Helping Second-Generation Immigrants Love the Immigrant Church
Sometimes the immigrant church can be hard to love. With a penchant for unbiblical cultural traditions, insular thinking, once-trendy pragmatic approaches, and a reluctance to surrender meaningful authority, it’s easy for second-generation immigrant Christians to grow dissatisfied. This can be disorienting for second-generation believers. On one hand, they feel appreciation for the ministry of these churches; after all, it’s where many first heard the gospel. But a distaste for certain aspects of the church can fester, which makes it hard to love.
As an English-speaking pastor at an immigrant church who grew up in a similar environment, I can sympathize. But how can second-generation immigrant Christians grow not only to appreciate, but also to love deeply the immigrant church?
Here are three truths that have helped me.
1. Focusing on a people can be biblical.
Many second-generation immigrants struggle with their home church’s ethnocentric focus. Didn’t Jesus say we should make disciples of all nations? Why are we limiting ourselves? Why can’t we look like the ethnically diverse churches around us? Will my friends and co-workers feel uncomfortable if they don’t look like the majority of our members? Shouldn’t we be doing more to reach out to the English-speaking community around us?
These are good questions. They can be driven by a desire to see the gospel reach all people. But I’ve come to understand that the desire to reach all doesn’t negate the wisdom of focusing on a certain group of people. In fact, we find several examples in Scripture where a particular focus was part of God’s universal plan to reach all humanity.
Jonah was given a specific ministry to the people of Nineveh (Jonah 1:1-2; 3:1–2). Jesus refused to allow a demon-possessed man he had healed to follow him, but rather told him to go home to his friends in the Decapolis (a region of 10 cities in Eastern Palestine) and tell them of the Lord’s work and mercy (Mark 5:18–20). Paul focused on bringing the gospel to the Gentiles (Acts 13:46-49).
Certainly, to focus exclusively on a people can be prideful and sinful, but to focus intentionally on a people can be biblical and strategic. For instance, Paul never wavered in his desire to see both Jew and Gentile united in the church, but that didn’t keep him from directing his missionary toward the Gentiles. Immigrant churches fulfill a specific need in a larger community. They reach people more “diverse” churches could never reach. They bring the richness of the gospel to people in their native language. They leverage specific experiences and backgrounds for the advancement of God’s kingdom.
Does this mean immigrant churches can’t do as much for the greater community as non-immigrant churches? Yes. English-speaking congregations of immigrant churches often devote disproportionate resources to serving the children (most unbelieving!) of first-generation parents. In time, as these English congregations grow in size, more resources are available for broader community outreach. But at least initially, immigrant churches require a heavy level of support from their English congregations to evangelize and disciple the children of first-generation parents.
At our Chinese immigrant church, we renamed our English congregation “Redeemer Bible Fellowship.” That’s because we want our community to know that we are mainly about the Lord Jesus Christ and his Word. We want all English-speaking people to know that they are welcome at our church. But we also say that we are a ministry “of and to” our Chinese congregation. That means we are not only a congregation birthed out of an immigrant church, but also a congregation that ministers to our immigrant church. That’s one of our priorities. Some churches prioritize reaching the city. Some churches prioritize reaching the less fortunate. We prioritize supporting gospel ministry to Chinese-speaking immigrants—not to the exclusion of others, but for the specific benefit of some.
It’s been liberating for me to realize that while we serve a God of all nations and peoples, he is also a God who cares for particular groups of people and sends his servants to them. I’m not saying we should build our churches around every affinity group out there. Our churches should be places that highlight how the gospel unites us in Christ despite our particular cultures and stations in life. But immigrant churches fill a specific need by reaching those who don’t speak the majority-language of the place where they live. The gospel unites, but the reality of Babel remains in this present age (Genesis 11:1–9). So in regions that continue to attract immigrants, it’s helpful to remember that there can be biblical wisdom in directing our resources to reach particular people.
