The American immigrant migrates to Canada to plant a church

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By Jim Burton   

TORONTO—Clint Eastwood directed, produced and starred in a film called “Gran Torino” in 2008. The film was about Walt, a retired Detroit autoworker and widower whose neighborhood was no longer homogenous. Gangs were wreaking havoc in the area. When an Asian teen refused to steal Walt’s treasured Gran Torino automobile under gang initiation pressure, Walt befriended the boy, who was Hmong.

Eastwood filmed the movie in Daniel Yang’s childhood neighborhood.

“‘Gran Torino’ was glamorized compared to how I grew up,” said Yang, who is a second-generation American Hmong. “Jesus, rock and roll and the girls in my youth group saved me [from the gang experience].”

The Hmong are a minority people group from Southeast Asia, and they have no homeland. They reside in Vietnam, Thailand, China and Laos. Following the Vietnam War and the Laotian Civil War, many sought refuge in Thailand. By the late 1970s, many of those refugees resettled in Western countries. Detroit was just one landing spot.

The immigrant experience defined Yang both then and now. As he struggled to define God’s call upon his life after college and while starting his career, one thing became clear. “I made you for the Word,” Yang felt God saying. “I’m going to use your story of being a second-generation immigrant.”

Faith stabilized his family

Immigration is a jolting experience as families face language, culture and economic barriers. His parents made a profession of faith through a Lutheran church, then started attending a Southern Baptist church. By age 7, Yang had also professed faith in Christ.

“There was a strong awareness of Jesus in my life,” Yang recalled. “It set the trajectory of my life and prevented me from joining gangs.”

By age 21, Yang sensed a calling to “some kind of missional ministry.” But first, there was the American dream.

Yang attended the University of Michigan on a full scholarship, majoring in computer science, then spent more than eight years as a software developer. But deep inside, he wanted to study the Bible and answer the question, “Do I believe this stuff?”

He enrolled in extension courses through The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and realized that God was redirecting him to vocational ministry.

“I didn’t want to be a pastor,” Yang said. “I thought I would be a missionary.”

He learned about church planting and saw it as a great merger of being a missionary and staying in North America where he felt led to help churches navigate cultural issues. Detroit seemed the natural place to do that. But even with a team and meeting place secured there, Daniel and his wife, Linda, realized that Detroit was not their destiny.

So he detoured to Texas.

Texas pit stop

After participating in an assessment process and deciding not to plant in Detroit, Yang received an invitation to Texas where he joined the staff of NorthWood Church for the Communities in Keller, a predominantly Anglo congregation where he developed a college and young adult ministry while also serving as an associate worship pastor.

“God was orchestrating something completely different from what I would have ever planned for myself,” Yang said.

He finished his seminary degree at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary while receiving mentoring at NorthWood. Senior Pastor Bob Roberts introduced Yang to NAMB’s Farm System, aimed at assisting churches in discovering, developing and deploying the next generation of missionaries. Yang began looking for a city to plant a church. That’s when Toronto came into view. After their second vision trip there, Yang recalled, “My wife looked at me and asked, ‘Why aren’t we doing this already?’”

Though just four hours from Detroit, the cities are vastly different. Detroit is 87 percent black. Toronto is vastly intercultural and rapidly on the rise as the financial capital of Canada, while Detroit has been in steady decline. Still, he found one similarity.

“I grew up in one of the worst neighborhoods in Detroit, and Regent Park historically was the worst in Toronto,” Yang said.

Trinity Church in Regent Park

Regent Park is a revitalizing area near downtown Toronto, a city of neighborhoods. Today, Regent Park is fast changing as young adults, many of whom are college educated, are choosing to live there.

“Toronto is much like New York City,” Yang said. “It’s a thinking city. You engage people’s hearts through their minds.”

Fellow church planter Mike Seaman and his wife, Missy, joined the Yangs in planting Trinity Church. The families started a home Bible study as they began building relationships in a city where they knew no one.

“It’s always tempting to do what is manageable and predictable,” Yang said. “We could have stayed a house church for a long time.”

Through a relationship with the Toronto Kiwanis Boys and Girls Club, a meeting space opened up. In September 2013, Trinity Life Church launched with the motto, “Discovering identity and destiny in Christ, influencing the city and the world.”

“It’s helpful when immigrants see that God sent me to North America and I’m on mission here,” Yang said.

As one of North America’s most culturally diverse cities, Toronto is a natural platform for influence. One of many reasons it is one of 32 Send North America cities. But first, there’s the matter of planting more churches there.

“We’d like to see multiple churches planted in different neighborhoods,” Yang said. Soon, a church planting intern will join them from NAMB’s Farm System.

Yang has come to appreciate how Canadian and Southern Baptists do missions through the Cooperative Program and Annie Armstrong Easter Offering®.

“We are NAMB missionaries,” Yang said, who recognizes the advantage that support from the entity and Canadian Baptists affords him. “[It] allows us to have a level of stability in terms of me raising my family here in Canada.”

He also likes the vision.

“We are part of something bigger,” Yang said of Southern Baptists’ cooperative missions method. “It’s tempting to be a myopic church planter. The support encourages us to be more generous in the way we think.”

The goal for the 2015 Annie Armstrong Easter Offering is $60 million. To learn more about the Week of Prayer, the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering and how your church can be mobilized to push back lostness in North America, visit To read about the other 2015 featured missionaries, visit 

Jim Burton writes for the North American Mission Board. 

