Romanians Reaching the Neighborhood
On Sunday mornings, Eben Ezer Romanian Assembly in Springfield, Missouri, looks like a traditional Romanian congregation gathered for worship. Many men dress in suit and tie; most girls and women wear dresses; some wear a traditional scarf. There are sermons in both Romanian and English, congregants kneel for prayer, and there is an accordion in the worship band.
Alongside tradition, though, is a serious commitment to discipleship. While building faith in a new generation of Romanian-background Christians, the church is helping transform lives in the city’s poverty, addiction, and crime-ridden northside neighborhoods, where it has been located since 2004.
Eben Ezer Assembly initially focused on spiritual needs of Romanians in the city. Pastor Ionel Popa immigrated to the U.S. in 1997 and moved to Springfield in 2003. Previously credentialed with a Romanian Pentecostal group, he received his U.S. AG ordination in 2011. Five years later, as Popa completed the annual church ministries report, he says God used the report’s “missions” questions to speak to him about the surrounding neighborhood.
Confirmation came through Southern Missouri District Secretary Stan L. Welch, an occasional guest speaker at the church since becoming acquainted with Popa during his credentialing process. Welch admired the Romanians’ commitment to discipling their families and teaching children to memorize Scripture, but he felt led to tell Popa, “You need to find ways to hold your culture but still reach your world.”
Popa started small, handing out sandwiches at intersections and inviting people to evangelistic events conducted in English. He also distributed Bibles. Just a few people responded — Welch recalls that only one visitor showed up at the first block party — but as Popa and his wife, Emily, became familiar faces, neighborhood residents began stopping by the church office asking for prayer and financial assistance.
“Generosity attracts people,” says Popa, 51, “and we helped many over a couple of years.” However, he knew handouts wouldn’t bring lasting transformation. Popa’s brother, local chiropractor Marcel Popa, began teaching discipleship classes in English in 2017. The church stipulated that people must join the class, commit to leave sinful lifestyles, and ask God to begin changing their hearts before receiving financial help. “We do help people,” says the pastor, “but the Bible says to do good for our brothers and sisters in Christ. We want them to become brothers and sisters.”
In one year, the average class attendance grew to 90 people. Attendees sign a commitment form, affirming personal faith and renouncing sinful behavior.
“We must take Christianity seriously,” says Popa. “So many new converts leave doors open to the enemy. We show love and acceptance, but we don’t baptize people until they start showing true transformation and repentance.” Classes have led to 35 baptisms.
A few longstanding church members felt uncomfortable with the new focus, partly because of the kinds of people showing up.
“Some said we were destroying our culture, bringing ‘the world’ into it,” says Marcel Popa. Others questioned the emphasis on prayer for deliverance; as people came to classes, leaders regularly prayed against demonic manifestations as Satan fought to keep converts entangled in addiction and immorality. Some adherents didn’t want the prayer services included on Facebook Live, but the pastoral team didn’t want to hide this important ministry. Interestingly, with the sharing of videos, Romanians from more traditional worship contexts began calling via FaceTime or even visiting Springfield for prayer. Even during COVID-19 mandatory restrictions, online ministry continued and many people received healing or deliverance.
Although a few families decided to worship elsewhere, the board spent much time in prayer, and the congregation is now in unity about the church’s direction. Prayer is an integral part; leaders are encouraged to fast and spend “hours, not minutes” in prayer, recalling Jesus’ words about confronting demonic activity with prayer and fasting. Popa reserves time every Saturday to pray for Sunday services, and intercessory teams meet during the week. The reason is strategic: time in prayer leads to relationship with God, which leads to power and anointing by the Holy Spirit to pray for others.
Sunday is a full day, starting with discipleship classes at 8:30 a.m. for new Christians preparing for baptism. Morning worship at 10 includes children, who recite Bible verses they learned during the week before being dismissed for Sunday School during the remainder of the service with its Romanian and English sermons. More advanced discipleship classes meet in the afternoon, followed by team prayer for the evening evangelistic service. This casual service, in English, includes children, teens, and plenty of music, followed by prayer around the altar as people respond to the Holy Spirit.
Evening services also include a fellowship meal, a big drawing card for new visitors. Marcel Popa estimates 150 or more unsaved neighbors come on an average Sunday night. And lives are being changed. One of those is Charlotte Presley.
Presley, 57, found herself on the streets after strained relations made it impossible to continue living with her daughter and five grandchildren. At the local Safe to Sleep shelter, she became friends with other women, one of whom told her, “There’s this church that has classes, and they bless people.”
Presley was all in after visiting a class. Raised by a stern Jehovah’s Witness grandmother and a mother who read the Bible but bounced around to different doctrines, she realized she was desperate both for emotional support and to learn about relationship with God.
“The church was so supportive as I worked to get back on my feet,” Presley says, citing instances when she struggled and a pastor or elder would call or show up to encourage her and pray. She is now in the advanced discipleship class. Her daughter has found salvation in Jesus and been baptized; there are still issues to work out, but the church’s support helps during tough days and she is able to bring her grandchildren to church regularly. When her vehicle needed repair, the church helped with the cost and with rides for the children.
“I’ve never seen a church like this; it’s a family,” says Presley. “Everyone takes turns with cleaning, preparing, serving. Even the Sunday evening meal is a huge blessing, prepared with love.”
Presley also says the church is a great example in cross-cultural outreach: She enjoys singing along with Romanian as well as English versions of songs, and now dresses nicely for church.
“It’s amazing how learning to fix myself up a bit helps my confidence and ability to relate to others,” she says. “The church loved me as I was, but I realize I’m never too old to learn!”
Popa emphasizes that Eben Ezer Assembly is “Kingdom-minded, not growth-minded,” making disciples who in turn disciple others. However, when people accept Christ, their lifestyle and priorities change, including their finances. For example, Presley is eager to participate in a fund for Christmas gifts for the homeless. The church now helps support several missionaries through the AG.