how to do more than show up. He knew how to be calmly present with each particular person or family and connect with their particular need. In times of loss, he had a way of giving a eulogy that expertly evoked the uniqueness of the person who’d passed on to glory.
So, although I’ve been wowed by how his ministry has transformed in his new pastorate these past 8 years, at the most elemental level, I’m not surprised. What has happened in his ministry is really just the intersection of his particular personality and the personality of his particular city.
As he began to pastor a monocultural church in one of the most diverse counties in the United States, he considered the demographics outside the church and then began to practice presence, hospitality, attentiveness, making people feel seen and known.
What has happened with his church is nothing short of remarkable. (You can read the full story in Dr. Hearn’s book, Technicolor: Inspiring Your Church to Embrace Multicultural Ministry.) This once monocultural congregation now fills the pews of the church with people from every nation, tribe, and language, and it shares the platform, too.
In the conclusion of The Yes Effect, we describe the believers in Acts 5:41, “For the love of God and their fellow human beings, these courageous followers of Jesus would leave the status quo and blaze the trail of faith with joy.” As this multicultural congregation worships and celebrates together, members are leaving behind the status quo and leading with joy.
By Dr. Mark Hearn
I grew up in a small town tucked away in the mountains of Virginia. This beautiful Appalachian upbringing provided great vistas and wonderful childhood memories. However, it did little to prepare me to be a ministry leader in an increasingly diverse context. Growing up in such a monochromatic community, I was among the most unlikely of candidates to be a change agent, to lead a movement of any sort. But 35 years of pastoral ministry later, I have a story to share.
In early 2010, my wife Glenda and I moved from our predominantly monocultural neighborhood in the suburbs of Indianapolis to our new church, First Baptist Church of Duluth, Georgia. This quaint southern town outside Atlanta is diversifying at an astonishing rate.
Longtime residents can recall when Duluth amounted to a single road with a single stoplight. But in the late ’80s and early ’90s, Duluth became a residential hot spot in suburban Atlanta. Professional athletes, CEOs, and wealthy entrepreneurs built massive homes, and the standard of living soared.
Then, a colossal event in 1996 changed the trajectory of this community for the next generation: Atlanta hosted the Olympics. The nations came to our city. International leaders had a delightful first experience in the mild climate and robust economic atmosphere of Atlanta’s suburbs. As a result, people from a variety of nations began to populate Duluth in record numbers during the early 2000s.
When I arrived in 2010, Duluth was on its way to becoming one of the most diverse cities in America. In our mayor’s “state of the city” address that year, I heard a startling statistic that has motivated me ever since. Mayor Nancy Harris illustrated the changing nature of our community with one statement: “There are 57 languages spoken daily at Duluth High School.” I wrote this down and challenged the mayor afterward. Surely the mayor had misspoken! From my limited experience, I could hardly imagine there were 57 languages in the entire world, much less at our local high school. But she was right.
The world today is in dire need of people who see beyond borders,
who see possibility instead of limits, who will step out of the status quo,
go against the flow, and let God use them
as agents of redemption, reconciliation, and transformation.”
-The Yes Effect, page 193-194
I left that event pondering, “If First Baptist Church is going to be relevant in this community, we have to learn to carry the life-changing truth of the gospel to 57 different language groups.” I spent the next six months forming a biblical strategy that I shared with the church in a Sunday morning message.
Since that time, people from 45 nations have become members of our church or partnered with our ministry. We now offer our services with live interpretation through headsets in Spanish, Korean and Mandarin Chinese. We join with our community and celebrate international holidays, such as Tres Reyes Magos (Three Kings’ Day), which is celebrated in Spanish-speaking countries at Christmastime; East Asian New Year, for those who observe the lunar calendar rather than the solar calendar; African Unity Sunday; A Celebration of all Islanders; and India’s Independence Day.
In 2017, First Baptist Church Duluth hosted one of two American celebrations of the release of a new African study Bible written by Africans for Africans to be distributed throughout the continent and made available for African-born people residing in other parts of the world.
That is what our church looks like now. But that is not how we started. The changes at our church began by establishing rich relationships that show how much we care for one another. My friend and mentor Mark DeYmaz explains this as the difference between being “assimilating” and being “accommodating.”
Most churches do a good job at assimilation. Many churches have a staff position dedicated to assimilation. Assimilating churches do their best to provide all the necessary information for the newcomer to become one of us, to learn our ways and adopt our culture.
Accommodation, on the other hand, begins with me wanting to know about you. How can I help you to become all God intends you to be? Tell me about your cultural nuances and how to make a gospel impact in your cultural setting.
Prior to an Easter celebration service, we recruited members from 15 different language groups to come to the pulpit and proclaim “Christ the Lord has risen,” in their native tongue. In the process of recruiting, I attended one of our more diverse Sunday School classes, where a college physics professor from China was attending on a regular basis. I had been told that she attended the class to learn and practice her English.
Although, she claimed to be a devout atheist, this lady attended the class faithfully. Wanting to include her in the Easter celebration festivities, I asked if she would like to render a Mandarin proclamation of the Lord’s resurrection. She concurred! And on that resurrection Sunday she shouted at the top of her lungs in her native tongue that Christ had indeed risen! The congregation burst into applause and broke forth singing a stanza of “Christ the Lord has Risen Today.” It was a powerful moment.
I told inquiring pastor friends that we had a devout atheist proclaim the resurrection of Jesus in her native Mandarin Chinese on Easter. One astute colleague observed that Philippians 2:11 does say that one day, “…every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord….” Romans 10:9 says, “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” The way I see it, our Chinese professor friend has declared with her mouth. And perhaps we’ll get the chance to celebrate as the rest of the verse plays out in her life in the midst of our diverse community of faith.
The final chapter of The Yes Effect reminds us that “We are citizens of our home nations, yet our ultimate citizenship in in heaven. It may feel a little uncomfortable at times, but being a third-culture person allows unique opportunities for understanding and impacting the situation around us…. The world today is in dire need of people who see beyond borders, who see possibility instead of limits, who will step out of the status quo, go against the flow, and let God use them as agents of redemption, reconciliation, and transformation.”
The beautiful picture of heavenly worship in Revelation 7:9, “…a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language….” seemed like a distant dream from the monocultural mountain town where I grew up. But eight years ago, God gave me an invitation. He invited me to help my congregation begin to look more like the neighborhood that surrounds us. And in doing so, He invited me to make room for that heavenly worship in my church here and now.
Mark Hearn has been a pastor for more than thirty-five years. Since 2010, he has served as the senior pastor at First Baptist Church in Duluth, Georgia, in one of the most diverse counties in America. During his tenure, the church has transformed from a monolithic Anglo-American congregation to a cross-cultural community with members from thirty-seven different countries. Read more of his transformation story in his book Technicolor: Inspiring Your Church to Embrace Multicultural Ministry. Pastor Mark holds degrees from Carson Newman College, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Luther Rice Seminary. Mark and his wife Glenda are the parents of four grown daughters and proud grandparents to seven.