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A Door Open to All

A declining church just wouldn’t give up

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“You may have to close your doors.” This was the suggestion of Richard Bush, then-superintendent of the C&MA’s New England District after a 2005 meeting with the board of the North Deering Alliance Church in Portland, Maine. The church had been in decline for years, and it was difficult to keep pastors for more than two years at a time.

But this group of Maine Yankees was not going to succumb. God had established the church nearly 60 years earlier in the shadow of Old Orchard Beach, where A. B. Simpson had for years reminded camp meeting congregations that the world was waiting for gospel-saturated missionaries. “We can’t close,” the church board agreed and sought God’s direction.

In 2008, I was called to minister part-time while continuing as president of the New England Bible College in South Portland. I guided the church through a series of lessons on how to become a healthy church. The first principle emphasized that if God was going to bless the church with growth, it would come from people who were without a church home. Secondly, the church should represent the ethnicity of the city. The neighborhoods of Portland are nothing like they were 50 years ago. Immigrants from several dozen countries have made their homes in Portland’s shelters, city housing projects and apartments. North Deering Alliance knew it must reach its “Jerusalem” with the gospel of Jesus Christ and be prepared for whomever God sent.

The members embraced this idea with the hope that a few more people might be added to the rolls. They longed to see the church return to the activity of bygone days, decades earlier. If only they knew what they were in for!

That first summer, the church teamed up with a youth group from New Hampshire and spent five days blitzing the city parks. Teens armed with gospel material from Child Evangelism Fellowship converged on seven city parks using a “five-day club” format. Much to their surprise, nearly every child drawn to each club was of African origin. In most cases, the names were unpronounceable to these New Englanders. Yet the harvest was rich. After the team left, church members asked themselves, “What do we do now?”

I introduced the church to Rev. Jean-Pierre Tshamala, a Congolese pastor and former student at New England Bible College. Rev. Tshamala had been involved in the start-up of a Bible training center for international pastors and was looking for a church to partner with and a facility in which to do the training. North Deering Alliance would soon become that spot. Pastor Tshamala served as the much needed advisor for connecting members with the many African communities within the city.

Over the next year, the church held international services, dinners and multicultural praise and worship gatherings, and Pastor Tshamala became our associate pastor. North Deering soon started providing assistance for new immigrants in need of food, clothing, furniture and household goods of all kinds. Formerly empty areas of the church now fill up with donated household items.

The church provides sacrificially in other ways. Most of the African immigrants are asylum seekers or refugees. Consequently, they lack the legal status to obtain paying jobs. The church family has reached deeply to provide funds for rent, transportation and legal expenses. In return, the new Americans assist older church members by shoveling snow, mowing lawns, cleaning and other service projects. The fellowship has been sweet, and the bonds of brotherly love are strengthening every day.

And the church is experiencing unprecedented growth! Christians from 13 countries attended our international service in March. With such a diverse mix of people, language can be a challenge. Several translators serve at various times, and simultaneous interpretation in French, a common language in Africa, is now available through receiver headsets.

The youth ministries at North Deering Alliance have been reactivated. Partnering with Word of Life Clubs, the church now serves children and teens from grades 1 through 12. Youth from other ethnic churches attend since this type of ministry is often difficult for them to accomplish. Tristan Ingram, a senior at New England Bible College who expects to minister full-time, is our youth pastor intern and helps youth leaders and helpers receive vocational training from Word of Life. The greatest obstacle working with these young ones is language. Some of the youngest children are “new arrivals” with very limited English skills. The church hopes to recruit multilingual helpers.

So how does this all look to the original members? Has their church been hijacked?

Not at all! The church has welcomed these new Americans as much-loved members of the family of Jesus Christ. One retired dairy farmer said, “This is right. This is what we should be doing!” Others are eager to learn new songs in Swahili, Lingala, Kinya-rwanda, French and Spanish. Times of prayer are more frequent, fervent and Spirit-filled. Interest in local outreach has been rejuvenated, and a contagious evangelistic zeal has been injected into the congregation. It’s an exciting place to be any day of the week!

A frequent worship leader from the Congolese community is Amani Sebaziga, pastor of Jesus First Ministries. His style is clearly African, and he sometimes senses the need to hold back when leading worship in the American congregation. As the months have gone by and style boundaries have been stretched, his unique mix of African sound and contemporary Christian music is appreciated by the entire congregation.

What is the church’s vision today? North Deering Alliance is poised to become a multi-ethnic center for worship, cross-cultural education and biblical training for church expansion and multiplication. Recently the pastors met with representatives from several ethnic churches desiring to work more closely in “unity and reconciliation.” After combining worship services with a Burundi fellowship on Easter Sunday, both congregations sensed a connection that only God could have forged.

One of my dreams is to gather as many ethnic congregations as possible from Portland to meet together at the Old Orchard Campground for a uniquely cross-cultural praise and worship celebration. In the spirit of A. B. Simpson’s vision for carrying the gospel of Jesus Christ to an unreached world, we hope to show that the world has now come to us. These fervent evangelistic believers are reaching America for Christ and are not ashamed to show us how it’s done!

And to think we almost closed our doors . . .

Completing the Great Commission will require the mobilization of every fully devoted disciple. Matt. 28:19

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