2. Patience doesn’t equal compromise.
When I graduated from seminary, like many other young pastors, I had developed convictions of what the church should be like. And while I saw many positives at our church when I first arrived, some issues still needed to be addressed. We had a basic statement of faith that few people actually understood. The concept of committed membership was lacking. We were an elder-ruled church, but our English congregation didn’t have any elders. I vividly remember the direct questions we would often get from both those in our congregation or those visiting our church about why we were lacking some of the common indicators of a healthy church. Our response would be something along the lines of, “We hope to have those things in place one day, but it just takes time.”
Fast forward to today. By God’s grace, our church has adopted a more robust statement of faith. We’ve implemented a process for church commitment. And we’ve ordained English-speaking elders. But it’s taken time—nearly a decade! Paul reminds us in Galatians 6:9, “And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.” While change in immigrant churches can be slow, it’s not impossible.
I know that it can feel like a compromise to stay at an immigrant church—or any church!—that’s still working through its ecclesiology, ironing out its philosophy of ministry, or recovering from past conflicts. But if there’s a faithful understanding of the gospel, a genuine commitment to the preaching of God’s Word, and a desire to affirm qualified biblical leadership, then many marks of a healthy church might be achieved if we only exercise more patience.
In short, don’t equate patience with compromise. Occasionally, there might be instances when an immigrant church has abandoned biblical teaching and disregarded the biblical qualifications of leadership. In this situation, it may be right to leave. But I fear we too often leave simply because we aren’t patient. Time and time again, my love for and commitment to the immigrant church has been rekindled when I remind myself that patience doesn’t equal compromise.
3. Thankfulness can cure discontentment.
The challenges of belonging to an immigrant church are indeed numerous. But dwelling on weaknesses can breed discontentment, generate uncharitable thoughts about other believers, and make us callous to the church. Ultimately, it can cause us to forget the goodness of God. In his letters to various churches, Paul repeatedly mentions the importance of thankfulness. He wrote:
And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. (Colossians 3:15)
Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. (Philippians 4:6)
Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (1 Thessalonians 5:18)
There’s much to be thankful for in the immigrant church. I have found it helpful to reflect on how intentional our church is in reaching Chinese immigrants—providing rides from the airport, assisting with immigration issues, navigating the elderly through the healthcare system. I have benefitted from the wisdom of older, first-generation brothers and sisters who provide a different, yet still godly perspective on issues ranging from Western values to the family to the church. I have been humbled by the sacrifices many immigrants have made for their faith and their loved ones. I have enjoyed countless shared meals. Our church building may not have the best signage or the latest tech, but we have skilled cooks and a great kitchen!
Evidences of God’s grace abound in every gospel-preaching immigrant church, but we need to have eyes that are willing to see them. When we notice how clearly God has been at work in our midst, thankfulness is the natural response. And thankfulness drives the darkness of discontentment away.
I look forward to the day when all tribes and peoples and languages will worship the Lord together. But until then, there will continue to be a place for immigrant churches that minister the gospel in the heart language of their target people. That means second-generation immigrants will continue to feel the tension of trying to love a church that straddles multiple cultures. This will lead to frustration, but it’s also an opportunity for love. So let’s keep the right perspective, let’s pray for patience, and let’s cultivate thankfulness. As we do, my hope is that the immigrant church will grow in its own love for the immigrant church.
- Love the Church More than its Health, by Jonathan Leeman
- Let Us Not Grow Weary: Pastoral Reflections on Patience, by Aaron Menikoff
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Editor’s note: This piece is a part of a series on immigrant churches:
- The State of the Immigrant Church, by John Lee
- Gone and Back Again: My Departure and Return to the Immigrant Church, by Jonathan Szeto
- Opportunity or Accommodation? Thinking Through Cultural Practices in the Immigrant Church, by Geoff Chang
- Make Sure Your Church Members Are Christians, Not Just Immigrants, by Jeremy Yong
- Moving from Topical to Expositional Preaching in Immigrant Churches: Five Steps of Preparation, by Alex Hong
- As the Pastor of an Immigrant Church’s English Ministry, How Should I Relate to the Senior Pastor? by Hanley Liu
- Reflections on One Assembly and the Immigrant Church, by Geoff Chang
- Helping Second-Generation Immigrants Love the Immigrant Church, by Daniel Chan