By Serena Ellens
In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul illustrates unity between Christ-followers as a body with many parts. Equating each part of the church to a part of the body, he emphasizes the importance of appreciating the unique talents and abilities every member contributes, and recognizing that every single one provides a necessary function to the body. Unfortunately, this concept is easier said than done. Churches across the nation strive to unite in a way that functions with the fluidity and ease of a body. Though some have managed to find that unity within their church, few operate quite like Oak Grove Church of God/Arbol de Vida in Tampa, Florida.
“The unity of our church is founded on two things: the first and most important being the Holy Spirit. Without the Holy Spirit, none of it would be imaginable, let alone possible. The second part, relationships, is also essential to this process. Our church is very much based on relational connections; we’re like a family here, and having that loving connection makes it possible to get through the rough patches.” Karen Kier, the associate pastor at Oak Grove/Arbol de Vida, has dedicated the past several years of her life to the newly developing Total Body ministry there. Uniquely devoted to the integration of Spanish-speaking individuals into the congregation, this ministry works to weave the differing cultures of the community together and provide services for both Spanish and English speakers, as well as opportunities for the congregation as a whole to experience the blessing of worship and communion with people of all languages and cultures.
When asked about the Total Body mandate that this church promotes, Pastor Karen explained the uniqueness of their mission and ideas about cultural differences. She stated that the people of Oak Grove avoid associating people by culture.
“When people are differentiated by saying this culture or that culture, it easily becomes your culture versus my culture, and can create a divide between the two. Unfortunately, we tend to be ethnocentric that way, thinking that our own culture is the best or superior in some way to another’s. Instead of differentiating by ethnic culture, we believe in a singular Christ culture to which we all, as Christians, belong. This Christ culture does not erase all other cultures, but rather, transcends them, and allows us to connect with each other in spite of our differences.”
While this idea of total unity and harmony between cultures is beautiful in theory, actually accomplishing it has been no easy task. The lead pastor of Oak Grove/Arbol de Vida, Denny Huebner, discussed the difficulties that come with this ministry, with the foremost issue centering on communication. “Miscommunication and misunderstanding are the norm. We just accept that, and work very hard at communicating and understanding each other better every day.”
Pastor Karen also addressed the issue of miscommunication, emphasizing the added struggle that bilingual communication brings to this challenge. “Communication within one language is hard enough. When you add another language to the mix, however, then you have other issues to deal with—like the differing cultural connotations of words, as well as general linguistic misunderstandings.”
In spite of this difficulty, both pastors have remained extremely optimistic, working alongside several other devoted and passionate staff members to provide services for all church attendants. The past few years have also brought to light the importance of worshiping and teaching in one’s native tongue, meaning that though Oak Grove/Arbol de Vida more frequently held bilingual services, they have reduced their number of these services in an attempt to better meet the needs of the congregation.
Instead, the church is working to create several events that will be held throughout the year, hoping these events will bring the entire body of believers together to worship, commune, and bless each other. These events, in addition to the unified children’s program, as well as the occasional bilingual service, provide the congregation with many opportunities to integrate and relate with each other—developing the relationships that are so essential to the foundation of this church.
Oak Grove Church of God/Arbol de Vida may not have worked out all the kinks to total body unification, but the progress they are making toward the idea of a singular, transcendent Christ culture in the church is evident and beautifully overwhelming in their community. May the Lord continue to bless their mission in the years to come: “Connecting with God, each other, and our world through Reaching, Teaching, Mending and Sending!”
Serena Ellens is a communication intern for Church of God Ministries from Grand Rapids, Michigan. She is currently studying English at Anderson University. Learn more about the Church of God at www.JesusIsTheSubject.org.