Forty-Year Commitment Transforms Church and Community
In 1980, Paramount, California, was voted the fourth worst city in the U.S. among cities with a population of fewer than 50,000. The ranking was based on ratings for crime, gang activity, schools, businesses, and local neighborhoods done by the Rand Corporation.
But a few years earlier, Emmanuel Reformed Church in Paramount had made a commitment to stay in the city for 40 years. The church became part of the effort to turn the city around.
"In the late '80s and early '90s, we painted about 500 homes in our city, and that led to three or four thousand homes being painted by neighbors," says Ken Korver, now the senior pastor at Emmanuel. "Our own area of the town changed as we stayed and did faithful ministry."
In 1991, Paramount earned the "All-American City" designation. "We give God the glory, and we give a lot of credit to our city staff and our city council. God used them powerfully," Korver says. The city manager of Paramount called Emmanuel Reformed the catalyst for the transformation that took place.
Paramount's population has been changing for five decades. "In 1960, there was a strong Dutch community in Paramount; in 1970, there was a strong European American community; by 1980 it was beginning to shift rapidly to being primarily a Latino community. By 1990, it was strongly Latino along with every other ethnic group, and whites were a minority," says Korver.
"The trick is to keep loving your original people while embracing the community fully. We continually seek to do both at the same time.
"Embrace your original people, but with them become a church that reaches all people. If you just stay with your own kind and the community is changing around you, you're going to die. When you start to embrace the community around you, it brings your own people back to life themselves."
At Emmanuel, that means preserving tradition while reaching out in new ways. At two of the five Sunday worship services, for instance, the "original" people feel like it's their church. "They're still hearing songs from back in the day, still in the same building, still have some of the same pastors--we honor our prior senior pastor [Ken's father, Harold Korver], our Reformed roots, our Dutch people," Korver says. But, he adds, the church has started three other services--contemporary, Spanish, and multicultural. Korver says the original people don't always feel comfortable participating in these services, but they still rejoice in them.
"We offer different worship services. There's uniting by the same sermon, but very different worship styles."
The church has grown dramatically since making its 40-year commitment to Paramount. In 1971, the church had 200 members--all with Dutch names. By 1994, there were still 200 Dutch people, but there were an additional 760 European Americans, and about 40 people of color.
"In 1997 we started our noon service, started by a white pastor, a black pastor, and a brown pastor," Korver says. "That began to open up the floodgates of the ethnicity changing."
On an average Sunday in 2008, about 1,750 people worship at Emmanuel. Just over 1,000 are white--still 200 of Dutch descent, with about 800 of other European ancestry--and 750 are people of color. Korver estimates that 610 are Latino, 120 are black, and 20 are Asian.
"Our original people didn't lose their church. The European Americans didn't feel like they lost their church. The Latino and African American people feel like they've gained a church.
"Sometimes things come up because our cultures are different. I had to learn to preach differently at the different services. If I preach at the noon service the same way I preach at [the traditional] 9:00 and 10:30 services, they don't think I care. If I preach at 9:00 or 10:30 the same way I preach at the noon service, they think I'm shouting at them.
"You have to make slight adjustments. Are there ever tensions? Sometimes. But mostly there's celebration."
Now, Korver says, the church is making another 40-year commitment--this time to neighboring Compton, California.
"Now what God has done in Paramount, over the next 40 years we seek to bring to Compton. The goal is to create a revolution, with thousands and thousands of people in Compton joining up. We want to become teammates with the existing churches in Compton and dream about how each church can love two or three blocks around it."
The 40-year commitment also includes a goal to plant 100 new churches into the heart of Compton.
"Wherever we can, we want to partner with the existing churches of the city. The goal is to plant churches in neighborhoods. Some of these churches will worship out of houses. Others will worship in elementary schools, warehouses, or abandoned churches. The goal will be to live, serve, and worship in the local neighborhood," Korver says. "We're going to stay. Let's fix one block at a time and let's plant churches together to do the same, and let each church be a lighthouse for each little bit of the city, bringing people to Christ and doing the works of Christ."
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