By Carl Stagner
Over time, a model of planting Spanish-speaking churches has emerged. Often English-speaking congregations are drawn to the prospect of partnering with a Spanish-speaking church as a missional means to touch a demographic otherwise beyond their reach. In doing so, the Spanish-speaking church uses the building owned by the English-speaking church to conduct worship services. When the Spanish-speaking church gains traction and becomes self-sustaining, they may then choose to purchase their own facility. At that point, the relationship between the two churches can somewhat cease to exist, though it may never have truly materialized in the first place. Tampa, Florida’s English-speaking Oak Grove Church of God and the Spanish-speaking Arbol de Vida have decided to do things differently. Reflecting their heart’s desire to be one church with two cultures, they’ve united at (the) Altar.
Karen Kier came to Oak Grove Church of God in 1984. At that time, there had already been some discussion about ways to reach the largely Hispanic demographic. As Karen, one of the pastors, explains, a woman began attending the church with her two sons. The problem was that, while the sons were bilingual, the mother knew very little English. “While we were looking for a way to include she and others in the congregation whose first language was Spanish, this woman’s brother-in-law visited the church and felt led to begin a Spanish-speaking work at Oak Grove,” she recalls. “About one month later, that ministry was born.”
In the history of the two congregations, there has always been a prevailing sense of unity. Sure, there have been a few bumps in the road, but the pastors learned to get along very well. When the planters of the Hispanic work transitioned out and a new pastoral family was welcomed in, instead of complicating matters, it only fostered further growth and connections between the English- and Spanish-speaking congregations.
“Other than the work of the Spirit, it is difficult to explain what was happening, but at some point, we reached a place where it felt difficult to imagine doing life apart,” Pastor Karen explains. “Through the ups and downs of working out how to do ministry together and through the commitment to avoid any ‘us and them’ mentality, we had come to see our church as uniquely chosen by God to work together in unity with each other.”
Considering the linguistic divide, it can be hard to imagine how they practically function as one family today, especially since they don’t have one worship service with translation for everything. Jonathan Frymire sheds some light: “On one level, we function as one church simply because we want to. We like each other, appreciate the cultural differences, and just genuinely want to be one church. We try to do as much as we can together. While having two services take place at the same time might appear to make unity weaker, it actually allows us to do our children’s and youth ministries at the same time. This also means that workers and volunteers interact with each other a lot more. We periodically have joint services and “Total Body” activities—things that we intentionally want to involve the entire church in.”
The traditional pastoral hierarchy has also been discarded for a team structure. Jonathan is considered the English-speaking pastor, Tato Caballeros is the Spanish-speaking pastor, and Karen Kier—who is fluent in both languages—is considered the “Total Body” pastor, always working to promote unity and cooperation between both sides of the language barrier. No one is the senior pastor. “We focus on following the Spirit and figure, if the Spirit is leading, then we’ll all go in the same direction,” Jonathan explains. “If we sense the staff pulling in incompatible directions, then we need to pause and spend time discerning together. It’s about the kingdom, not anyone individual ego.”
God’s pattern throughout Scripture is give a new name after he’s made an important change. They could not continue with two different names, signaling two separate churches. They had to come up with a way to communicate to the congregation and the community the oneness God had given them. So, the two groups met at (the) Altar.
“Altar is one of the few true cognates between English and Spanish,” Pastor Karen explains. “The meaning and spelling are the same in both languages—a place of worship.”
Pastor Jonathan adds, “If you take a look at churches around Tampa, you will see many English churches with Spanish church signs in their yards, because they have a Spanish church that rents their building, or they have a Spanish ministry. Our two names gave the impression that we were doing the same thing. We realized that we needed to have one name for everyone in our congregation. Altar is a word that, should a stranger on the street see the sign (regardless of which language they speak), they will read it in their own language. In a sense it translates itself. Because of this, we are calling ourselves only Altar. If we were to add ‘the’ or ‘church,’ we would have to choose which language to put those words in, which would defeat the purpose.”
Considering the beautiful unity the Lord has orchestrated at Altar, Pastor Tato concludes, “Like Paul writes to the Corinthians, there are many gifts but one Spirit. We may speak Spanish or English or both, but we worship the same God!”
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