Chapter 9: Churches that Last for Generations


Churches have existed for many generations, beginning with Jesus Christ, who said “I will build my church”, started with the apostles and disciples back in the first century. There were churches planted in Ephesus, Thessalonica, Galatia, Philippi, Corinth, and other cities. We have books in the Bible that were written to those churches. Back in those days, they were called epistles. Using today’s technologies, it’d be similar to how we communicate with email newsletters and blog posts. And it’s so much easier to share an important message today, I might add, as a link on social media or clicking forward in your email inbox.

But where are those churches now? They no longer exist. This is not to say that it’s impossible for a church to last a hundred generations, but it definitely takes significant effort to have a church last more than one generation. It is not going to happen accidentally or incidentally.

On Pinterest, I’ve curated a photo collection of ex-church buildings <>. Particularly in many parts of Europe and parts of the United States now, there are growing numbers of buildings that used to be churches that have been renovated for other uses. No longer are they houses of worship and prayer to the living God. Those church buildings have been converted into lofts, apartments, exquisite homes, libraries, restaurants, banks, community centers, or leveled for other real estate developments.

There’s one church building in Southeast Washington DC that served as home to Central Baptist Church from 1997 to 2005; today, it is Muhammad Mosque No. 4, the Mid-Atlantic Regional Headquarters of the Nation of Islam. While it is true that the church is the people called by God and not the building, the building is a testimony and a visible witness to where people gathered to worship the living God. Massive cathedrals were built in past generations with a purpose to help illiterate people to experience and understand the grandeur of God.

An ex-church building is a sobering picture of what could be the future of your church, if your church’s leadership does not take strategic steps to prepare for its future by reaching the next generation. In other words, the church is just one generation from extinction. Pause for a moment and let that sink in.

Judges 2:7 (ESV) “And the people served the Lord all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua, who had seen all the great work that the Lord had done for Israel.”

Judges 2:10 (ESV) — “And all that generation also were gathered to their fathers. And there arose another generation after them who did not know the Lord or the work that he had done for Israel.”

Churches have a natural life span; most churches are planted to reach young adults and young families. These young families have children that grow up to be teenagers and those teenagers leave home for college. When the church’s founding members become absent from body and present with the Lord, the church’s vitality naturally declines. One church expert has noted that the average life of a church is about the same as that of the average human: 70 years. <>

For a more thorough explanation about the natural life cycle that all churches go through, get the free eBook by Geoff Surratt titled “Measuring the Orchard: Changing the Scorecard on Church Growth.” <>

Some churches are able to continue its Gospel witness beyond one generation because its church leaders held on to “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3, ESV) rather than onto traditions per se. When I talk with the first generation Asian church leaders, I’m most frequently asked: “How do we keep our children in church?” I think a better question might be: “How do we reach our children’s friends and classmates?” or “How do we reach the next generation?”

Churches that recognize its responsibility to reach the next generation with the Gospel are willing to recognize when to make necessary adjustments to its ministry strategies so that its Gospel witness will be vibrant for that next generation.

In the remainder of this chapter, you will read the first-hand accounts of three churches that discerned when to take big steps of faith to make adjustments so that a future generation can experience a vibrant faith that was practical and relevant for them, and the church could continue its mission to proclaim the Gospel from one generation to the next. A word of thanks to each church for granting permission for their history to be published here, in their own words, to honor their legacy.

The first church history is from Evergreen Baptist Church of Los Angeles, now 91 years old. Evergreen has served multiple generations over the years: started with first-generation Japanese-Americans, then English-speaking Japanese-Americans, and then multiple Asian American ethnicities and now a multi-ethnic and multi-racial diversity in its neighborhood. <Via >

In 1925, nearsighted young Japanese Pastor Haruye Shibata boldly accepted the challenge from the Los Angeles Baptist City Mission Society and steamed slowly across the Pacific to the hostile denizen known as Boyle Heights (East LA). His first converts were the Issei (first-generation Japanese-American) pioneers. None of them were wealthy, but they soon learned the joy of sacrificial giving. Boyle Heights Baptist Church eventually became a special gathering place for them and their families.

By 1938 there was a fast-growing population of English-speaking congregants, and Rev. Jitsuo Morikawa, a young Japanese-Canadian pastor, accepted the call to be their pastor, while also serving Japanese-American congregations in Terminal Island and the South Bay. For his tireless efforts, he received the less than princely sum of fifty dollars each month. His preaching brought in a harvest of new believers.

Our Congregation Sent To Internment Camps

After Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1942, bewildered church members were forced to grab whatever they could carry and begin a new life behind barbed wire in desolate inland locations like Rohr, Arkansas, or Manzanar, California. Even though the forces of fear and injustice had scattered them to different internment camps, they found that their faith in Christ was a source of hope and strength. They organized churches wherever they were and kept their eyes on the prize.

A New Identity, A New Name

With the end of World War II, a good portion of the former members began to find their way back to Los Angeles. On April 7, 1946, another young Japanese-American pastor accepted the call to lead this flock. The Spirit used Rev. Paul Nagano mightily to lead many Nisei (second-generation Japanese-Americans) to faith. Even as the members and new converts were struggling to rebuild their personal lives, they each made significant sacrifices in order to rebuild their re-gathered church.

