I t’s more likely to sound like an accident,” says Tiffany Fan of her path toward church planting. “My journey into ministry was not what I expected. I feel that it is a journey that, along the way, God has led. God is shaping me and directing me and kind of turning me in a certain direction.”
First came the call to seminary, which Fan wrestled with, especially as an Asian woman, she says. Though her church, Grace Christian Church in Bayside, New York, fully supports and encourages women in leadership and ministry, Fan struggled with her own questions.
“I had that struggle—can a woman preach and be a pastor? If the husband is the head of the household, and I’m the pastor of a church, how does that work?” she recalls. “If I’m going to be called to be a pastor of some kind or into leadership of some kind, I knew this would not be an easy role for me. I will have a lot of struggles, hindrance, and resistance.”
After a year of wrestling, Fan received “faith and a surrender.” On the day before the deadline, she applied to New Brunswick Theological Seminary. Two years running she has received the Reformed Church in America’s Beth Marcus Scholarship, which supports women in seminary. Fan will graduate with her M.Div. in May.
Prior to Fan’s call to seminary, Grace Christian Church (GCC) was holding Bible studies and outreach events in building lobbies around the campus of Einstein Medical Center in the Bronx area. In addition, each Sunday, vans brought people from the Bronx to worship services at GCC in Queens. While Fan was attending seminary, her husband was invited to be involved with this group in the Bronx. Fan went along, too.
“I went to their event and I felt that yes, this is a place that God is pushing me into,” she says. “We got involved and started praying with them.”
Becoming a church plant
As the Fans became involved, the group began looking for a place in the Bronx where they could meet for worship, rather than enduring the lengthy commute to a church service in Queens every week. They wanted, too, a space more conducive to worship gatherings than the lobbies of the medical center’s buildings. Shortly after the search began, the group discovered that the Reformed Church in America’s Classis of New York (a regional grouping of churches) had a mostly empty church building just a short way down the road from the medical center. GCC’s senior pastor asked if the classis would be willing to rent out or share the space.
“They said, ‘Why don’t you use the facility? As long as it’s open to the public and there’s an English service as well [you may use it],’” says Fan. “We went in, and it became a church plant.”
It soon became apparent that God was at work, reinforcing the call to seminary and now, the call to lead a church plant.
“My education and the church planting process go hand-in-hand to shape me,” says Fan. She noticed that situations from the church would tie into her seminary coursework. “It’s a very humbling and growing experience. I do definitely see God’s hand.”
The church plant, commonly known as GCC Bronx, intends to officially organize within the next year as part of the Reformed Church in America’s Classis of New York. The official name, United Reformed Church in Williamsbridge, comes from the church that formerly met in the building, though internally and among the three GCC sites, the plant will likely still be referred to as “GCC Bronx.”
As she works through her final years of seminary, Fan has also taken on full-time leadership of GCC Bronx, doing everything from preaching and teaching Sunday school to sweeping the floors and taking out the trash. She jokes that she handles everything except finance and driving the van.
The church plant has services in both English and Chinese, and most attendees are in the medical profession. Unlike most Chinese churches, the English-language service attendees are entirely people who live in the community—Filipino, Jewish, Scottish—rather than second-generation Chinese Americans. This is a congregation that Fan built from the ground up; about 15 to 20 people, ranging in age from 15 to 85 years old, are part of it.
The Chinese congregation has grown from the original Bible study group. About 20 to 30 people worship on Sunday afternoons. Pre-pandemic, these services included childcare, Sunday school, and a meal afterward.
On the second Sunday of each month, GCC Bronx has a combined service in English, with Chinese translation provided. Typically, on these days, GCC’s senior pastor, Rev. John Chang, comes to administer the sacrament of communion, which Fan is unable to oversee until ordination.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the church plant has been meeting virtually via Zoom for all services. In late July, as some restrictions eased in New York, the English congregation was able to meet in person due to the smaller size of the group. Despite the face masks, six feet of distance, and inability to hug or shake hands, Fan says the experience was amazing; more than before, the congregation treasures the ability to be together in their building.
Multiple cultures and languages, but one church
Looking ahead, Fan hopes to unify the English and Chinese congregations, which will take careful effort and planning.
“We are one church,” she says. “I preach in English, and I preach in Chinese. It’s important for me for them to come together.”
Yet, a combined service is not the solution for every Sunday. Fan explains that preparing a sermon in one language then translating into another compromises the quality, due to the logic of each language. Separate services allow both congregations to receive the full message.
While navigating sermons in two different languages can be complex, the element of language also provides GCC Bronx with opportunity for outreach, particularly through the Chinese language school that the church plant started a few years ago. One day per week, Chinese language classes for elementary-aged kids have been held in the same building in which the church gathers.
Fan says that these kids—about 30 this year—primarily come from families of non-believers.
“Whenever we have Easter, Christmas, or Chinese New Year celebrations, the parents and families come join,” she says. “That’s our opportunity to get to know them and spread the gospel.”
Fan has hope for further outreach opportunities as the church plant grows. So far, in their early years, they’ve hosted workshops, vacation Bible school, and cultural celebrations for the community.
And though the sign outside the church building is in Chinese and English, Fan emphasizes that all are welcome.
“It’s not just a Chinese church,” Fan adds. “I believe that God called me for a multicultural, multiethnic, and multilingual ministry. … My hope is to have this church grow healthy and strong and be multicultural—that everyone will learn to love one another, not only across families but across cultures as well, that different ethnicities can mingle in this church and learn to love one another, learn to be understanding, and together grow in God’s truth.
“I know that eventually God will lead, because throughout my journey, I see how God is leading—with my inner pull, the opportunities coming up, and people’s needs arising,” she says. “I am confident that God will lead, and he knows what he’s doing.”
This article was also published in RCA Today, the Reformed Church in America’s denominational magazine.
To support young church plants like GCC Bronx, visit www.rca.org/give/multiply. Your gift helps provide the training, support, and resources that help church planters like Tiffany Fan share the gospel and make more disciples.