Gone and Back Again: My Departure and Return to the Immigrant Church

Article
03.27.2020

At a large meeting with fellow pastors, I struck up a conversation with the man sitting next to me. We shared about our families and the churches we serve. After describing my immigrant church context, he shot me a look of astonishment.

“Whoa. It sounds like you have multiple churches meeting in one building. I can’t even imagine how you could do that.”

I came face-to-face with the complexity of ministering in an ethnic immigrant church. Though there’s often one dominant ethnicity, there remains a significant diversity of cultures—from the newly arrived immigrant who barely speaks English to the second-generation adult who was born and raised in the United States. In addition to cultural differences, there are language obstacles to overcome.

Put simply, the ethnic immigrant church can be a challenging place to minister, let alone understand.

For example, when someone asks me how many people attend my church, I hesitate for a moment, wondering how much this person wants to know or understand. I could give the total headcount, combining the children’s ministry with the Mandarin, Cantonese, and English congregations. Or I could give the headcount of the congregation where I worship. Or I could give the whole background.

Another simple-but-difficult question I frequently hear is, “How would you describe the people in your church?” If I’m honest, I’m hesitant to speak about the congregations in my church where I don’t worship regularly. I don’t speak with them as often as I’d like. I can’t because I don’t speak their language.

Welcome to the ethnic immigrant church, a place where even simple questions become complicated.

MY IMMIGRANT CHURCH EXPERIENCE

I grew up in the Chinese Christian church in San Diego. By God’s grace, I was raised in a solid Christian home where both of my parents encouraged my faith in God. My parents were involved and invested in the church. My Dad taught Sunday School, led worship music, and directed the choir. In addition to singing faithfully in the choir, my Mom played the piano and organ. I remember waking up to the sound of hymns on many Sunday mornings.

Around 7th grade, I started attending the main worship service. There, I would vacillate between paying attention and doodling on the church bulletin while listening to sermons preached in English and Cantonese. A few years later, the English congregation split from the Cantonese congregation completely and I would get to hear an entire sermon without another person interrupting (translating) every other sentence.

While I was grateful for the opportunity to learn in the English worship service, I grew most in the faith through the youth fellowship meetings held on Friday nights (to avoid interfering with school). There, I learned about the doctrines of grace and worked through more difficult teachings like cults and apologetics.

MY MULTI-ETHNIC CHURCH EXPERIENCE

Like many high school graduates, I associated college with freedom. For the first time, I got to be away and independent from my parents’ watchful gaze. When checking out churches, I would establish my own identity apart from my parents. I became just “Jon,” not “Andy and Vivian’s son.” Wanting a different experience, I attended Grace Community Church in Sun Valley. The teaching was top-notch. It was a huge church with seemingly limitless resources. And everything was in English. No more nodding and smiling to older people because I had no clue what they were saying to me.

I felt like I was getting a Bible college education in addition to a business degree. At Grace on Campus UCLA, I had chances to make a difference in my fellowship group—to start new ministries, to take on adult-size ministry, and to embrace personal responsibility for my spiritual health and growth. I was growing in my knowledge of God’s Word and gaining a more biblical perspective of church.

When I returned to visit my home church in San Diego, I had all sorts of ideas of how a church should be. I knew the right answers and I wondered why the church wasn’t more biblical. Instead of Scripture, I saw culture. Instead of the confessing of sin, I saw the saving of face. Instead of thorough preaching from the Bible, I heard vague references to passages without interpretation.

My church hadn’t changed; I had.

I started to think more carefully about the Chinese Christian church in America. Did it have the right to exist? Shouldn’t all churches be multi-ethnic? After all, if we stand for the gospel of Jesus Christ, then there is neither Jew nor Greek. Why were we distinguishing ourselves by our ethnic background? Could the Chinese church transcend its cultural moorings to become biblical? If I returned to my home church, would I perpetually be considered a “child”?

God answered my questions by providing me with a job in the Los Angeles area. I didn’t return to my home church. Instead, I stayed at Grace Community Church, served as a Bible study leader, and eventually graduated from The Master’s Seminary. But the questions I’d asked about the Chinese church still lingered, only to resurface when I began interviewing with a Chinese church east of Los Angeles.

RETURNING TO THE IMMIGRANT CHURCH

Like my home church, this Chinese church had three congregations—English, Mandarin, and Cantonese. Unlike my home church, this Chinese church was larger and had a stronger youth ministry that focused on Bible preaching and teaching. I was curious. Could a Chinese church be more biblical than cultural? Would a Chinese church submit to Scripture despite her cultural inclinations?

The answer was yes.

