A COMMON PROBLEM WITH NO CLEAR SOLUTION
This tension is broad. Asians, Hispanics, Romanians, and many other immigrant groups face the same difficulty.
Which raises the question: Why hasn’t anyone figured this out yet?
Immigrant churches are disconnected from broader evangelicalism. The linguistic barrier blocks them from meaningful interactions with majority-culture churches, even in their own cities. Though their EMs may have a few people with a different ethnicity, their world is predominately monocultural. They exist in a cultural bubble.
This strong cultural identity makes stepping into a broader church context difficult. Majority-culture Christians are bewildered by cultural eccentricities. Why, in Romanian churches, do men and women sit on opposite sides of the room? Why, in Korean churches, do people pray individually and out loud?
The bubble is thick. Many immigrants don’t feel “Together” at large conferences like Together for the Gospel. Rather, they’re visiting Jurassic Park to see their favorite dinosaur preach. Afterward, they recede back to their bubble where they live and minister.
Immigrants don’t have many examples of those who have successfully traversed the cultural boundaries and engaged broader evangelicalism in the public sphere. Diverse models of Christian faithfulness seem absent. Where is the Korean [enter public preacher’s name here]? Where is the El Salvadorian [enter public scholar’s name here]?
Because of this, immigrant Christian groups don’t know how to edify and learn from broader evangelicalism—and broader evangelicalism doesn’t know how to edify and learn from immigrant Christian groups. No one speaks to each other. The bubbles haven’t been popped. The conversation doesn’t progress.
In addition to isolation from broader evangelical culture, immigrant churches lack a national connectional awareness. The pastors in Southern California don’t know the pastors in Queens. The pastors in Houston don’t know the pastors in Portland. When pastors in immigrant contexts speak to each other about problems in their churches, they’re regionally closed off. Every region in the US has a hamster wheel of discussion where pastors lament the same problems without moving forward in the discussion.
Furthermore, immigrant churches lack the public platform necessary to even have a national discussion. Websites like Desiring God, The Gospel Coalition, and 9Marks share a reader base exposed to the same material on a national scale. They’re able to have nationwide discussions that progress as Christians contribute to various topics at hand. Immigrant churches lack such opportunities, and as a result their conversations fragment into faint murmurs. They never progress.
Sadly, even if immigrant churches could solve their isolation and fragmentation, many would fail to come up with sufficient solutions because of their pragmatic philosophies of ministry. It makes sense. No one taught these churches how they ought to structure themselves. They played the cards they were dealt. They resorted to pragmatism because what else was there for them?
Pragmatism causes the conversation to splatter all over the place, like a blender without a lid. Immigrant pastors discuss the efficacy of live, in-ear translation for every single English-speaking adult. They talk about hiring more staff, or planning joint revivals. They toss around discombobulated questions about this, that, and the other while the preliminary and primary question is ignored: What does the Bible say about the church?
This frenzied pragmatism fractures any conversation into semantics. Discussions become so specific and so idiosyncratic that they lack substance. Pastors stay distracted, and yet again the conversation doesn’t progress.
HOW DO WE PROCEED?
Isolation, fragmentation, and pragmatism can feel like insurmountable obstacles. How can the immigrant church address this tornado of cultural division? While division in the church has caused much harm, it also presents an opportunity: we ought to have a united conversation about what the church is, and how it ought to be governed.
In other words, the immigrant church problem is at least in part a polity problem.
Back to Basics
Before someone answers “What do we do with the immigrant church?”, they need to first answer “What is a local church?” Trying to come up with solutions to the immigrant church without a solid understanding of the local church is like trying to write a novel without knowing how to construct a sentence. One precedes the other.
Of course, unique cultural context matters. But so does biblical conviction. Cultural ignorance fights for in inapplicable solutions while biblical ignorance fights for unfaithful solutions. Immigrant churches need to be informed both culturally and biblically in order to tackle the problem at hand.
But biblical faithfulness comes before cultural application. The local church doesn’t belong to a culture, it belongs to Christ. Churches must begin with biblical principles, and then apply those biblical principles to various cultural contexts. Principles before application.
In order to find biblical principles, we need to go back to basics—we need to go back to the Bible. Christians in immigrant contexts need to dig their noses into their Bibles to see how God instructs Christians to structure their churches. Only then can we have a productive conversation about the immigrant church.
Conversations about immigrant church structures are alarmingly sparse.
Part of the hesitation comes from a lack of established authority on the subject. Many will squirm at the thought of publicly declaring, “This is the way immigrant churches ought to be structured.” (Or writing an article stating that this is the state of immigrant churches!) But the reality is that no one is an expert in this field. If we wait until the experts speak, there will only be silence. The only way we can progress in our thinking on the immigrant church is by having the conversation anyway.
So let’s have it. Let’s contribute thoughts. Let’s evaluate each other’s contributions. Let’s get to know each other’s churches. And with cautious, yet principled experimentation, let’s equip each other with biblical insight as we progress through trial and error. A focused, substantive conversation avoids ambiguous, pithy statements and puts us to work—real work.
Churches need guidance. In order to have guidance, we need wisdom. In order to gain wisdom, we need to see each other’s ideas and engage thoughtfully. We need to chisel away at bad material and refine good material.
This article is the first in a series of articles about the immigrant church. I hope it will function like an online think tank as different pastors and church members in a variety of immigrant contexts offer meaningful contributions to this discussion. Let’s work together to push the conversation forward. [You can also join me and four pastors at the Asian-American breakout at T4G.]
Editor’s note: This article is the first in a series of articles on immigrant churches. Next, Portland-area pastor Geoff Chang will discuss “Principles before Pragmatism.”
This article originally appeared here.