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Georgia church transformed as it reaches out to one of the most culturally diverse cities in the nation

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Mark Hearn, pastor at First Baptist Church in Duluth, Ga., poses with his new book from B&H Publishing.

By Roger Alford

DULUTH – As soon as Pastor Mark Hearn stepped out of his car after moving to Duluth, he was struck by how ethnically diverse the city is.

Among his closest neighbors were families from India, South Korea, Nigeria and Zimbabwe. The local high school had students who spoke 57 different languages. And in the midst of such ethnic diversity, his congregation at Duluth’s First Baptist Church was 97 percent white, English-speaking Americans.

That was 11 years ago. How things have changed.

Now, First Baptist Duluth is comprised of 47 different nationalities, because Hearn and his congregation, realizing that the Lord had brought the nations to their front door, made a strategic decision to reach out to immigrants who were settling in Atlanta’s fast-growing northeastern metropolitan area.

Under Hearn’s leadership, First Baptist Duluth has become one of the nation’s shining examples of a church that has been transformed to mirror the diverse makeup of the community it serves.  

Hearn is sharing insights and strategies his church used to reach Duluth’s immigrant population in the second of two books he has written on the subject. His latest, Hearing in Technicolor, is a sequel to the first titled simply Technicolor. Both books are available on Amazon, from the publisher, B&H Publishing, and in bookstores across the nation.

Instrumental in First Baptist Duluth’s success in reaching immigrants have been English as a Second Language courses and a Citizenship Academy in which church members teach participants how to take the test to become U.S. citizens. The church also holds celebrations each Fourth of July to honor new citizens.

Seung-hee Rhe, head of the church’s English as a Second Language program, said immigrants typically search for a place to study English as soon as they arrive in America.  As of today, Rhe’s program is ministering to people from 38 nations who speak 25 languages.

“There have been quite a few non-Christians, even some who have been hostile toward Christianity, attending our programs,” said Rhe, a South Korea native who played a key role in kickstarting Duluth’s outreach to immigrant families. “Our ESL program would not be a place for them to learn English only, but to learn American culture and the Gospel. Of course, this is our ultimate goal. Our teachers play an important role in touching the students with the love of God, because, through our teachers, they see what Christians are like, and, thus, what God is like.”

For many of the immigrant families, Rhe said, the English classroom truly is the first place they hear the Gospel.

On Sunday mornings, interpreters, working from a sound-proof booth, translate Hearn’s sermons in real time into several languages for immigrants who haven’t yet mastered English. A foyer outside the sanctuary has Bibles in 25 different languages.

“FBC Duluth provides an encouraging picture of Biblical diversity in unique, yet practical ways,” said Lorna Bius, a mobilizer for Mission Georgia, an initiative of the Georgia Baptist Mission Board. “Pastor Mark Hearn leads in the celebration of God’s work among the nations every week. It’s refreshing that the diversity of the surrounding community is seen in church life.”

Hearn had been a pastor in Indiana before he arrived in Duluth and came face-to-face with the diverse cultural makeup. He likened the change to the movie Wizard of Oz, in which the primary character, Dorothy, moved from a world of black-and-white into a place of technicolor in the fictional land of Oz.

“My experience was very much like Dorothy’s, being dropped magically into a land that I didn’t know a lot about, a land filled with all kinds of hues and all kinds of colors,” he said. “Duluth is one of the most culturally diverse cities in the nation.”

Hearn said his hope is that the book, Hearing in Technicolor, will cause Christians to hear and see the spiritual needs of people, regardless of skin color or ethnic origin. He points to a physical condition called Chromesthesia that allows people to actually hear in color. Such people, for example, can perceive colors while listening to music.

“Those senses combine to give certain people a special sensory perception,” Hearn said. “Churches need that kind of sensory perception if they are to become multiethnic. So, what happens in a technicolor ministry is people begin to hear colors.”

“We have voices within our community that need to be heard,” Hearn said. “Minority voices are crying out.”

Churches across the Southern Baptist Convention, Hearn said, could be doing far better about hearing and responding to those voices with the Good News of Christ.

“Part of the reason that I’ve written both books is because there seems to be almost no information out there about transitioning existing churches to be able to the meet the needs of their existing communities,” he said. “Churches are dying because they’re not embracing demographic change within their communities.”

Buck Burch, a missions strategist on staff at the Georgia Baptist Mission Board, said Hearn’s successes in Duluth clearly show his commitment to multicultural ministry.

““He has led his congregation to truly adapt to a significant change in demographics,” Burch said. “Mark Hearn lives out what he believes about multicultural ministry.”

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