It’s not unusual in WELS today to see congregations that are bilingual. But to see a congregation that’s trilingual—with ministry in three languages—is more unique.
This last August, King of Kings, Garden Grove, Calif., ordained and installed its second and third pastors in a trilingual worship service. The three languages woven throughout the service reflected the congregation’s three distinct ministries: English, Vietnamese, and Spanish. Trung Lê, a recent graduate of the Pastoral Studies Institute, was assigned to lead the Vietnamese ministry, which is funded by the WELS Joint Mission Council. Grant Hagen, a 2023 graduate of Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, was assigned to lead the Hispanic ministry. Lê and Hagen now serve alongside Brian Doebler, lead pastor at King of Kings.
When King of Kings was established in 1962, the community surrounding it looked—and sounded—very different than it does today. The population in Garden Grove was largely English-speaking Anglo. Today, about 40 percent of Garden Grove is Hispanic and 40 percent is Vietnamese. As the neighborhood continued to change, the congregation reached a critical point in the early 2000s where members needed to make some decisions. Should they move the church to a different location? Would they let membership slowly decline? King of Kings members knew that to reach their neighbors with the gospel they would have to embrace the changes around them and adapt their ministry.
When Doebler was called to King of Kings in 2020, reaching out to the Vietnamese community became part of his focus. “If King of Kings is going to continue to exist and share the gospel in this area, it isn’t going to be to do gospel ministry in the traditional sense of just sharing the gospel in English,” says Doebler. “We have to do it in the language of the people who are here.”
To learn more about their Vietnamese neighbors, the congregation engaged in Bible studies and cultural seminars led by fellow ministries already serving the Vietnamese. Lê, who was then a member at Peace in Jesus Vietnamese in Boise, Idaho, and studying to become a pastor, was part of the group brought in to educate the congregation.
In 2022, King of Kings began showing love to its Vietnamese community in a special way: by offering citizenship classes. Twice a week, congregation members help their Vietnamese neighbors study for the exam to become US citizens, an exam that is in English—especially challenging for those who only speak Vietnamese. More than 200 Vietnamese have already taken the class, and about 15 have gained citizenship. “In spite of language and cultural differences, people have been able to establish relationships as brothers and sisters in Christ,” Doebler says. Some of the Vietnamese class members even attended Lê’s installation service, thrilled to meet Lê and hear the gospel in their language.
Back in 2021, God also began providing a way for King of Kings to reach its Hispanic neighbors. The congregation opened its doors to Pan de Vida, a Spanish-speaking WELS congregation that had been located in Santa Ana, Calif. King of Kings and Pan de Vida now function as two congregations on one campus. When Hagen was assigned to serve Pan de Vida, members welcomed him with joy, thrilled to have a shepherd dedicated to their spiritual needs in their language.
All three pastors admit their fledgling trilingual ministry isn’t without growing pains. How do you minister to—and connect—three groups of people who don’t speak the same language? How does your trilingual leadership study, pray, and plan gospel ministry together? How do you best structure worship times and space needs? These are questions that Doebler, Lê, and Hagen wrestle with on a daily basis.
Doebler knows that they don’t have all the answers, and that’s okay. He says the key will be creativity and flexibility—structuring service times and overlapping fellowship to best serve everyone. Both King of Kings and Pan de Vida members know that God has a good plan for them, and he will bless them, as he has promised.
“Our prayer is to have a thriving gospel ministry in English, Spanish, and Vietnamese and a congregation that [works] together to share the gospel,” says Doebler. “We want a campus that reflects the diversity of our community, like in Revelation 7—a glimpse of what we can anticipate in heaven.”
Learn more about how the Joint Mission Council supports multicultural ministry at wels.net/jointmissions.
Vietnamese ministry: Walking in God’s guidance
After being installed at King of Kings in August, Trung Lê moved to Garden Grove in October. Due to the thriving citizenship classes offered by the congregation, Lê already has more than 200 potential Vietnamese prospects with a connection to King of Kings. He also is exploring offering English as a Second Language classes to serve even more Vietnamese.
Lê’s ministry plan for his first year is to spend time exploring his Vietnamese community, connecting with his new neighbors, and sharing the gospel with them. His plan for year two includes starting Bible study in Vietnamese and forming a core group, with the prayer that within two to three years, he will begin a Vietnamese worship service. “Everything is in God’s will,” Lê says, “but we try our best and see what can happen.”
Lê, admittedly, is a little nervous about his move to California and his brand-new ministry. “I’m prepared for the bumpy road. Not everything [will be] rosy. But I walk in God’s guidance, and I will try my best to be his servant.”
He’s excited to serve alongside his fellow pastors in the multicultural, multi-language ministry: “We have the same ministry, the same goal, the same purpose,” he says. “I pray for more people for God’s kingdom.”
Spanish ministry: Making disciples of all nations
When Grant Hagen arrived at Pan de Vida in August, he began filling a vacancy left when the congregation’s previous pastor accepted a call to a different congregation. That vacancy—as difficult as it was—resulted in an unexpected blessing for the members: “The vacancy helped them grow and take ownership of what goes on at church,” says Hagen. Pan de Vida members are excited to have a full-time pastor again, and they are committed to sharing the gospel with their Hispanic neighbors. Hagen says, “They want to serve their community. They want to tell people what Jesus has done for them.”
In addition to conducting Spanish worship ser-vices, Hagen is getting out into the community and meeting his new neighbors. He wants to visit them in their homes, develop a personal relationship with them, and invite them to worship to see what Jesus has done for them. He also dreams about starting citizenship classes in Spanish as another way to serve the Hispanic community.
Hagen knows there will be cultural and language barriers in a trilingual ministry. But he is focusing on the opportunities. “It really drives home the Great Commission in Matthew 28 to go and make disciples of all nations,” he says. “Here in Garden Grove, you can see all the different nations that need to hear the gospel just like you and me.”
Volume: 110, Number 11
Issue: November 2023