Church Membership in an International Church: Challenging Case Studies
I pastor an international church. That means that we’re primarily a church for “expats”—expatriates—folks who no longer reside in their home country. Our members come from a broad array of cultural backgrounds, in addition to living in a culture that few (if any) of us understand to be our home culture. I’m firmly convinced that the idea of church membership “works” in my context—as in any context—because it is commanded by Jesus Christ. He is wise enough to have considered my particular contextual challenges as well as everyone else’s in what he ordained for his bride throughout the ages.
In this article, I will explore three challenges that international churches face with regard to membership. The first two challenges correspond to problems many pastors in the US currently face—though perhaps to a lesser degree. The third challenge is perhaps more particular for international churches but one that you—yes, you—can help relieve.
CHALLENGE 1: CULTURAL DIVERSITY AND ACCIDENTAL EXCLUSIVITY
If our church membership practices aren’t careful, we may unintentionally create a church that only caters to people who are culturally or ethnically like us. Of course, some cultural barriers are inescapable. That our church worships in English means that we’ll generally choose songs from English-speaking traditions, which means that people from other cultures will generally be less familiar with our songs, even if they’re already fellow believers.
But there are steps we can take to minimize cultural and ethnic barriers in our church. A friend of mine grew up in a church in the Middle East that was ethnically south Indian. While the church didn’t formally exclude non-Indians, they did treat other ethnicities, even Indians from other regions, with suspicion—as though ethnicity determined your ability to live an honorable life. The church’s firm lines on particular moral practices like alcohol consumption, modest dress, and which musical instruments were appropriate for worship felt perfectly natural to them, but it came across as near-Pharisaical to Christians of different ethnicities. In so doing, this church communicated an expectation that you must think like them in areas of prudence in order to be welcomed as a member.
That example may seem extreme—obviously this church had dipped into legalism. But accidentally excluding others on matters of prudence is easier and more common than we may think. I’m painfully aware, for instance, that my sermon illustrations can build a culture that unnecessarily excludes people. If my illustrations draw deeply on American history, I teach the church that though we say we are international, only those familiar with America and its cultural heritage are actually on my mind.
Unchecked and entrenched cultural preferences often create international churches that become cultural enclaves for people who miss home, instead of embassies representing and anticipating the coming kingdom. In light of this danger, we must clearly teach that Christ gathers his church from all peoples. Elders must model humility and servant-heartedness before the congregation. This humility often looks like a willingness to concede our own personal preferences about musical style or dress code so that people eventually learn that the church belongs to Christ, not a particular ethnicity or nationality.
It’s also crucial to be humble enough to listen to the concerns of others when they feel that something about the church is “too Western.” Even if most of what they’re objecting to is biblical, we should still consider whether their comments unearth any ways we are, in fact, unintentionally communicating cultural exclusivity. We can often perceive our own cultural blind spots by humbly examining them when a brother or sister points out something that feels culturally exclusive.
CHALLENGE 2: THEOLOGICAL DIVERSITY AND UNHELPFUL INCLUSIVITY
Not only do we enjoy great cultural diversity in international churches, we also face great theological diversity. That theological diversity creates great pressure to broaden the qualifications for membership or make membership itself more ambiguous and porous.
Like metropolitan cities in the U.S., we have many people moving to our cities for work. Yet unlike many metropolitan cities in the U.S., the church options for Christians are fairly limited. In my current context, I pastor the only English-speaking church in town, with a few others offering translation services. That puts a different emotional pressure on our church to fudge on our doctrinal distinctives, particularly our ecclesiological ones.
Perhaps the most common scenario we face is whether to allow paedobaptists to join our Baptist church. But that’s just the beginning. What about the Lutheran businessman who is committed to affirming the real presence of Christ at the Supper? Or the devout sister who believes that all Christians must pursue a second baptism in order to fully receive the Spirit? Telling them to just go to the Lutheran or charismatic church down the street isn’t an option; the only thing down the street is the local fish market.
The pressure to allow anyone who calls themselves a Christian to be a part of the church is intense. In many of these situations, Christians will pit so-called “unity” against clear biblical teaching. But I’m convinced that equivocation on these questions will lead to confusion and conflict within the body. Giving way to the pressure to be inclusive on a range of theological positions often rapidly degenerates into ambiguity on the gospel itself and fosters weak-willed elders who fail to guard the pulpit.
CHALLENGE 3: LIVING AWAY FROM HOME
Finally, international churches face another challenge with regard to membership: people want to stay connected to their home. Like the college kid who feels like he needs to show some loyalty to the church that raised him, expats often feel a deep affection and loyalty for their home church. Some folks even continue to send their tithes to their home church and invest more energy in those long-distance relationships than they do with the brothers and sisters in their new church. Because of a pervading sense that they’re “just passing through,” expats (particularly Western ones) often don’t see the value of investing in a church they’re only going to be at for a short time.
Regrettably, the most harmful offenders are often Western missionaries. Some well-meaning missions’ agencies even require their missionaries to be members of churches back in the U.S. I suppose these agencies are trying to reinforce that the Great Commission was given to the local church and not to a missions agency. But in reality, this practice teaches missionaries that they should either think of church membership as an empty formality, or that they should be more relationally invested in a church several thousand miles away than the church in the very city they actually live. I recently learned that local Christians in my city have a name for missionaries that essentially translates into “the ones who go alone.”
My concern here isn’t merely theoretical. These practices damage the witness and work of the church, of my church. Missionaries—who often appear to be the most mature and well-taught Christians around—communicate by their lives that formal commitment to a local church is simply not a priority. Whatever they might say to their disciples, their lives communicate that mature Christians don’t need the church.
Certainly not all missionaries behave in this way. Many are wonderful, godly people who invest deeply in a church in their city, whether it’s a house church of four or a church of a hundred.
Brothers and sisters in America, I entreat you: support and invest in your missionaries, but do whatever you can to help them understand that you want them to be a committed part of a local church where they live. Christians should never live out their faith alone. Even if your missionary regularly logs in for an internet livestream of your service, he is still alone. Counsel your gospel partners to consider their need for the care and oversight of a church, wherever they are.
Why? Because once they leave your church, they walk into mine. And what they understand about the church will either encourage or confuse the Christians here about what the Christian life is meant to look like.
MEMBERSHIP IS DIFFICULT, BUT WORTH IT
Practicing church membership in a meaningful way is difficult. People’s lives are messy, and we’re tempted to think that we should allow exceptions for how to follow the Lord’s commands—and there may be, but those exceptions are few.
The normal life for a Christian—even one outside their home country—is committed to a particular group of fellow brothers and sisters. If we ever allow the challenges of our circumstances to drown out that basic reality, then we’ll rob many Christians of vital blessings in the Christian life.