With the burgeoning numbers of English-speaking members, the church was renamed Nisei Baptist Church of Los Angeles and in 1949 the name was changed again, this time to Evergreen Baptist Church of Los Angeles, a reference to its location on the corner of 2nd and Evergreen.

Sometime later, the members voted to form two separate churches, with the Japanese-speaking Issei moving across the street as the “Japanese Baptist Church” and the Nisei and their children remaining as “Evergreen Baptist Church of LA”. This must have been an extremely difficult decision, but the Lord used it to set the stage for what God was going to do twenty-five years later. For EBCLA had become something quite unique: a Japanese-American church that only operated in English.

The Impact of The Civil Rights Movement

The 1960’s, with the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement, made members of Evergreen-LA wrestle with different issues. The Rev. Dr. William Shinto led them through some deep soul-searching. The members even questioned the validity of its emphasis on Japanese-Americans as the country at large was in an uproar over racial tensions. God’s Spirit used Shinto to expand and enrich the church’s understanding of its calling and purpose as an agent of reconciliation and social justice. While other churches were trying to ignore these challenges, EBCLA of the 1960s met them head on.

After Shinto, Rev. Dr. Toru Matsuo briefly led the church. He began to prod the church to establish ‘encounter groups,’ which were all the rage then, but the leadership didn’t feel that this was what God wanted. So Matsuo left and formed the Agape Christian Fellowship in West LA. This became a magnet for many JA and ABC idealistic, ‘radical’ young-adult Christians, with many of them pooling their assets to purchase an apartment complex where they lived in community. Over time, the influence of ACF among Asian American Christians spread to northern California, even touching parts of the Pacific Northwest and Utah. Sadly, with Matsuo at the helm, ACF eventually came to be seen as a cult. The decision of Evergreen-LA’s leaders to oppose his proposal proved to be one that safeguarded the church.

Fire Threatens to Close Evergreen Baptist Church

In 1972, while the Rev. David Hirano was the pastor, a fire nearly destroyed the sanctuary. This could not have come at a worse time; the church was already struggling to survive. After the fire, they had to decide if they should they rebuild, relocate, or shut down. Even though they were few in number, they felt God wanted them to rebuild the ruined sanctuary and keep the ministry alive. Again, through making serious sacrifices, they accomplished both goals.

Thus there was still an Evergreen Baptist Church of LA when Cory Ishida accepted the baton from the beleaguered remnant of about 85 faithful who were there in 1977. Although he lacked a seminary pedigree and had never pastored a church before, the members called him to be their shepherd. Ishida was the first Sansei (third-generation Japanese-American) to pastor the church. His clearly more-acculturated presence soon attracted growing numbers of ABCs (American Born Chinese) to the church, setting the stage for what was to become a new paradigm for this plucky ministry. In 1981, the church called Ken Fong to be its first full-time associate pastor, thus formally embracing the ABCs in the congregation. Evergreen Baptist Church was now something new: an all-English-speaking Asian-American church.

Leaving Boyle Heights for Rosemead

Pastor Ishida and the members realized by 1983 that the ministry would have to be relocated to the San Gabriel Valley if it was going to reach more Asian-Americans for Christ. Even though they had barely more than 200 members at the time, the church finally bought property in Rosemead and made the move in 1988. The staff and congregation mushroomed over the next ten years, with 1,200 people coming to worship each week. A new paradigm for missions was created and launched, and a new church was planted in the East San Gabriel Valley. Ministries to all ages and stages flourished.

Evergreen Baptist Church of Los Angeles Is Born

By 1996, however, the church seemed to some observers to be in “midlife crisis.” Attendance had slipped but was holding steady each week at around 900. There had been some significant turnover of staff. Energy was waning and the vision seemed less clear. That year, Reverend Ishida led the membership to make the daring decision to church plant by “hiving” the existing congregation and staff. Thus, on March 1, 1997, he and his staff left with about 650 people to form Evergreen Baptist Church of San Gabriel Valley (Evergreen-SGV) while Rev. Dr. Ken Fong stayed with the Rosemead campus along with the rest of the congregation which sustained the original charter for the Evergreen Baptist Church of Los Angeles (Evergreen-LA).

Since that historic day, the Lord has seen fit to bless both new congregations. Today, more than a decade and a half later, Evergreen-LA still feels like a new church on the old site: Rev. Dr. Ken Fong is still the senior pastor and, although there are still a handful of staff and leaders from the time of the ‘hive,’ they’ve been joined by numerous new ones, and plenty of new people! Now with 8-10 English-speaking Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders as well as a smattering of Euro-, Latino-, and African-Americans, the church has been described as a multi-ethnic church with a pan-Asian American majority. During this time, God’s Spirit has sufficiently sharpened and clarified EBCLA’s purpose, mission, and vision that the staff and leaders are able to plot a strategic path for the church to become a more reconciled, missional Faith Village, a picture and a preview of what God is doing for all creation.

