That America is a land growing in diversity is apparent in the 2000 census. According to that report, tens of millions of people were admitted into the country from around the world during the previous ten years. Sixteen million emigrated from Latin America, 4.9 million from Europe, and 8.2 million from Asia, with more from other lands.1 In the midst of growing diversity, the church is challenged to take the Word not only to the many nations around the world but also to people who have come from those nations and who now dwell in the U.S.
The leaders of First Baptist Church in Faribault, Minnesota, have purposefully and passionately sought to meet this challenge and fulfill the Great Commission of Matthew 28. That desire is manifested by First Baptist’s goal: to have a membership that truly reflects the community in the small agricultural city of Faribault. Faribault’s population is approximately twenty-two thousand, and among that population are deaf, Hispanic, and Somali individuals, as well as students from state schools for the blind and deaf and inmates from a state prison. Clearly our church has a great opportunity to reach a wide variety of people. But where did we begin?
The vision is cast
Around 1993 Jim Sloan, missionary with the Committee on Missionary Evangelism (C.O.M.E.), visited our church and encouraged us to target the deaf community. His dream has been to see a deaf church planted in every area that has a state school for the deaf. The church family warmed to Jim’s vision, yet nothing happened for five years. His vision did not die, nor did it go forward. It was as though the Lord was saying, “Not yet.” In hindsight, the hearing church was not ready for the challenges and changes a deaf church would bring to the assembly.
Now is the time
But then, on a Sunday morning in 2002, something happened. Two young people were sitting on the front row, and it was obvious that they were visitors. But it wasn’t immediately obvious that something was special about them.
The service began, but the two young people did not participate in any way. One member of the congregation, a dorm parent at the local school for the deaf, recognized a familiar need in the two visitors and slipped to the front to sit by them. He began interpreting the service into sign language for the visitors.
After the service, with the help of the interpreter, we learned that the young man, Josh, was a freshman at Gallaudet University, a school for the deaf in Washington, D.C. Josh had been saved through the work of a deaf ministry there. When he returned home to Faribault, he promptly led his sister to the Lord. The two desired to regularly attend a Bible-preaching Baptist church. This surprise encounter with Josh was as if the Lord was saying to our congregation, “All right. You have the vision. Here is your opportunity. Fulfill it.”
The church immediately arranged for locally trained interpreters for Josh and his sister, Charissa. Then they started inviting others. Soon six deaf people were attending, and this number quickly climbed to twelve and continued to grow.
The deaf interpreters began to recognize the need for more highly skilled interpreters. After consulting with the deaf members and church leaders, First Baptist decided to improve the interpretation by looking outside the church family. The church contacted interpreters of like faith and practice through various resources and acquired their services, but for a fee.
With a mixed multitude of deaf and hearing members, the issue of assimilation pushed itself to the forefront of the church’s mind. How was the hearing church to learn the culture of the deaf? One solution was to ask a deaf student to start teaching a sign language class to the church family and, later, to the community for free.
While starting a deaf church brought difficulties, joys arose as well. One exciting moment was when I, as the pastor, had the opportunity to baptize one of the deaf believers. The service began normally with speaking, but as the service progressed, so, too, did the style. The deaf lady signed her testimony, followed by my signing in public for the first time by myself.
A critical decision
The deaf community continued to grow—and so did our problem with inaccurate interpreting. The problem came to a head when a young deaf man came into the church office and communicated his concern. Typing his comment on a computer, he wrote to me, “Either you’re a bad preacher or have bad interpreters.” I was quick to respond that it had to be the interpreters!
With this growing pressure, First Baptist began to pray. At the 2003 National GARBC Conference, I spoke with Baptist Church Planters (BCP) to see if any missionaries to the deaf were available. We received the name of James Spellman, a former national director of the deaf at BCP. We made arrangements for a visit. Upon his arrival, we held meetings with both the deaf and hearing members. After some discussion, the church, acting upon the recommendation of the deacons, offered Pastor Spellman the position of ministering to the deaf.
At that time a critical decision had to be made. Should the deaf church continue as a separate culture or become simply a new facet of our church’s existing hearing culture? After praying about, discussing, and reviewing the situation, the church chose to consider the deaf as having their own culture and decided to plant an independent deaf Baptist church.
A new church
Pastor Spellman arrived in the winter of 2003, and after a short time of combined services, the two churches began meeting at separate times.
New issues quickly arose. The logistics of multiple services, space needs, setting up rooms, scheduling use of the church facilities for two assemblies—these were all challenges that had to be worked out. They are still being dealt with one by one. God’s work is not always accomplished in ideal circumstances. It often requires a lot of patience, but the reward is worth the effort.
Today the deaf work has grown from the initial two teens to a group of forty-five. It is a joy to have joint baptismal services with both the hearing and deaf that include testimonies in two languages.
It is exciting to observe over the past four years that five young deaf people have gone to Bible colleges. Some have even indicated a desire for the ministry. What a joy this is, since it is difficult to find deaf pastors who are trained in the fundamentals of the Word. Perhaps the future of this deaf church is in this group of people today.
This year, plans are being prepared for Calvary Deaf Baptist Fellowship to incorporate and to be formally recognized as a Baptist church. It may be that the deaf church will never be large enough to own its own building. However, offerings are being received with the goal to be a self- supporting church. Much training remains on how to “do church,” especially regarding the offices of deacons and pastor.
The vision expands
First Baptist is now considering repeating this church-planting process; the church is praying that a missionary will come and plant a fundamental Baptist Hispanic work in Faribault.
The challenges of adding a third congregation may be large and perhaps difficult. One can imagine the issues of housing three separate churches each Sunday in one building. The comforting thought is that when it does happen, First Baptist will truly begin to reflect its community. It will have achieved its purpose of “exalting Christ” through reaching the lost, not only around the world but also at home.
1 Census 2000 Summary File 3 (SF 3).
Daniel D. Mead is pastor of First Baptist Church, Faribault, Minnesota.