How to Have Fruitful Conversations About the Immigrant Church
It’s been two years since I wrote “The State of the Immigrant Church”. Since then, I’ve been able to hear from many immigrant church pastors. Thank you to everyone who has reached out!
The last few years have been filled with encouraging conversations. Christ loves his church. I’m thankful to be able to talk with so many pastors who are seeking to care for his church. What a privilege!
As I’ve talked with more pastors, I’ve noticed three themes come up.
First, there’s a lack of clarity about applying ecclesiological principles to different cultural contexts. Second, there’s a lack of framework to evaluate immigrant church structures. Third, there’s a need to remind us involved in the immigrant-church conversation to embody Christ-like patience as we push toward faithfulness in our context.
I’ve written three articles to function like sequels to the initial one I wrote two years ago. The article below answers the first aforementioned theme.
What About the Immigrant Church Needs Discussing?
“He (the devil) always sends errors into the world in pairs—pairs of opposites… He relies on your extra dislike of one to draw you gradually into the opposite one,” C.S. Lewis wrote.¹
Talking about the immigrant church involves a pair of worlds—our context and God’s Word. Often, in an effort to defend the legitimacy of one world, we minimize the necessity of the other.
But we need both, and to dislike thinking carefully about either would draw us quickly into error. The immigrant church conversation (and any church conversation, for that matter) should include three categories—where the church is, where the church ought to be, and how to get the church from where it is to where it should be.
Talking in one category doesn’t minimize the use of the other.
1. WHERE THE IMMIGRANT CHURCH IS
Every immigrant church pastor, after explaining his church context, has heard the response, “Well, that’s not biblical!”
This may or may not be true. But that response at best lacks tact—or is, at worse, dismissive.
Moving any church toward health begins with understanding that particular church—knowing its flaws, sure, but also its blessings, history, and lay of the land. The job of a pastor isn’t just to fix sheep, but to know sheep. And talking about the immigrant church with one another helps us understand it better. Learning the history and context of the immigrant church reveals not just errors to fix but a rich legacy of faithfulness we have the privilege to inherit.
Listening to one another gives us the opportunity to increase our cultural fluency. The younger get to listen to the older. Locals get to listen to immigrants. Every immigrant church comes with a rich history of trials, sin, and encouragement. It’s good for us to take time to understand it. Know and love the immigrant church before you critique it.
2. WHERE THE IMMIGRANT CHURCH OUGHT TO BE
Understanding the context of the immigrant church doesn’t remove the need for understanding of what the Bible says about the local church. Context helps us understand the church’s condition, but it doesn’t help provide direction. Context provides a diagnosis, but Scripture provides the prognosis. The Bible helps us know where we ought to be.
Conversations about the immigrant church are primarily about polity. What makes an immigrant church unique isn’t primarily what it does (loving God and neighbor), but instead how it’s structured (multiple languages and congregations under one organization).
It’s good to take a step back and ask fundamental questions. What is a local church? How should the church be structured? Who should have authority over congregations of different languages? These questions require ecclesiological answers. To understand what an immigrant church should look like, we need to first know what a local church is.
Conversations about the immigrant church can get dominated by contextual challenges. While contextual challenges are well worth discussing, contextual challenges do not negate biblical principles. For example, if the Bible teaches church membership, one should not reject it because of a cultural expectations of informality. An expectation of informality should absolutely inform how we pastor and lead our churches, but it should not negate a biblical principle.
Does the Bible tell us how the church should be structured? If so, the biblical model of the church should be our aim—whether it’s elder-led congregational, presbyterian, or episcopalian, etc.—regardless of multilingual status.
Biblical ecclesiology is not a threat to the immigrant church, but instead a necessary tool to help it. A pastor lacking ecclesiology is like a doctor lacking anatomy.
3. GETTING THE IMMIGRANT CHURCH FROM HERE TO THERE
Having a productive conversation about the immigrant church requires both cultural and ecclesiological fluency.
Conversations about context help us understand where the immigrant church is, and they don’t need to endorse everything about it. Conversations about ecclesiological principles help us understand where the immigrant church should be, and they don’t nullify the legitimacy of its existence. To push the conversation about the immigrant church forward, we need both. In a sense, we need to be bilingual.
Hopefully, these categories will help foster more fruitful conversations about the immigrant church and, therefore, greater health.
For more articles on the immigrant church, click here.
 Mere Christianity, 186.