William Burton

William Burton

In this episode of Radio B&R, TBMB ethnic church planting specialist William Burton discusses immigration, ethnic people in Tennessee and Great Commission opportunities for churches looking for a place to reach the nations right here in Tennessee.


Chris:                Hi, and welcome in to this episode of Radio B&R. I’m Chris Turner, your host. Today, I have with me William Burton, who is the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board’s Ethnic Church Planning Specialist. William travels across the state, and works with folks of all kinds of different people groups. William, welcome for this episode of Radio BNR.

William:             Thanks, Chris. Good to be with you today.

Chris:                     I just wanted to have you in because there’s just a lot going on with ethnic ministry, and internationals, and immigration is really in the news today. Internationals in Tennessee really isn’t something new. Tell us a little bit about what’s going on with internationals in Tennessee.

William:                Actually, Tennessee Baptist have been involved in ministry to internationals for, almost since the very beginning, especially the last 40 years. We have been very intentional in engaging the people groups that live in Tennessee. We have ethnic churches that have been around for 30 and 40 years in our state, so it’s nothing new. Now, what is new is the influx of people from so many different nations around the world, and the people groups that that represents.

Chris:                Tell me a little bit about the numbers, because the numbers of language groups, people groups, that are living in Tennessee is staggering. For somebody who grew up in Tennessee, this was mind-blowing. Tell me a little bit about the number of internationals that we have, and the different types of people groups that are here.

William:             Yeah, it is staggering. I’m like you. I grew up in Tennessee, and as I tell people, this isn’t our grandparents’ Tennessee anymore.

Chris:                No, it’s not.

William:             The landscape has changed. The demographics have changed. Chris, currently, unofficially, we would be looking at upwards of a million ethnic peoples that live in Tennessee.

Chris:                Our population in our state’s a little over 6 million, so one-sixth of our state would be people from another country, basically.

William:             From another country, another ethnic group.

Chris:                     Another background.

William:             Of that nearly million people, you’re looking at about 142-143 different ethnic groups. That’s not of different nations, but that’s different ethnic groups. We can have people from one nation, a geopolitical area, but they are from different ethnic groups. For example, Mexico.

There are lots and lots of people from Mexico that would identify themselves to a particular indigenous people group of Mexico. They’re Mexican nationals, but their ethnicity is different, like Native Americans, here in the United States.

Chris:                Well, and the same with some of the Arabic countries that we have seen people here, with Kurds actually being from a northern Iraq area, but this being … Having a large Kurdish population here in the national area, but there are other ethnic people that would not necessarily identify themselves with a geopolitical type of grouping, as being Iraqi or something like that … They’re actually an ethnic group within that country.

William:             Exactly.

Chris:                I think I read a couple years ago, like 112 different ethnic groups or different languages spoken in the Davidson County School System alone, here in Nashville. You can just imagine how that spreads across- [crosstalk 03:23]

William:             Across the state, we’re at about 135 different languages or ethnic peoples in our school system.

Chris:                Tell us a little bit about church planning and what you’re seeing across the state, because I think probably a lot of people have seen a Hispanic church someplace in Tennessee, because the Hispanic church has really taken some root here, and we’re seeing that. Give us a little bit of an idea about the way that the Hispanic church has grown here. That being a primary group that you work with, but also there’s also some growth among Arabic peoples, and some others that we have. What are you seeing as you travel?

William:             One of the exciting things among our Hispanic churches is the multiplication that’s occurring. They themselves are planting churches. They’re multiplying. They are engaging their community, and not relying on external resources or Anglo churches to take the initiative. Why is that? Because we, as Tennessee Baptists, I believe, historically, have been very intentional in promoting and encouraging missions in our Hispanic churches that were, early on, established. They have just picked up that heritage of being great commissioned Christians, and taking to heart their responsibility in reaching their Jerusalem for Christ. That, to me, is just so exciting, because they are first-generation Christians, but they are carrying on the heritage of Southern Baptists and our missional DNA that we have.

