Make Sure Your Members Are Christians, Not Just Immigrants
There are a lot of reasons why expatriates and immigrants might turn up to church.
Naturally, when people are finding their footing in a new country, they look for friends who speak their mother tongue. They look for a people who share their customs and culture. There are other reasons, too: people need help navigating the daily routines of a new life under new government institutions, seeking to understand their various laws, requirements, and benefits.
These folks might not have attended church regularly before. But now they find themselves in an unfamiliar place, and they’re seeking after community and belonging in the familiar.
This presents wonderful opportunities for ministry. But it also comes with unique challenges. Perhaps the biggest challenge is teaching folks that the church is not a club for the culturally similar, but a body of believers who know Christ as its Lord and Savior. Shared cultural norms and forms may attract immigrants and ex-pats, but they’re not what fundamentally gathers Christ’s church.
This article is written to pastors who serve in an international setting. If that’s you, I have but one piece of counsel: you must make sure your church members are Christians, not simply immigrants or expats.
How does this happen? Consider the following three pieces of advice.
First, institute membership practices and procedures.
Simply instituting membership practices alerts attendees to the fact that there are actual requirements to be a part of Christ’s church.
Our Bibles are clear: there are real disciples of Christ, and there are fake ones. Just because someone says they know Jesus as Lord doesn’t make them a Christian (Matt 7:21). True faith in Christ shows itself in God-honoring works (James 2:14–26), and ungodly works negate claims of faith (Titus 1:16).
Newcomers, though, are often unaware of this. So instituting membership practices and procedures offer the slightest and most well-intentioned test to their sincere profession of faith.
As pastors, we guide our members to define what a Christian is and what a church is. We don’t just make it up; it’s all according to the Word of God.
Imagine another situation. Imagine a slew of attendees come to church for the reasons listed above—community, a sense of familiarity, help with difficult tasks, etc. Over time, the perception of what a church is—from both outside observers and inside participants—will change. It might be defined merely as a group of people who are not Muslim, or not Buddhist. It might be defined as a group of people who speak the mother tongue, or who do community like I do, or who view right and wrong like I do. If left to be defined by no one, the church will be defined informally by those who attend.
But the church is about something much more fundamental than any of those things. Consider the New Hampshire Confession of Faith’s definition:
We believe that a visible church of Christ is a congregation of baptized believers, associated by covenant in the faith and fellowship of the Gospel; observing the ordinances of Christ; governed by his laws; and exercising the gifts, rights and privileges invested in them by his word; that its only scriptural officers are Bishops, or Pastors and Deacons, whose qualifications, claims and duties are defined in the Epistles to Timothy and Titus.
Simply having a membership process clarifies for both attendees and members that someone other than themselves determines entry into the church, namely, Christ.
Second, make sure those practices and procedures teach what it means to be a Christian and what it means to be a Christian church.
I’ve heard of membership processes that don’t clarify the gospel or what Christ requires of his people. One such church only required prospective members to fill out an information card. There was no clarification from the church’s leaders as to what the church believed about Jesus or the gospel, and no verifying if the person had a credible profession of faith.
This is regrettable. A membership process should involve more than relaying information about your church—its history, its mission statement, its various ministries. You might be wondering: but what else can we do? Here’s how our church does it.
In our membership class, we teach through our statement of faith (what our church believes) and our church covenant (how Christ calls us to live). In doing so, the elders put front and center what Christianity is all about and what Christ requires of his people.
Those who desire to move forward in the process have a “membership interview” where one of the elders chats with the prospective member. Among other things, we see if they understand and believe the gospel. We listen for a credible profession of faith, and look for fruit that they’ve been born again by the Spirit of Christ.
These interviews might sound formidable or formulaic. But they’re not. They offer opportunities to revisit God’s grace and to offer pastoral counsel. They also allow us to disciple Christians who’ve been poorly taught, and to evangelize those who think they’re Christians but aren’t. As a result, we’re able to protect the flock from wolves (Acts 20:29). In other words, these interviews are yet another place where we teach, both explicitly and implicitly, what it means to be a Christian and a member of Christ’s church.
Our final step involves a congregational vote. If the elders have agreed to recommend the person for membership, they will read a portion of the person’s testimony at a members’ meeting, and upon recommending the person for membership, the members will vote to bring he or she into church membership. The affirmative vote creates a mutual pledge to Christ: between both the church and the person joining, that they will seek to obey Christ’s “one another” commands as summarized by the church covenant.
Even as we do this, we instruct and clarify what it means to be a follower of Christ and a member of his local church.
Third, use the membership class and process to begin pressing against cultural idols.
While teaching the statement of faith and church covenant is useful, it’s also helpful to address the cultural idols your attendees may wrestle with. For example, I’ve found it important to address the consumer-mentality many bring into the church, highlighting how it hinders Christ-like sacrificial love. I then go on to emphasize Christ’s servant-hearted attitude and call all Christians to walk in his footsteps. From the beginning of the formal membership process, we encourage members to see themselves as providers not consumers.
We also address the fact that unity in the church is a fragile thing. Ministering near Los Angeles, we have a good number of second generation Koreans, Latinos, Chinese, and Filipinos. Our diversity could lead to a number of cultural divides. Furthermore, think of all the different personality types and preferences inside a church—and then think about the fact that we all still struggle with sin.
Again, unity in the church is a fragile thing. Many things could divide us.
And yet, we’re swept up in the uniting power of the gospel (Eph 2:11–3:13). We hear Christ’s call that every one of his people be “eager to maintain unity in the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Eph 4:3).
What potential divides are present in your church? Are your people drawn primarily to shared cultural expressions and values? How can you teach them, without negating these things, that Christ is the tie that binds?
Do they tend to preserve cultural things over gospel things? How can you teach them that Christ demands all cultures submit to him? (See Romans 14–15 for an example of how cultural expressions are to be held with a loose hand for the sake of Christ.)
Do your people tend to be insular? How can you teach and model for them crossing cultures for the sake of the Jesus, as modeled by Christ and Paul (1 Cor. 9:22)?
A lot of good work can be done in addressing cultural idols upfront. Those who attend your church will know exactly what they are getting into—true discipleship to Jesus.
As immigrants and expats want to join our churches for various reasons—some good, some bad—keep in mind that the most useful thing we can do is to point them to Christ. As pastors, we should do this in our regular preaching and teaching and our interpersonal relationships.
We should also do this in our membership practices and procedures. There, we can teach what it means to be a true follower of Christ and a member of his local church. We can begin using the gospel to press against cultural idols so that those who join the church are true Christians, not just immigrants.
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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
- Create a Culture of Expository Preaching: Moving from Topical to Expositional Preaching in Immigrant Churches, by Alex Hong
- As the Pastor of an Immigrant Church’s English Ministry, How Should I Relate to the Senior Pastor? by Hanley Liu