When Oliver Lora-Ovalles became pastor of Eternal Rock Assembly of God four years ago, he believed the inner-city southwestern Detroit congregation required a revitalized vision to reach the community with the gospel by meeting needs, both physical and spiritual. Though more than 40,000 live in this working-class sector of metro Detroit, church attendance had plateaued at 150.
Yet perhaps an even greater challenge faced the pastor born in the Dominican Republic. Everyone in the church spoke Spanish, but the congregation included a dozen nationalities from throughout Latin America, each with distinct cultures. What is polite in one nation’s culture might be taken as an insult in another. How to unify a church so diverse and get its people on mission?
Moving the congregation forward entailed a change in mindset. That change began with the church embarking on an Acts 2 Journey that involved sorting out mission, vision, and values. Subsequently, a priority became equipping Roca Eterna members to evangelize and serve the surrounding area.
“Discovering and defining our mission helped to clarify and focus,” Lora-Ovalles says. “It gave us a reason to exist. We equip new members with our 12 values, which are non-negotiable.” Every ministry of the church must spring from them.
To unify the congregation, Roca Eterna deacons represent the array of nationalities in the church. Lora-Ovalles often lets the deacons know in advance the concepts he plans to deliver in the pulpit, to ensure the message is relatable to different ethnicities. Every third Sunday, the church celebrates its diversity through a “cultural day,” which features the attire, history, and tradition of a nation represented among attendees. The church invites missionaries from the designated location to speak as well.
But changing old attitudes isn’t easy. The church concentration has been largely inward; reorienting requires time.
“We need to look outside,” Lora-Ovalles says. “Always there are people who think we should do things that are more spiritual. The key is looking for things we have in common in all the community. Beyond the differences, we can unite to be a blessing to the community.”
The church launched outreaches targeting problems that impact the neighborhood. For instance, in 2013, Roca Eterna, in conjunction with the National Kidney Foundation, conducted three “BodyWorks” courses. This eight-week health program addressed diabetes, which is more common among minorities, by teaching better eating and shopping habits.
“We started with members and then extended the program to other families,” says Maricruz Moya, the church’s community liaison. Church adherents brought their children, husbands, fathers, and mothers, plus reached out to other congregations for three rounds of the course.
This year Roca Eterna initiated its official ministry of community service.
“We know working together is more effective,” says Moya, who serves as the congregation’s community “ambassador” for the public park across the street. The church likewise has reached out to its city councilwoman and other government officials, providing more avenues to help the community on concerns such as homelessness.
“We want to make sure they know we’re here and available to help out,” Moya says.
By unifying the church and reaching into the community, attendance today at Roca Eterna has climbed to 400.
“Oliver Lora-Ovalles has been able to keep the church united,” says Clemente Maldonado, superintendent of the 11-state AG Midwest Latin American District. “They are constantly reaching out.”