Date Created: 3/2/2015 6:24:17 PM

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Driven by love in LDS dominant Utah

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By Jim Burton   

HERRIMAN, Utah—You’ve looked out the front window of your home and seen them coming. Two young males wearing white shirts and black ties are riding bikes in the neighborhood. When they knock on your door, what do you do? 

North American Mission Board (NAMB) missionary Travis Kerns would encourage you to love them. That’s what he has learned to do. His love for Mormons grew to the point that he now lives 35 miles from downtown Salt Lake City and serves as city missionary for NAMB’s Send North America: Salt Lake City. 

Kerns has something most Southern Baptists don’t have, a Ph.D. in applied apologetics with a focus on Mormonism from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS). During his undergraduate studies in 1996, he had a class on new religious movements, and Mormonism was the first they studied. 

“It took hold of my heart,” Kerns said of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS). “In school, every paper I wrote was geared toward Mormonism.” 

When he began teaching at SBTS in 2007, Kerns started taking students to Salt Lake City. On the flight home after his sixth trip there in 2012, Kerns said there were fires on the mountains. As he viewed the smoke filling the Salt Lake Valley during the plane’s ascent, it became a fresh vision. 

“What it said to me was that this city is on fire and burning,” Kerns said. “I just lost it, started crying like a baby.”   

Deep Southern Baptist roots   

 Kerns grew up in Greenville, S.C., where his family attended First Baptist Church of Taylors. He’s the product of missions education, having been a Royal Ambassador.  

 “I was Baptist born and Baptist bred and when I die I’ll be Baptist dead,” Kerns said.  

 His dad led him to Christ in their home when he was 9 years old.  

 “I wasn’t baptized until I was 14,” Kerns said, as his pastor wanted him to be sure of his decision. “I saw a lot of my friends walk the aisle and get baptized and nothing really changed in them. So I didn’t want to do it for the sake of doing it.”  

 Kerns chose to attend nearby North Greenville University where its president, Jimmy Epting, had a big influence on him. He enrolled as a business major, but that soon changed.  

 “In my freshman year of college, something in me just clicked, and I fell in love with the New Testament, Jesus and people in the church,” Kerns said.  

 Being Southern Baptist in upstate South Carolina had its advantages, as there were many relationships and connections. That same dynamic is true for Mormons in Salt Lake City.  

 “Utah is 70 percent LDS,” Kerns said. “LDS members run the state government. The majority of judges, police officers, firefighters, lawyers, real estate agents and bankers are LDS. Almost everyone here is LDS.”  

 When Kerns moved into a home with his wife, Staci, and their son, the neighbors already knew it was the “NAMB” house.  

 “They knew right away we weren’t Mormon,” Kerns said. “Plus, we didn’t show up at the meeting house on Sunday.”  

 Mormons attend meeting house (comparable to church) meetings based upon their residence. Between Logan and Provo, Kerns estimates there are 4,164 meeting houses or halls.  

 “It’s so Mormon here, many have never met or heard from anybody who is not Mormon,” Kerns said.  

Church planting challenge 

Southern Baptists are the largest Protestant denomination in Utah, but the presence is minimal. Most Protestant churches run between 50 and 100 people. 

“The hardest part about any Christian church (in Utah) is that the average tenure for pastors is 14 months,” Kerns said. One key to success, he believes, is to keep showing up. 

As city missionary for Send North America: Salt Lake City, one of 32 Send North America cities, Kerns oversees church plants in the metropolitan area. 

“The Utah-Idaho Southern Baptist Convention has a goal that by 2020 they want to double the number of churches [in the two-state convention],” Kerns said. “That means another 150 churches. We want to be one third of that number, 50 new churches by 2020.” 

By 2014, there were 18 active Southern Baptist church plants through Send North America: Salt Lake City, with 12 having started within the year. Kerns spends much of his time mentoring the current church planters while recruiting and assessing future church planters. Utah County, which Kerns calls the cultural capital of Mormonism and the home of Brigham Young University, garners most of his attention. 

The cultural challenges translate into logistical challenges. Whereas in most major cities church plants can meet in public schools, that does not happen in Utah. 

The new churches spend much money on rent, typically commercial space. The Annie Armstrong Easter Offering® (AAEO) and Cooperative Program (CP) help new churches meet those challenges. 

“That money goes directly to our church plants to help them reach people,” Kerns said. “Without CP and AAEO, there would be no Send North America: Salt Lake City. 

“There’s been no shortage of resources when I’ve asked. It’s because of the generosity of Southern Baptists.” 

Kerns was close to tenure at SBTS when he accepted the call to lead Send North America: Salt Lake City. Through his research, Kerns has built relationships with many LDS leaders. 

“In 18 years of doing this, I’ve only seen two people convert from Mormonism to Christianity,” said Kerns who notes that on average it takes from two to seven years for most Mormons to convert, the majority being much closer to seven years. “Being around leaders of the LDS church to share my faith with them drives everything that I do.” 

The goal for the 2015 Annie Armstrong Easter Offering is $60 million. To learn more about the Week of Prayer, the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering and how your church can be mobilized to push back lostness in North America, visit To read about the other 2015 featured missionaries, visit  

Jim Burton writes for the North American Mission Board. 


Date Created: 3/2/2015 5:18:15 PM

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