This week, Exponential begins its blog tour featuring several of the leaders speaking at the upcoming Exponential West conference (Oct. 7-10)—where they’ll be talking about the vital need for planting and growing multi-ethnic churches that can make disciples who reach an ever-changing multicultural world.
Today, my friend, pastor and church planter Ray Chang visits my blog. Ray is a church planter and trainer with the Evangelical Free Church of America. He planted and leads Ambassador Church in Brea, Calif., and he and I (with Peter Lim) lead Ambassador Network. As a Korean immigrant growing up in the Korean church, followed by internships and leadership positions in the evangelical church, Ray Chang has a learned a lot about what it means to invest in others and plant a multi-ethnic church. I asked him to share about his church, Ambassador Network and his leadership insights.
Why did you start Ambassador Church and Ambassador Network? What needs were you trying to meet?
I came to the States when I was 6. And when I came to America back in the ‘70s, the Asian-American community was relatively small. One of the challenges of growing up in an ethnic environment has always been, “How does Christ transcend culture?” So often, my culture was the thing that defined me as a Korean or as an Asian. So growing up in that context, serving in a Korean church, I felt frustrated because one of my biggest challenges was that I wanted to learn. I wanted to become a better pastor, I wanted to become a better leader. But because of my cultural context, there were a lot of limitations to that, whether it was a lack of mentoring or lack of discipling. So I left the Korean church, joined the Evangelical Free Church, and became an intern at EV Free Fullerton. And my eyes were just opened.
I saw ministry of the same gospel being applied in different ways, and it extended my opportunity to live out my faith. So that experience kind of, planted the seeds of, “Hey, what if we had a church that would be for all people?”
After that experience at Fullerton, I got a position as an associate pastor back at a Korean church in Washington, D.C. I remember looking at all of the different embassies and flags of the different nations. So that’s where the name Ambassador Church came from, II Cor. 5:20–that we are Christ’s ambassadors.
And so that became the foundation for planting Ambassador Bible Church, a multi-cultural church in the D.C. area, back in 1996. We had 11 people meeting in our apartment. We really didn’t know a lot about church planting, but in a year and a half we grew to about 150. [ed.note: and I, DJ Chuang, worked with Ray as an associate pastor at this multi-Asian/multi-ethnic church plant from 1997-2000]
We were reaching all these young adults and young couples and college students who had left the ethnic church. They were frustrated in the same ways I was frustrated. We felt the need to be a church that would represent all people, all nations. So the mission statement of our church became “to make and equip disciples of all nationalities as Christ’s ambassadors to all the nations.”
The second transition came in wanting to see how I can now help guys like myself. So at EV Free Fullerton where I served as outreach pastor, we started an Ambassador Fellowship, which was basically a training ground for five seminary students. That eventually became Ambassador Church.
The greatest concern I had was, “Okay, if we’re going to impact the nation, we’re going to have to impact young leaders.” There’s a whole segment of young leaders that will not be impacted, especially in the ethnic context. How do we pick these next second-generation guys and really invest in them? So while there’re a lot of national networks for church planters, a lot of these guys we’re discipling don’t have access to these kinds of networks yet. They have no point of relationship or connection. So it’s really hard for a young, second-generation Korean-American or Hispanic to go into some of these mainstream ministries. I felt like, “Why not take what God has given me, in this city, and see it as a benefit for the kingdom rather than as a curse?”
Growing up, I always struggled with my sense of identity. And I think a lot of kids, especially ethnic Americans, are asking, “Who am I? Am I Korean? Am I white? So I wanted to say, “Look, there’s a whole segment of young leaders out there that are not being ministered to or developed for leadership.” Ambassador Network really came out of that desire. We want to be a place, a bridge and connect these young leaders into some of these other things that God’s doing. We want to provide support, development and leadership for some of these kids.
What do you identify as some of the greatest challenges these leaders face today?
The greatest challenge these leaders face is that oftentimes their culture becomes the barrier to effective ministry. Part of it is that the senior pastor does want to relate, but they just don’t know how. It was never modeled to them. You can’t really blame them. And so part of my challenge, then, is to ask, “Ok, how do I change the paradigm? How do I change the process so that the next generation of leaders is empowered?
But how do you navigate that? How do you change the paradigm but still honor what they’ve been brought up in, and avoid a deconstruction movement? Or do you?
There’s something about deconstruction that’s arrogant—this idea that “we know what’s right and what you did in the past was wrong.” My philosophy is so different. I advocate taking the best of both worlds. For me, that was getting outside of my cultural context and working in a different context in an Anglo church, which I never had the opportunity to do. I liked some things there. But I also missed some things in my previous context as well. I was immersed in a non-Korean culture for a while and I learned so many things. I appreciated how a large and Anglo megachurch with a famous senior pastor works. And then I realized I could intersect all of these things in this new multi-cultural church.
The word “hybrid” is so popular now. I think life is sort of like that. To win every generation, you have to sort of take a hybrid of what is the best of everything based upon what’s happening. We have to let Scripture shape our culture. But we can learn from our culture and say, “Ok, how does this culture then reflect the image of God?”
What are you learning about pouring into leaders as a result of the work you’re doing with Ambassador Network and Ambassador Church, as well as your previous experience as a young leader?