By God’s grace, over the eight years serving at that church, I saw that the Bible can, does, and will transform individuals. Along that sanctification journey, cultural sins can be recognized and repented of. But the church must believe in the authority of Scripture. And the leaders must preach God’s Word faithfully without apology or embarrassment.

Yet the initial questions about the Chinese Christian church never went away. So let me answer some of them now, having led in a multi-ethnic and a Chinese church.

Isn’t it bad for a church to distinguish itself by ethnicity? We shouldn’t have “_________ churches”; we should just have “churches.”

Let me answer this question with another question: “Why would any church make an ethnic distinction?” While I don’t think that churches should be separated by ethnicity, there are valid reasons for distinctions within the universal church. What many young American Christians like myself fail to appreciate is the obstacle of language. It’s something that we should all know about, but we fail to see how much it matters in a immigrant church. In Genesis 11, God told the people to scatter and to fill the earth. Instead of obeying, they stayed in one place. To cause them to scatter, God multiplied their languages. In other words, diversity of language was intended to divide and scatter people.

Language barriers provide a reasonable justification for the existence of an ethnic church. You can’t respond to a message when you don’t understand the words. Churches that would go so far as to include the word “Chinese” in their name usually want to communicate that lots of Chinese-language speakers attend here and that there is a Chinese-language congregation present.

But then what about the English congregation? Language shouldn’t be an issue.

True. For the English congregation, the language is English. Therefore, it would only be restricted to people who can understand English. But think with me.

The existence and evolution of the immigrant church rests upon a heartfelt desire to keep the family worshipping in the same place. Many parents desire to hear the Bible preached in their native language. Meanwhile, their children will probably grow up with a limited grasp of Mandarin, Cantonese, etc. Even if the children understood their mother tongue, they would still prefer English. The English congregation of an ethnic immigrant church exists to minister to the English-speaking children of immigrants who have been raised in America. As long as children are born, converted, and raised in the church, the English congregation of an immigrant church should continue to exist and grow.

Naturally, the English congregation of an immigrant church will be mostly comprised of the immigrant ethnicity. But since the service and ministry is conducted in English, this congregation need not limit itself to a certain ethnicity. In fact, some churches have renamed their English congregations to avoid turning away non-immigrant attenders.

Isn’t a multi-ethnic church more biblical?

It depends. While I believe that every church should be open to multiple ethnicities (provided they speak the same language), it’s reductionistic to say that an ethnically diverse church is more biblical than a less diverse church. It would be more appropriate to desire that the church reflect its community.

A BRIDGE TO GREATER UNDERSTANDING 

One memorable seminary assignment required me to attend an ethnic service. Since Grace Community Church had a Spanish service, I attended there. While the congregation was affirming and warm, they all wondered why I was there. Of course, once I spoke to them in Spanish, they started hugging me and thanked me for coming. Despite having a minor in Spanish from UCLA, I’m nowhere near fluent enough to follow a worship service in Spanish. The hymn melodies were familiar but the lyrics were not. The Bible in my hands was familiar, but I had a harder time understanding the passages I read. While I understood a majority of the conversational vocabulary, I didn’t know Christian terms in Spanish. In the end, I understood the gist (I think). But I was relieved when I left to attend the next service in English.

To a degree, my experience is what our forefathers (our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents) had to face when they immigrated to the United States. They longed for a place to worship the Lord without second-guessing their vocabulary. For many of them, God drew them to a community of believers who spoke the same language.

But what if I knew that my children and grandchildren would grow up to speak Spanish exclusively? Wouldn’t I want to find a church that had both English (my mother tongue) and Spanish (the language of my children’s future)?

This is the immigrant Christian church in America. It has a right to exist because language is a natural barrier to gospel community. And by God’s grace, I hope and pray it grows. I pray the English congregation would continue to grow and develop to reach out to all sorts of English-speaking people. I pray the ethnic congregations continue to grow and minister to the steady stream of new immigrants.

But to accomplish that, we need a generation of people who have a heart to see Christ exalted among all people groups.

As people immigrate from different places, they bring new customs, cultures, and languages with them. As a church, we must share the gospel with them, minister faithfully the Word of God to them, and shepherd them in love. But we must also speak their language. In our ministry to them, we must also consider their children, who will grow up speaking English. If we are to reach this generation raised in America, then we must also speak their language.

Having multiple languages within the same church presents unique challenges. While I find lots of general biblical principles offered from various sources, I often wonder how they might be implemented in my immigrant church context. That’s why I am excited about the prospect of having healthy discussions with other pastors about helping the ethnic immigrant churches become healthier. May God be glorified in the discussions to come.

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Editor’s note: This piece is a part of a series on immigrant churches:

By:
Jonathan Szeto

Jonathan Szeto serves as the Senior Pastor of Laguna Chinese Baptist Church in Elk Grove, California.