Chris:                As far as numbers, how many Hispanic churches do you see affiliated with the Tennessee Baptist Convention? Is that a million people? Is that 500,000? Give us an idea of how rooted that church is within our [state convention 05:10].

William:             Interesting. We had this past year recognized churches, our Hispanic churches, and other ethnic churches that were some of our leading baptizing churches. A couple of years ago, we had a church, a Hispanic church that baptized over 70 people. We had a church this year, in west Tennessee, that was involved in planting nine Hispanic churches in their community.

Chris:                I’ve been with you on a Sunday afternoon, when your phone starts blowing up from Hispanic churches across the state texting you pictures of baptisms from that morning.

William:             Every week, it’s so exciting for me to start getting those pictures coming in, and people calling me, telling me what’s been going on, because the Lord’s at work. Right now, Chris, we have close to 200 Hispanic congregations, Baptist congregations, in the state of Tennessee. It is the largest Evangelical denominational group in Tennessee, among Hispanics. Actually, I’ve been doing some research with other Evangelical groups in the state, and we’re head and shoulders above anybody else, which is pretty exciting.

Chris:                     That’s awesome.

William:             As far as the number of members, I would be hard-pressed to give you a number on that, but it is a significant amount.

Chris:                We do have going on here, in south Nashville, over in the Nolensville area, and kind of between Nolensville and downtown Nashville … There’s an Arabic congregation that meets, there’s some others, but tell us a little bit about what’s happening in the Arabic church here in middle Tennessee, but there may be some other things going on, as well.

William:             Yeah, just this past year, we’ve had three new Arabic congregations that have affiliated with the Tennessee Baptist Convention, and these are churches that are being planted … It was largely by the other Arabic Baptist church in the area. We have one that meets at Tusculum Hills Baptist Church. Pastor Nathan [Awad 07:19] is the pastor there — a fine, Evangelistic soul-winning pastor from Egypt. He was just … He’ll be ordained March the 1st, and I participated in his ordination council. He’s the second Arabic Baptist pastor to be ordained in the last 12 months in Tennessee, which is just historical. This is of historical proportions.

If you can just think about that demographic, and that small group of people, relatively speaking to the size of our state, one pastor is like a hundred Anglo pastors, or maybe even a thousand. It’s just amazing what God’s doing. Arabic, or Muslims, are coming to know Christ on a weekly basis through our ministry. The Arabic Baptist Church in Murfreesboro is planting a 151 church in an apartment complex in Smyrna, with the intent of planting a church there in that apartment complex. They meet in someone’s living room, but they’re seeing Muslims, men and women, coming to know Christ.

Chris:                It really is an opportunity, especially for those Muslim believers that are really very likely to connect with fellow people of their people group, of their ethnicity, to share the gospel with them. They’re seeing a harvest of people come from a Muslim background. I know there’s all the political issues around it, but I want to void those, because it really is irrelevant to what it is that you’re trying to do, in evangelizing, and seeing churches planted, and people come to Christ. Tell us a little bit, though, about what the opportunity is for a Christian in this age of immigration? Nobody really seems to have a handle on what to do with that. What is the Christian to do?

William:             Immigration’s the four-letter word right now. It really is, but if you look, historically, if you look scripturally, in the Old Testament, immigration has always existed. People have always … Any time there has been a movement of God, it’s always been preceded by a migration of people. You look at the children of Israel, they moved out of Egypt, God began … They moved to the Promised Land, but they had to migrate. The Jewish people have been, traditionally, historically, a nomadic group of people that migrated from other areas.

