Finding Elders in Immigrant Churches
Like many churches in an immigrant context, our congregation ministers in a largely bilingual community. The older generation prefers to speak Spanish, and the younger prefers English. It’s not unusual to hear two languages in a single conversation, even as both parties understand one another.
Language preference is but one cultural difference in our community and local church. These differences raise important considerations for how immigrant churches should go about finding shepherds, but they shouldn’t distract us from clear, biblical principles.
God’s Plan for Church Leadership
With all the logistical complications that a bilingual culture brings, churches can be tempted toward pragmatism without considering the biblical instructions for church leadership. For example, having only one church leader seems to simplify things, but that’s not the example in the New Testament. Instead, we see that local churches should be led by a plurality of qualified men known as elders (Acts 14:21–23; Titus 1:5; 1 Tim. 5:17; James 5:14; 1 Pet. 5:1–2). Together, these men shepherd the congregation toward maturity in Christ.
In 2 Timothy 2:1–2, Paul exhorts present leaders to raise up future leaders for future generations. However, they shouldn’t be hasty in appointing them as elders (1 Tim. 5:22). In his letters to Timothy and Titus, Paul lists the qualifications of elders (1 Tim. 3:1–7; Titus 1:5–9): they must have a desire to serve, a character worthy of imitation, and an ability to teach. These biblical guardrails are far from impractical or outdated; they provide a necessary framework for identifying faithful shepherds for any church, including immigrant churches.
A Model Citizen
Hebrews 13:7 calls church members to imitate their leaders. That’s why elders must be “above reproach” (1 Timothy 3:2). This doesn’t mean elders must be sinless, but that their lives must be free of stains that would tarnish the testimony of Jesus Christ.
One crucial consideration for immigrant churches here is the immigration status of the leaders. This can be a tricky issue, so elders need to think critically about how to obey Christ’s command.
There are no explicit biblical requirements for elders to be citizens of the nation in which they minister, but there is biblical instruction for Christians to be subject to the governing authorities (Rom. 13:1; 1 Pet. 2:13–17; Titus 3:1). That submission, however, has limits. The Bible provides instances where righteous men disobey civil authorities in obedience to God (see Acts 5:29, Dan. 3:10–18). This doesn’t mean that we can disobey the government whenever we like, even when we believe a law is motivated by sinful intent. Peter instructed slaves to submit to harsh and unjust masters (1 Pet. 2:18) because this demonstrates righteousness and leads others to glorify God (1 Pet. 2:11–12).
We need to try to apply these principles to an immigrant’s citizenship status. In other words, elders must model submission to the government and to God. A man who flagrantly disobeys government restrictions should not be considered. If the church leaders believe there are grounds for disobeying the government in some regard, those principles need to be communicated clearly and thoughtfully to the congregation.
A Model Home
The qualifications for elders emphasize a man’s ability to lead and manage his household. This characteristic is especially significant in an immigrant context because immigrant fathers may feel a more natural distance from their children, especially when they become teenagers. This distance is often rooted in generational and cultural differences. But churches can’t settle for the understandable status quo. The men they affirm as leaders should be humble and bold enough to be invested in their children’s lives—and that investment should produce visible fruit.
Another vital qualification for elders is hospitality. In an immigrant setting, this means a prospective elder should have a history of connecting with people in both cultures, even if he doesn’t speak both languages. Though language barriers will inevitably exist, there will almost always be bilingual people who can translate.
Whether or not you believe that the body of believers should eventually become two separate churches—with each focusing on their own language—my purpose here is simply to address the short- and medium-term realities in an immigrant setting. We can leave that tougher topic for another day!
Even if a church doesn’t require a man to be immersed in two (or more!) cultures, they shouldn’t consider someone who refuses to extend himself to others outside his own culture.
A Model Teacher
All elders must be “apt to teach.” What does that mean? In short, it means elders can convey biblical truth to an audience in a way they readily understand. A good teacher will adjust the delivery (not content!) of a message based on the audience. Missionaries in a foreign context must consider this, and so should shepherds in an immigrant context.
For those who are completely new to a culture, this ability will take time and humility to develop. Because of the differences between cultures, one man’s leadership or communication may come across as insulting or detached. For example, insisting that Sunday service start right on time may be perceived as rigid or stuffy by one culture, while another culture may look down on leaders when worship services regularly begin five or ten minutes late. These cultural factors take patience and grace to navigate well.
In her book The Culture Map, Erin Meyer details different ways cultures conceive of leadership, make decisions, and perceive time and schedules. A shepherd doesn’t have to master sociology, but he should be sensitive to cultural differences in order to better care for his sheep. Biblical elders should embrace the distinct challenges of an immigrant context, viewing them as opportunities to put the varied grace of God on display (1 Pet. 4:10).
A Model of Unity
Finally, the New Testament calls local churches to preserve and pursue unity, so leaders must make this a priority. As new shepherds are appointed, current elders need to be careful not to sacrifice unity for the sake of efficiency. If elders speak a different language, meetings may require a translator, and decisions may require more time. But that’s not bad.
Elders can also demonstrate unity by taking intentional steps to learn one another’s languages. While we don’t want to add a language requirement to the biblical criteria, steps like these promote unity and build camaraderie.
A united eldership is a powerful force in a local church. As pastors faithfully shepherd those in their care and train new leaders, Christ will continue to make sure his church is supplied with more leaders who are eager to equip the saints for the work of ministry (Ephesians 4:11–12).
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Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article originally appeared on Training Leaders International.