How Should Immigrant Congregations Who Speak Different Languages Relate to One Another?
Multilingual church can be a challenge. Some immigrant churches describe themselves as one church with multiple congregations. While each congregation meets according to language, they maintain institutional unity under one name and roof.
But who decides what the church does? Are members of one congregation responsible for members of another that speaks a different language?
These are tough questions! Tension can arise due to the relationship between congregations of different tongues. How should they relate?
Here’s a thought experiment: could the way congregations of different languages relate to one another be informed by the way denominations connect churches? Let’s examine how three denominational structures compare to immigrant church structures and draw some conclusions.
Many immigrant churches have a structure where one senior pastor leads associate pastors, who lead congregations of their own language. The senior pastor usually leads one congregation, and the associates submit to him and function as the main pastors of the other congregations.
A pastor who oversees other pastors, who oversee individual congregations, parallels an episcopalian structure. Bishops oversee priests, who oversee their individual parishes. While each priest focuses on their own congregation, the bishop over them has greater authority.
Other immigrant churches may staff a lead pastor and share a united eldership with different congregations where all of their staff and non-staff pastors meet to shepherd their churches. All of the elders from all of the congregations oversee all of the churches. During their Sunday gatherings, however, they continue to gather separately.
When pastors from different congregations meet together to oversee different congregations, they parallel a presbyterian structure. Pastors are still primarily responsible for their own flock, but the decision of the presbytery has greater authority than the pastors of an individual church.
3. BAPTIST ASSOCIATION
Baptist associations recognize the individual authority of every congregation and bear no authority over them. Baptist cooperation focuses on what churches can share, namely, resources, parachurch ministries, and encouragement in ministry. Associations partner together for the purpose of missions and resource distribution to support and plant churches.
Do any immigrant churches resemble this structure?
It may be more plausible than you’d think. Churches for people who live outside of their native nation will let various churches of different languages use their facilities. Monolingual churches have planted independent churches in their own building. Some Presbyterian immigrant churches have begun to “particularize,” recognizing the autonomy of their English congregations while continuing to share buildings, children’s ministries, etc. It’s possible for an immigrant church to recognize each language as its own distinct church while continuing to partner closely.
So what’s preferable? Here are a few factors when considering what an immigrant structure ought to be.
1. CONNECTIONAL OR COOPERATION?
Some object to the thought of distinct-language churches for fear of causing a familial divorce. Recognizing distinct churches, however, doesn’t necessarily accompany a lack of cooperation.
Distinct congregations can still cooperate in all sorts of significant ways—resources, pastoral friendships, children’s ministry, etc. The question when looking at the relationship between congregations of different languages is not the degree of cooperation, but rather the degree of connection. If the local church gathered has the authority of the keys—to take in and out members—then should an overarching institution ever exercise the keys for another church? Connectional polity, like presbyterian structures, says yes. Congregational polity says no.
2. IS THE CHURCH AN ASSEMBLY?
At the heart of this conversation is whether each congregation should be considered a church. If the definition of a local church is an assembly of believers, then congregations who gather separately would be a church, not a portion of one.
Immigrant churches may have joint services where all congregations gather, but those are the exception, not the norm.
The importance of this distinction gets clearer when considering verses like Hebrews 13:17. If members are to submit to their elders, as those who keep watch over their souls, then a language barrier will create tension as churches seek to obey this command. Is the Korean pastor responsible for members of the English congregation? Are Cantonese-speaking members expected to submit to Mandarin-speaking elders?
If the New Testament definition of a local church requires members to be gathered in one location at one time, then different languages should lead to different churches.
For more articles on the immigrant church, click here.