Leadership development starts with a person, not a program. I think the No. 1 principle of any leadership development is assessment. You have to understand someone’s calling, their background, who they are. And that’s the uniqueness of the person. It’s like a football player. You can draft a quarterback and make that guy fit the system, or you can look at the player and say, “Okay, how can we make this guy succeed?”
Nobody is where they should be or where they will be. We are all in development. And part of our job as leaders is to help get leaders to go where God wants them to go. So one of the things that I say to a lot of young leaders is, “Look, my job as a pastor is to help you get to where God wants you to be.” And I am that transitional person. So I want to lead you and encourage you along that path. Really in some sense, that’s what discipleship is.
A support system is non-negotiable. One of the things that I’ve found among a lot of young leaders Is that more than the finance tools or a monetary investment in their church, what they need is people investment, life investment. Young leaders have always told me that they would rather have somebody invest in their life for the long haul versus a paycheck or donation.
It’s about life investment. My relationship with all the guys that we train is an ongoing coaching life relationship. What I never had as a young leader was that life coach who would stick with me all the way through. As a young leader in the Korean church, I served under a senior pastor I had one conversation with in two years, if that tells you anything. So I sort of live life with the philosophy that I want to do for someone else what was never done for me. It’s about the person, the individual. It’s about the disciple. We need the models and the learning—that’s all good—but the information is not what’s going to make planters succeed. It comes down to how we invest in them. Leadership development is about life. It’s a long-term commitment, a marathon instead of a sprint.
What about challenges related multi-ethnicity?
I think that’s the other challenge for us: How do we appreciate our identity without getting lost and use that as an advantage for the Gospel rather than seeing it as an obstacle? How do we take ethnicity and and reach the next generation without becoming exclusive, and without becoming ethnocentric?”
The reality is that we’re in an ever-changing culture and it’s going to be harder and harder for us to have the platform culturally. But the gospel is global. That’s the exciting thing. We have the opportunity to reach all people. And so I want to see a greater diversity.
We have to be faithful with what God has given to us. So hopefully for us, on a practical level, it’s to have the resources to be able to invest in young leaders, to be able to work with existing churches to help them become healthy so they can plant. So we’ve been doing a lot of stuff with existing ethnic churches and giving them a renewed vision for church and what it can be.
We also are looking for young leaders that we can bring into our residency program and invest in. I was talking to a church planting leader, and his philosophy is he only wants the best of the best, he only wants the first-round draft pick, you know, the cream of the crop. I guess, for his denomination, that’s the way they have to work, You only have a limited amount of resources to invest. But my philosophy is different. I want to invest in it whomever God brings to us to the best of my ability and build around that individual’s gifts. That’s what discipleship is—being open to the spirit of God bringing these people and doing whatever I can to help them.
Why do you think it’s important for us to think about multi-ethnic versus mono-ethnic?
The Great Commission is about all ethnicities, it’s “all people to the ends of the earth.” And Revelations is all about all nations, all tribes, all languages worshipping together at the feet of the Lamb. So we want to pursue that end.
The ultimate goal is really about reaching all people. And so we use the word multi-ethnic as sort of a larger tent. To say, this is the end goal of the Gospel is that all nations, all people, come to know Him and have the opportunity to hear the Gospel.
What are some of the principles or ideas that you’re communicating to these leaders about planting multi-ethnic churches, especially in an ever-changing culture?
Well, a friend of mine, Dr. David Anderson, pastors Bridgeway Community Church. He’s African American. I’m Korean American. And when I started planting, David’s church invested in us. He used to remind me to do three things:
You need to state your vision. Your vision has to be something that you state over and over again because people are not going to get it right away.
You have to stage your vision. You need to have people on stage reflect the people that you want to reach, whether they’re on your praise team, etc. But people need to see that you’re serious about diversity on every level.
You need to staff your vision. You have to make intentional progress toward bringing people of diverse ethnicities on your staff.
So those are the values. And when you do those things, you’re building a long-term process. So I think for multi-ethnic churches, there are a lot of misconceptions. Multi-ethnic churches have to focus on what unifies us, not what keeps us apart.
So Christ becomes the unifying factor.
The issue of diversity really is the challenges of the gospel. What does the gospel do? It breaks down the barriers between genders, race, culture, socioeconomic. When we break some of those barriers, we see who we are, created in the image of God.
In our church, we have about 70 percent Asian-Americans. But I would say that our church is multi-ethnic because among those 70 percent, we have Chinese, Filipino, Korean, Japanese and the 30 percent are non-Asian. They’re Hispanic, Anglo, most of my staff. I have more non-Asians on staff than I do Asians.
One of my prayers is that Ambassador Network becomes that bridge between the issues of diversity and multi-ethnicity, as well as reaching people in the next generation of ethnic Asian-Americans or multi-ethnic leaders. And the exciting thing for me is that God can do exceedingly more than what we’ve ever hoped and imagined.
At Exponential West, Ray Chang will be speaking in Session 2 with Rick Warren and Robert Coleman. If you can’t make it to the conference, you can still catch Ray’s session by registering to watch the free high-quality webcast. To see what workshops Ray will be leading at Exponential West, visit the conference’s mobile site. Find more information about Exponential West here.