More Than Equals
An American megachurch pastor and a Nepali church planter break all the stereotypes
The partnership between Yakuv Gurung and Tom Elenbaas is an unlikely one—or at least the particulars of the relationship are unusual. Gurung is the immigrant pastor of an immigrant church plant in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Elenbaas is the senior pastor of Harbor Churches, a family of five RCA churches in West Michigan.
Over time, the two pastors have gotten connected, to the point that Harbor Churches has become a kind of sponsoring partner church for Nepali-Speaking Community Church—and that’s where things diverge from the typical story. Gurung and Elenbaas resist the usual language of parent church and daughter church, instead seeing themselves as equals, each with something to offer to the other.
Gurung has joined Harbor Churches for leadership development events that just don’t fit into the budget of a church whose members are immigrants and refugees. And Elenbaas, who has long had a heart for global church planting, has seen his vision realized in part through Gurung, whose father, Dhan Lal Gurung, is a church planter in Nepal, a nation where less than 2 percent of the population is Christian. Now the two pastors, the staff of each church, and their congregations have developed a partnership that has led to the planting of churches not only in Nepal but also in Lansing, Michigan, where another community of Nepali-speaking immigrants lives.
RCA Today talked with Gurung and Elenbaas about global church planting strategies, the best ways to reach an immigrant community, and the differences between a parent church and a partner church.
The relationship between your churches does not seem paternalistic. How do you relate to each other?
Gurung: First of all, we always feel we are more on a partnership label. We have more of a Christlike relationship than of a big church helping a poor church.
Elenbaas: I think the key to it is relationships more than anything. I mean, I would consider Yakuv and I friends first. Now he’s also friends with all the other pastors and people in the church. That’s where the relationship really matters, and we learn so much from each other. How he would answer something is totally different because of his context. We miss out on that [if] we aren’t as connected.
Yakuv, when you join Harbor Churches for leadership development events, how does it feel to have them pay for you?
Gurung: As I said, it’s a partnership. It’s biblical to share our means. Even Jesus himself was supported by wealthy, rich women in his ministry. I always say, “This is my ministry, and Tom is one of the partners in the ministry.” I always look from that perspective, rather than that they are giving me parenting.
Elenbaas: One of the things I appreciate about Yakuv is that when he says “partnership,” he thinks of it that way. There’s a boldness that’s not entitlement. Yakuv’s not shy at all about saying to me, “Tom, here’s this opportunity, here’s what it’s gonna cost, here’s why I think it’s important, and here’s what I think Harbor should do.”
Gurung: The other side is that the receiving church also might feel that we are small, we are lesser. That’s another danger.
Elenbaas: You just have to look at the numbers differently. You’re reaching 5 percent of your entire population in Grand Rapids. You’re way ahead of us!
In the book of Revelation, people of all ethnicities and languages worship God together. How do you reconcile that picture of multicultural ministry with your ethnically separate congregations?
Gurung: We are planting a church among Nepali-speaking people, and the Nepali language is just a methodology to reach our community. I’m not trying to segregate here between two ethnic groups of people. It’s more pragmatic: how can we reach out?
Elenbaas: We both approach ministry nonidealistically. We’d love to have our congregations be worshiping together and learning from one another, but the reality of doing that is we’re probably going to have way less impact long term.
Gurung: It’s basically how we approach our group of people and how we can win people to Christ.
What do you, Yakuv, have to offer to Harbor Churches?
Gurung: What I’m proposing to the Harbor Churches is that they [partner] with us in Grand Rapids [to reach the immigrant community]. They can also, through us, partner back in Nepal, not becoming our teachers, rather, coming along with the local church and helping to plant other churches.
Elenbaas: We get to partner now with what Yakuv is proposing are 15 new church plants in Nepal that, in August of 2015, I already prayed for, but I had no idea how to do it. [I thought,] How am I gonna connect with people in Nepal? How long is that gonna take? And God says, “Hey! Here’s Yakuv.”
Gurung: When those churches are being planted, I think the Harbor Churches can see that their investment is so tangible and has impacted life literally.
Elenbaas: Through this partnership, I’ve learned that one of the best ways to reach unreached people groups is through pockets of immigrants or displaced people in America that are living in communities together and connected back home. So how do you reach the unreached people in Nepal? For me, the best way is to invest in Yakuv because Yakuv can invest in indigenous leaders in his congregation or people overseas, and that can impact Nepal in a way that we never could.
Tell us more about church planting in Nepal. Are people hungry for Jesus?
Gurung: For a couple hundred years, [the Nepali people] were in darkness. They were totally shut off from Christianity, from the gospel. Hinduism and Buddhism was the main religion. But when all of a sudden the door for gospel is opened, people are so hungry to receive it. Just a few years ago, Nepal was one of the fastest Christian-growing countries in south Asia.
Elenbaas: [Gurung’s father] travels into villages, and he finds the sick and hurting and broken, and he prays for them in the name and the power of Jesus, and then he leaves. And then he comes back and, when they’ve been healed, they say, “Who is this Jesus?” And he says, “Let me tell you about him.” They convert, and they become a church planter of a house church. That’s the strategy. It’s amazing!
So the thing I’m learning as an American Christian is that instead of giving people Jesus, we’re giving them everything else. We’ll give them lights, we’ll give them a guitar, we’ll give them a song, we’ll give them good teaching. All [Gurung’s father] is doing is he’s finding a need and filling it with the gospel and with Jesus and then naming that.
In what ways is Nepali-Speaking Church actively involved in mission?
Gurung: We are supporting [the full education of] five children back in Nepal. In addition, one guy stood up and said, “I want to sponsor one child for the whole of her education. I don’t know how much money that costs, but I’ll [do it].” That’s a big discipline. So I’m excited for how a small church can actually [have] impact in Nepal.
Elenbaas: I love that a church that would be seen as a mission by us is doing mission outside of itself.
Gurung: That is one of the reasons I’m bringing the Lansing church [made up of another Nepali-speaking immigrant community] and our church together—how we can partner in mission, how we can do mission work back in Nepal. I don’t have any other motives for partnering with [Chandra Moktan, the leader of the church in Lansing] except mission. I always say, “We have to partner together in mission no matter what.”
What can small churches offer to larger churches?
Gurung: We have an unreached group of people right under our nose that can be easily missed by larger churches. Also, immigrant people groups always think about sending mission back to their native land. They know their people, culture, mindset, and worldview. If a bigger church wants to partner in global church planting, a small ethnic church can be helpful.
Elenbaas: If you’re not in a relationship with a small church—if you’re not in a relationship with a church that’s ethnically different—you don’t ask the questions you have to ask to maintain your integrity. Sometimes the small church or the pastor who is in a different cultural context can speak prophetically. If I’m just hanging out with other megachurch pastors, and we’re all raising millions of dollars and building buildings, I could do that—and I think I’d be worse off for it.
Gurung: Small churches are always thinking, How can we reach out? When new people come to our community, we always think, How can we connect with that person and bring them to church, bring them to Christ, baptize them? That kind of missional motivation we can give to big churches. We have passion; you have resources. Let’s go together.
LEARN: The RCA has collected resources about the global refugee crisis for congregations looking to take action. Check them out at www.rca.org/refugees.
CONNECT: Email firstname.lastname@example.org to find out more about how your church can get involved in church planting.