Pastor Janet Pan, left, prepares for a baptism service held at Forest Hills Baptist Church in Raleigh.
Pastor Janet Pan, left, prepares for a baptism service held at Forest Hills Baptist Church in Raleigh.

Raleigh church finds 'very Baptist' way to be multicultural

Forest Hills Baptist Church in Raleigh, N.C., is home to a Farsi-speaking ministry and autonomous Chinese and African congregations that worship separately but come together regularly to celebrate a common faith.

By Jeff Brumley

Janet Pan firmly believes there will be no segregation in heaven, which may be no surprise from the pastor the Chinese Baptist Church of Raleigh, N.C.

“Heaven is filled with Chinese and Africans and people of all nationalities,” she said. “There will be no barriers even though we speak different languages.”

But on Earth, she said, some separation can be a good thing. That comes from leading one of the two international congregations housed at Forest Hills Baptist Church in Raleigh.

There, the Chinese church, an African congregation and a Farsi-speaking ministry hold separate worship services most of the year. Each has its own pastor and takes care of its own pastoral and other ministries.

It may not be the mainstream way of doing multi-ethnic church, with blended services and music, but it’s the way it works at Forest Hills.

“It is a uniquely Baptist approach to being multicultural,” said Neil Westbrook, senior pastor at Forest Hills.

It’s Baptist, he said, because it grants congregational autonomy to groups that remain united in core beliefs and theology. It’s an approach that makes a lot of sense in the Research Triangle that includes Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill.

“This area is incredibly multicultural,” Westbrook said.

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The separate-but-together approach tells each group that its cultural identity is welcomed and celebrated, he added.

“There’s not an expectation that you’re supposed to be somebody you’re not,” he said. “You are expected to be the culture and nationality that you are — and I think that’s very Baptist.”

It’s also gotten some recent attention. Raleigh’s daily newspaper recently published a story about the Mosaic services held five times a year at Forest Hills.

It’s when all of the congregations worship together, each one providing different elements of the service.

On Jan. 26, Westbrook provided the sermon while the Chinese choir and Farsi praise team provided the music.

The News & Observer story also noted that there were 18 baptisms during the service, and that Forest Hills has found a way around the saying that 11 a.m. Sundays is the most segregated hour in America.

The adage still holds true. According to the 2007 American Religious Landscape Survey, more than eight-in-10 members of mainline and evangelical Protestant churches are white. Nine-in-10 members of historically black churches are blacks.

Pan said there can be blessings in ethnic groups worshiping separately and having their own pastors and outreach.

For the Chinese community in particular, it provides a comfortable way for those who speak little or no English to worship and be members of a congregation. It also enables Pan to provide pastoral care in ways that are culturally relevant to her membership.

“We still want to keep our own culture and worship bilingually for the children who can speak the two languages,” Pan said.

But that doesn’t mean the Chinese, African and Farsi-speaking congregations feel cut-off from the main church, Pan said. Instead, the bond of faith is always felt.

“Our styles may be different but our focus is on one Lord, one God,” she said.

The Mosaic services help tie together the individual strengths of each church, Westbrook added.

“I’ve heard people say, ‘this is what heaven looks like,’” he said.