Reflections on ‘One Assembly’ and the Immigrant Church

Article
07.03.2020

I once heard someone compare pastoring to building a plane in mid-air while flying it. That sounds about right. Now imagine the instruction manual is in multiple languages, the passengers don’t understand one another, and the pilots were all trained in different countries. This is what immigrant church pastors are facing. Amid all the difficulties of preaching, pastoral care, and other ministry concerns, immigrant churches deal with the added challenge of operating in multiple cultures and languages.

Immigrant churches often confront this challenge by establishing multiple services in multiple languages. Here’s how the process goes: the immigrant church starts by providing an English translation for the few English-speaking visitors and children. As that group grows, they form their own Bible studies and fellowship groups. Eventually, they become large enough to form a separate, English-language service. In many immigrant churches, there are two or more congregations worshiping separately but sharing resources, including a budget, facilities, and pastoral staff.

Multiple services remove the inconvenience of translation, but they raise all kinds of new challenges. After all, these immigrant churches see themselves as one church. But how can they be one church and yet rarely gather for worship? How can English-speaking elders shepherd the immigrant congregation—and vice-versa? How can these congregations share resources when there’s inequity in giving, size, longevity, influence, and many other factors? Beneath all these challenges lies a crucial theological question: Are these language-specific congregations multiple churches, or are they one church?

A NEW RESOURCE

One resource that has recently sought to answer this question is Jonathan Leeman’s One Assembly: Rethinking the Multisite & Multiservice Church Models. Leeman argues that multi-service churches “repudiate the Bible’s definition of a church, redefine what a church is, and so reshape the church morally” (36). As Protestants have long affirmed, a church is a people (or congregation) committed to gathering together for the preaching of the Word and keeping the ordinances. Therefore, “two assemblies, separated by geography or numbers on a clock, give you two churches” (17).

Leeman mainly discusses multi-site and multi-service churches in the West. But are there any implications here for immigrant churches and multiple-language services? As a growing number of leaders in the immigrant church have become convinced of this position, what does it look like for them to apply it to their contexts?

There are no easy answers to these questions, but as I’ve engaged in conversations with other pastors in the immigrant church, allow me to offer three reflections from One Assembly for the immigrant church.

THE ROLE OF LANGUAGE

Protestants have historically recognized two categories in their understanding of the church—the esse and the bene esse—that is, those elements which make up the essence of the church and those which aren’t necessary for a church to be a church, but are necessary for a rightly ordered church. For example, the preaching of the gospel and the ordinances are a part of a church’s esse. A plurality of elders, on the other hand, are of its bene esse. It’s evidence of a rightly ordered church. Other matters—like whether or not you have a building, what kind of music your church uses—are matters of circumstance. In One Assembly, Leeman argues that gathering is of the essence of the church. But he leaves the issue of language unaddressed. Is a common language of the essence or the right ordering of the church? And how does a common language relate to the one assembly?

Ever since Babel, humanity has been cursed with division over languages (Gen. 11:1–9). We speak different languages; therefore, we’re unable to work and worship together. However, in the coming of Jesus, God has made a way for humanity to be reconciled to himself and each other. This reconciling work is powerfully displayed at Pentecost. For a moment, as the Holy Spirit is poured out, the curse of Babel is reversed, and people are able to hear and understand God’s praises in all their native tongues (Acts 2:1–11). As Christians, we look forward to the day when we will gather with people from every nation, tribe, people, and language to worship at the foot of the throne (Rev. 7:9).

But until that day, the curse of Babel persists. Apart from a common language, it remains impossible for Christians to fulfill what it means to be a church. Apart from a common language, church members can’t obey the command to worship together intelligibly (1 Cor. 14:6–19; 26–28). Beyond the corporate gathering, Christians need a common language to speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15), admonish (Col. 3:16), instruct (Rom. 15:14), encourage (Heb. 10:25), sing (Eph. 5:19), and fulfill most of the “one another” commands. Simply put, the life of a church requires a common language. If a congregation was composed of different language groups which were utterly unable to understand one another, it couldn’t function as a church. A common language is part of the essence of a church. One assembly presumes a common language.

This is why many immigrant churches choose to use translation. Some choose to put up with translation as a long-term strategy, despite its inconvenience. However, in these churches, not only is full participation in the corporate gathering more difficult, but the scattered life of the church is also affected. Translators can’t follow church members around Monday through Saturday. While they can work hard to learn each other’s language—and some will make great progress in doing so—in the end, the hurdle of finding a common language will prove too high. Most people will choose to worship and fellowship with those who share their heart language.

So, when an immigrant church decides to form multiple-language services, they’re taking a step toward biblical faithfulness. The pain of separation is real, but most immigrant church leaders recognize that different languages are a barrier to discipling relationships in particular and spiritual growth in general. The sacrificial step to form a separate English service is worth it, even if it means some members will be separated from their English-speaking children and brothers and sisters. Again, a common language is of the essence of a church. So forming multiple-language congregations doesn’t violate biblical principles; on the contrary, it generally moves a church toward greater health and faithfulness.