While this history covered a lot of details, it’s also worth noting how the two Evergreen churches have also been fruitful over the years by planting a number of other churches, including Epic Church in Fullerton, California, Lifesong Community Church in Chino, California, and Seeds of Life Church in Alhambra, California.

The second church history features Bay Area Chinese Bible Church, a 60 year-old church near the Oakland area. <Via>

Bay Area Chinese Bible Church (BACBC) has a very rich and interesting history in the East Bay side of the San Francisco Bay Area. In the summer of 1956, Pastor Sen and June Wong held a two‑week Vacation Bible School in their duplex apartment on East 27th Street in Oakland. There was an average daily attendance of approximately 20 children and adults. That November, the Lord led the Wongs to start a Sunday School class in their home.

On the first Sunday, there were a total of 11 in attendance, including Sen and June Wong. Gradually, more attendees began adding to the small group. Soon, a church service was added, then a Wednesday prayer meeting, Sunday evening service, and the young people’s club.

In February of 1957, the church moved to a house on Wakefield Avenue in Oakland, just two blocks away.  In the summer of 1958 the dirt beneath the house was excavated and a basement chapel was added. This allowed the church to continue growing. In 1961, with a weekly attendance of 115, the church decided to formally incorporate.

In 1964, another home was purchased and remodeled as a church on Oakland’s East 29th Street. By 1968, the church was running around 200 in attendance, but it grew to over 500 by 1979, when it decided to start Chinese Christian Schools in two small apartments next door to the church. Already one of the largest Chinese churches in the Bay Area, BACBC desperately needed additional facilities.

In 1985, the church, with over 600 attendees, and school, with almost 300 students, moved to a leased facilities on Fargo Avenue in San Leandro. Over the next 10 years, the size of the church and school have both increased to over 1000 attendees at the church, and almost 900 students at the school. Through the years, the church has had strong youth ministries with an emphasis on Bible teaching. In recent years, the church has grown in its outreach to the Cantonese, Mandarin speaking communities and senior citizens.

In September 2003, the church and school opened a 30,000 square foot educational building in Harbor Bay area of Alameda.  In June 2011, when the new 30,000 square foot church worship center had completed, the Alameda site now serves as the main site for the church and school.

In July 2015, we formally closed San Leandro’s 750 Fargo Avenue campus after 30 years of church and school ministry at that facility.   Our Sunday San Leandro worship venue has moved to James Madison Elementary School, in San Leandro, continuing with English and Cantonese worship services as well as Sunday School Classes.

After 60 years from its first days, the Bay Area Chinese Bible Church seeks to reproduce itself by starting “daughter churches” and training up leaders to staff those new ministries. Families still play a central role but the church also bridges many cultural, social, economic, and geographic barriers. The concept of smaller, localized congregations is consistent with the Chinese culture’s emphasis on family and community.

When I visited Bay Area Chinese Bible Church several years ago, I was encouraged to see the church’s extra efforts to reach different groups of people by having multiple worship venues at its two locations (at that time), including: traditional Mandarin, contemporary Mandarin, Cantonese, traditional English, contemporary English, youth worship, and several others. I also often see their pastoral staff and key leaders attending the same church conferences I go to, indicative of their posture to learn from others and to grow together.

The third church history comes from Quest Church in Seattle, Washington. <via >

After three years of helping plant a church in the suburbs of Seattle (Lynnwood), Pastor Eugene and Minhee felt called to leave the suburbs and to shift from a homogenous (Asian) context to a multiethnic community. After several months in transition, they had their first gathering (7 people) in their living room. Soon thereafter, they began to lead a bible study in the University District. As the group grew, the gathering shifted from a bible study to a Sunday worship gathering. In June 2001, they moved locations to the Interbay/Ballard area and used the facility at Interbay Covenant Church. It was during this time that conversations of joining the Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC) became more deliberate. Within a few months, the church (then about 30 people) joyfully began its relationship with the  ECC. On October 14, 2001, Quest Church was officially launched.

For the next six years, Quest continued to meet in the Warehouse (now the Q Cafe) on the Interbay Covenant Church campus. After lots of conversations, prayers, and dialogue, Interbay Covenant Church “gave itself” to Quest and “merged” into our community and ministry on June 2, 2007.

Interbay has an amazing history of over 70 years. They built the current church facilities in 1965 and purchased the Warehouse in 1975. More important than the assets Interbay gifted to Quest, they brought a dynamic, beautiful community ready to join Quest and continue the journey as a new community together.

God has continued to work in and through Quest for the last 14 years. Because of our growth blessings we searched for a new church location for several years. After much prayer and discernment, our church membership voted to move forward with the purchase of a new building in the Ballard area. On September 13, 2015 we had our first worship service in our new location.

Through it all, we remain committed to continuing to journey together for the sake of the Gospel.

Did you notice the humility of the older church willing to give itself and its building to a younger church? This was by no means an easy decision; it was actually very difficult, as detailed in a Facts & Trends article, The Quest to Transform a Church.

And, when these two churches became one, it instantly became multi-generational and more diverse multi-ethnically. It is a good thing when one generation can pass on the faith to the next generation. As it is written in Psalm 145:4 (ESV), “One generation shall commend your works to another, and shall declare your mighty acts.”


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