“On the day of Pentecost, the first miracle that happened was that the people heard the Gospel in their own language. The people who are here from China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, they speak English but it’s not their native language. It’s just so much easier for them to comprehend if they can hear the Gospel in their own language.” – Paul Spann
In November of 2021, after more than two decades, the members of the former Chinese Language Mission of Immanuel Baptist in Little Rock realized their dream and vision of becoming an autonomous church. In July of 2022, the church moved from their home of 23 years to a new location to officially began their journey as the Immanuel Little Rock Chinese Baptist Church.
In the beginning
Vivian Spann grew up in Hong Kong and became a Christ-follower when she was 14. She went to school in Hawaii where she joined a Baptist church and was appointed as a US 2 missionary with the Home Mission Board working with Indochinese refugees. It was during this time that she met her husband, Paul, while attending Pulaski Heights Baptist Church in Little Rock. It was during this time in 1990, when the couple began a Bible study in their home with the vision of starting a language mission. Vivian was fluent in Cantonese and Mandarin, so they began with the goal of reaching those who spoke Chinese.
In 1992, the couple moved their family to Immanuel Baptist Church of Little Rock. In 1993, the church provided a space for the Spanns to hold their Bible Study. Then in 1998, the Chinese language Bible study group was officially adopted as a mission of Immanuel Baptist Church. For over 23 years, Immanuel partnered with the Chinese church to provide a place to meet and to assist with various outreach efforts. In addition, Immanuel also provided opportunities for ministry and learning for their teens and children. The church also helped with accounting services and other needs as they arose.
They couldn’t have asked for a better partner, but from the beginning the Spanns had a vision of growing a fully autonomous church and in November of 2021 that vision became a reality.
Returning home to reach the nations
Ron and Elinda West served as missionaries with the International Mission Board in Taiwan for over 30 years. When on furlough they would stay at the mission house of Immanuel and attend services there. When they retired, they moved to Booneville to take care of his mom and ultimately moved to Little Rock in 2013. They joined Immanuel and got involved with the Chinese mission. Ron preached some but wasn’t fully involved. Until they got ready to call a pastor. He was part of the search committee who helped call Pastor Li.
“It’s been good for us to be back in a Chinese church,” West said. “For 30 years we worshiped in Chinese every Sunday. And so, it’s really good to do that again. It’s really made us feel at home in a sense. It was good to be back in English churches and hear sermons in English, but you know, our heart is still in Chinese ministry.”
The Wests are grateful for the opportunity to help the church. But they are quick to point out that they are just there as servants. Others have invested more time and effort into helping the church grow to become what it is today. The Wests say it’s similar to the time they were serving in Taiwan. When they would start a church, they would initially have to lead out, but they were quick to bring in a Chinese person to be the pastor. “I don’t know if you’re familiar with the term ‘man of peace’,”West said. “But you have to have a Chinese person to work with the Chinese. Pastor Li is that person to us. We helped bring him in and now he’s the pastor and we’re just there to do what we can to help.”
Finding a pastor
As a child, Chunhai Li suffered from a serious heart condition. As he struggled with his health issues, Li came to a point where he even contemplated ending his own life. And then he heard the good news of the Gospel. “Jesus called me, and I realized that I needed Him to save me. I confessed I was a sinner and gave my life to Jesus when I was 15 years old in a small village in mainland China.”
Li still had a heart condition, but as he continued to feel better, he began to get more involved in the church and became a preacher when he was 18 years old. At age 30, he felt called to move to the U.S. and eventually settled in Oklahoma where he became a church planter for 10 years, helping to plant several Chinese language churches. Then in 2018, Li was called to serve as the pastor of the Chinese church in Little Rock.
In 2020, Li had open heart surgery at Arkansas Children’s Hospital where the surgeons worked to repair a giant hole in his heart. He came close to dying, but ultimately God brought him through the surgery. Since that time, Li said he feels stronger than ever before. “This experience helped me to even stand firm to know my life purpose is to follow Jesus and to fight for the Kingdom,” Li said. “So that really gave me a lot of strength that I could completely depend on God to have the strength to lead.”
Looking to the future
Li says that the goal from the very beginning was for the mission to become an independent, autonomous church. In July of 2022, this dream was realized as the church moved to a new location. Don Chancellor, Associational Missionary for Pulaski Baptist Association, helped Li connect with Derek Brown, Executive Director of Arkansas Baptist Children and Family Ministries. Brown shared that there was room in their new location on Markham Street, so arrangements were made to relocate the church to that building. Li says that Immanuel Baptist really treated them well all of these years but the opportunity for the church to grow up and become an independent body of believers was just too good to pass up. “We feel like now we are totally independent and that we can really move forward to fulfill the Great Commission, to share the Gospel and reach more people.”
In the short time that they have been in their new building, Li says that he has already seen a big change as church members have taken on more responsibility. As part of an established church, Li’s group did not have much work to do as the buildings were cleaned and maintained by the host church. The members were able to come and simply enjoy worship together. In their new location all of that has changed. Church members are all responsible for setting up and cleaning up. Everyone has a small job to do and each family is assigned to be a greeter and welcome people to the church.
As Little Rock Immanuel Chinese Baptist Church looks to the future, they want to find their own identity and continue to reach more Chinese people. Services are held in Mandarin in keeping with their goal of bringing the Gospel to the people in their heart language. In just a short time in their new home, they have already seen the fruits of their labor. “Even though it’s been a short time, I see we are more active, and more people are coming. More children and youth are coming, and we started doing our own youth and children’s ministry, “Li said. “We are having some challenges, but it makes us feel like it’s our church. We feel strongly, we want to be Jesus’s disciples and carry on the mission.”
Li is quick to thank all Arkansas Baptists for their help through the years. “We really appreciate Immanuel Baptist Church for their generosity and unselfish love for our Chinese mission.” He says that the Chinese church is unequivocally Southern Baptist and will continue to maintain those connections. “We also want to say thank you to our Baptist family at Immanuel, the ABSC (Arkansas Baptist State Convention), the Pulaski Baptist Association and Don Chancellor. Without your help we could not come to the point where we are now,” Li said.
Li asks for continued prayers in the days ahead as the church seeks to fulfill the Great Commission. “Pray that we can continue to reach more people, share the Gospel and help them know Jesus. That’s the number one thing. Pray also that God would bring us the right people to teach our youth and children. We are in need of coworkers for both of these ministries. Lastly, we are still looking for a new building. We are not trying to stay here. We want to have a new building, not just for the sake of having a building. We know that the building is just a tool, but we want to reach more people and we can use a building to help expand His Kingdom.”