The scripture is very clear that we’re to be kind to the stranger, the foreigner, the immigrant that’s among us. As believers, we’re taught to do that. I would say to people that are listening today, our job as Christians, it’s not immigration. The government needs to take care of that. That’s their job. Our job is salvation. I’m not interested in immigration, but we are interested in salvation. We have great opportunities to engage people who perhaps have never met a Christian. Think about this. You have people that live here in Tennessee from Saudi Arabia, and other places, where it is illegal for them to openly profess their faith in Christ. Here’s your opportunity to be the face of Christ for them, to be the hands and feet of Jesus for them.

Chris:                You mentioned that … We have the cooperative program video from a couple years ago, down at the University of Memphis, where the BCM, the Baptist Collegiate Ministry, reached out to some internationals, and some from those Muslim countries that you’re talking about, they’re extremely closed, where Christianity is punishable by death if you convert. That young man came to Christ and is still walking in faith. It’s an unprecedented opportunity to people here on a neutral ground, where they might be more open to hearing a word, and at least, a dialogue … It’s not that they’re opposed to Christianity, it’s that — from my experience, and I know from your experience — people are willing to have those conversations. They’re curious, and they want to know, so the opportunities are there.

William:             You know, Chris, in the Quran, there are 99 different descriptions for God, but none of them is love. None of them is love. This is our opportunity to give the face of Christ, and to be the love of Christ for them. I would state to you to be a good neighbor. Be a good neighbor.

Chris:                We want to help churches, as well, with what we’re doing. I know that there are a lot of people that are in our churches, and we have some great, great commissioned churches that see the opportunity to go overseas, and to reach. We are having people come here. A lot of times, I believe that one of the things that churches struggle with is it’s not that they don’t want to reach out to their international neighbors and friends, they don’t know how.

William:             They don’t know how.

Chris:                Where do they start? What is something that you would tell a church of where they might be able to start to build a bridge to begin a ministry like that?

William:             The first thing I would say — don’t try to reinvent the wheel. If there is a ministry that already exists in your community, in your area … If there’s an Arabic-language church in your city, partner with that church to do reach. Help them reach their community. If there’s not, find some of the felt needs that may exist in your community that your church can fulfill that need, that void of … Maybe it’s a human need, it’s a resource that they need. It could be orientation for medical, for housing, for job opportunities, things like that. Be a resource center for them, and they’re going to ask, “Why are you doing this?” The reason is because we want to show you the love of Christ. We’re being a good neighbor. Jesus said to love your neighbor as yourself. Put yourself in the position where if you were living in a foreign land, and having particular needs in your life, it sure would be welcome to have someone that knows the lay of the land that would be willing to come and walk along beside of you.

If you have more questions about how you can be involved, how your church can be involved in engaging the people groups … Not just Arabs, not just Hispanics, but other people groups in your community, please feel free to call me. My cellphone number is area code (423)231-6113. You can call me. I’ll be happy to talk with you about that. My email is Shoot me an email. I’d love to talk with you. Let’s explore the opportunities, find out what the demographics are in your community, and let’s see how we can reach people for Christ.

Chris:                     One of the other things, as you were talking about that … One of the ways that’s great to connect, as we close this episode out … When we did the Golden Offering for Tennessee Missions video over at the Arab-American Friendship Center, and the ladies there, a lot of them from northern Iraq, and other Arab countries, brought that food. We Baptists love to eat.

William:             That’s right.

Chris:                If you can just get an invite to somebody’s house, who makes Mediterranean or Arabic food, you won’t regret that opportunity.

William:             That’s right. You know, Arabics are friendly. They want to converse with you. They’ll try their best.

Chris:                They want to learn about us and our culture, and inviting them in to our homes, as well. Really, bottom line, it sounds like what we need to allow is the love of God to rule and reign in our lives, and dispel the fear that we might have with internationals coming, and see it as a great commission opportunity, not necessarily to go there, but the Lord is bringing the nations here, and maybe there’s a reason for that.

William:             That’s right. God’s made foreign missions home missions for us.

Chris:                Great. Thanks, William, for being with us today.

William:             Thank you, Chris. Great to be with you.