FIRST-PERSON: They called me pastor

EDITOR'S NOTE: Jim Burton says he never set out to be a Korean church planter, but God orchestrated the opportunity with a multi-generation congregation in metro Atlanta. Burton shares his story of leading the church to plant new churches. Also see "ALS gripped him with life's 'big questions'" published Nov. 26.

SUWANEE, Ga. (BP) -- The question came early in my pastoral tenure. "What do you want us to call you?" The question came from David Shin.

Shin, a recent Georgia Tech graduate, had begun his new career in a corporate position at UPS. He was one of the approximately 30 regular attendees at a Korean-American English ministry of Sugarloaf Korean Baptist Church (SKBC) in Suwanee, Ga.

The early days of a pastorate are critical. The pastor is anxious to earn the trust of the congregation, and the congregation is anxious to know what kind of pastor the new guy will be. In my context, those dynamics were even more pronounced. The congregation had about six core couples, and the remaining were Korean-American collegians. I am a middle-aged white guy from Kentucky. If you've ever doubted God's sense of humor, just consider that possibility.

Jim Burton, center, and his wife, Kim, visit with Vince Cho, left, and others at a Sugarloaf International Fellowship (SIF) Christmas party in 2011. Thirteen months later, doctors diagnosed Burton with ALS. He served SIF through November 2013.
 
So Shin's question was more pertinent than you might imagine. He was being proactive to navigate the cultural divide between the new Anglo pastor and his ethnic congregation.

Korean Southern Baptist churches have a rich history in North America. SKBC was the first Korean Southern Baptist church in Georgia and has since planted seven other Korean Baptist congregations. SKBC has steadily grown for years and has recently navigated a move from Tucker in east Atlanta to Suwanee in north Atlanta where the bulk of the city's estimated 100,000 Koreans live. Even as Anglo Southern Baptist churches have faced decline recently, so have the Korean churches.

Through a chance meeting with SKBC senior pastor Bong Choi in the summer of 2011, he asked me to supply preach for the month of July in their English ministry. The congregation met at 1:30 p.m., so I was available and agreed. That commitment would last 29 months as they soon asked me to stay on as their pastor.

Members of Sugarloaf International Fellowship (SIF) surround their pastor, Jim Burton, center, and his wife, Kim, and their son, Jacob, on Nov. 17, 2013, during the last month of his tenure there. The congregation was primarily English-speaking Korean millennials. Burton resigned due to failing health following his ALS (Lou Gherig's Disease) diagnosis.
Photo by Yusung Park
As the deacons and I explored God's will in regard to my new role, I told them that this relationship represented inverted missions. Instead of my family getting on a boat or plane and moving overseas to learn a new language and culture, they had come to my backyard. But because SKBC is a decidedly first-generation Korean church, there were still cultural challenges.

Like most first-generation churches, they were beginning to lose their teenagers and young adults. As second-generation Korean-Americans assimilate into western culture, their faith commitment to Christ often wanes. Choi was looking for a solution to stop the slide, but he had another concern.

Gwinnett County, where the church resides, is one of America's most diverse counties. The public school system's students speak more than 100 languages. While there are many Korean churches in the area, scores of other internationals remain unreached.

As I began my tenure, I conducted a community assessment and focus groups. This exercise would help the church and me better understand the present challenge. Data from the North American Mission Board's research team informed us that about 120,000 internationals from multiple nations lived within a seven-mile ring of the church. In the focus groups, church members indicated they wanted to reach the nations surrounding them. One deacon, Bill Oh, summed it up this way, "My wish is to have kimchi, tacos, and curry for Thanksgiving within five years."

To create a new mindset, this English ministry would need a new paradigm. Consisting mostly of college students who grew up in the SKBC youth ministry, this group had great potential to become the core of a church plant. We began to explore new territory for Korean-American English ministries and launched Sugarloaf International Fellowship: An Intercultural Worship Gathering (SIF) in 2012. During my tenure, we had visitors representing China, Colombia, Vietnam, Mexico, Guyana, Australia, India, Laos and Cambodia. But our growth was not as intercultural as we had envisioned. Instead, our growth came primarily among Korean-American college students as our attendance reached as many as 50.

Lostness is pervasive in North America, including within the Korean-American community. While SIF has yet to break the intercultural church-growth code, they did break one other barrier. They accepted and loved a middle-aged white guy from Kentucky as their pastor. At no time was this more evident than on the difficult day I informed them of my amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) diagnosis, or Lou Gehrig's disease. The disease would cut short my tenure as their pastor.

SIF was a gift to me from God. After spending 25 years in missions education and mobilization agencies, as well as visiting 18 countries on mission trips, SIF brought missions home. My time there became my one and only official pastorate. For that, I am grateful to have been called pastor.

Jim Burton is a photojournalist living in Cumming, Ga. He shares more details about being a pastor of a Korean-American church in "Life in the Blue Zone: God, I Didn't See this Coming."
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