For church leaders working to reform an immigrant church, it’s important to appreciate the sacrificial and faithful step the immigrant congregation has taken in establishing an English-speaking congregation. Now, having taken that step, they must ask another question: how are these two congregations related?

FAMILY INTUITIONS

In his book, Leeman observes that our church structures are often shaped more by a “basic set of intuitions about what a church is” (23) rather than any theological position. And those intuitions are often shaped by our cultural context. In the West, for example, the marketplace shapes our intuitions, hence the proliferation of so many multi-site and multi-service churches.

But what shapes the ecclesiological intuitions of immigrant churches? I propose that at the top of the list is the priority of the family. Family plays a tremendous role in the immigrant experience. After all, for immigrants, the immediate and extended family provides the primary—and sometimes the only—source of community, motivation, support, and cultural connection. Furthermore, immigrants have often come from non-Western cultures that prioritize the importance of honoring their ancestors and submitting to their authority. Family loyalty is often the highest priority.

These intuitions ultimately shape the immigrant church’s understanding of itself. They make it unthinkable for an immigrant congregation to think of the second-generation congregation as a separate church, especially when the parents attend one service and the children attend the other. To allow for such a stark separation would feel like a betrayal. It would dishonor all the sacrifices of the immigrant congregation. And so, the expectation is not only that the two congregations remain one church, but that the second-generation congregation should remain to honor and care for the first-generation congregation.

For immigrant church pastors, these may very well be the ecclesiological intuitions of the people you’re shepherding. As you seek to bring reform, make sure your efforts take those intuitions into account. Also, be careful not to see these intuitions as entirely wrong. There’s much to commend in recognizing the familial tie that exists between gospel-preaching congregations. To establish their independence, some English congregations have left the church and created a separate church with minimal connection to the original immigrant congregation. This is hardly a solution because in almost every case the left-behind immigrant congregation simply has to start another English service—and all the same challenges are repeated. Instead, the two congregations should remain committed to one another, even as they work toward living out their individual responsibilities as a church.

TURNING THE DIAL

What could it look like to maintain the interdependence of the language congregations, while still taking steps toward recognizing each one’s independence? This isn’t an easy question to answer. Given the family intuitions of the immigrant church, there’s considerable pressure not to do anything that would communicate separation.

First of all, as second-generation leaders seek to bring health and reform to their congregations, they must be patient. Your church may never be fully settled into the polity you would like to see during your ministry—and that’s okay. Too often, pastors envision change like a decisive flip of the switch. You might want to make a significant revision to the constitution, or build a separate facility, or rename the English congregation, or make any number of other dramatic changes. Navigating such foundational shifts will require both patient shepherding and clear teaching. Furthermore, not every immigrant church will be able to withstand such a move.

So, rather than aiming for a decisive flip of the switch, look for opportunities to turn the dial slowly. Reform never happens due to one decisive change. Instead, pastors should look for new opportunities to lead their congregation in taking greater ownership of their biblical responsibilities as a church.

What are some examples of how this might happen?

Pastoral Care

As long as the elders’ work remains primarily administrative, then the reality of multiple language congregations makes little difference. However, the more the elders recognize their pastoral responsibility, the more the dynamic of multiple-language congregations will affect their work.

So, immigrant church pastors, train your leaders in what it means to be a shepherd. Teach them that they must keep watch over their people as men who will one day give an account (Heb. 13:17). Underscore the importance of this by providing a church membership directory. Discuss and pray for the membership of your church name-by-name. This will make pastoral issues clear for specific congregations. It may also make it clear that one congregation needs more elders.

At any rate, as the needs for pastoral care grow, the elders may decide to alternate their meetings, meeting together and also meeting separately to provide care for their respective congregations.

Church Discipline 

In cases of church discipline, Jesus commands that if a disciple persists in his unrepentance, the others should “tell it to the church” (Matt. 18:17). This raises a challenge in the immigrant church: should the unrepentant member be brought before both language congregations, even if one congregation has no relationship with him?

This is a complicated matter. But it offers an opportunity to take a step toward recognizing each congregation’s independence. While the elders may decide to make both congregations aware of various discipline cases happening in the church, discipline cases should be decided on by individual congregations. Rather than bringing someone before both congregations for a vote, the church could decide to authorize each language congregation to vote on their own cases of church discipline, agreeing that the whole church will abide by that decision. In immigrant churches coming from honor-shame cultures, this could be a more agreeable way of dealing with painful discipline situations.

Church Budget

Having begun as one congregation, many immigrant churches continue to operate out of a unified budget in which giving and expenses from every congregation are lumped together. While this avoids some difficulties, it unfortunately hides the growth and contribution of each congregation. It robs the congregations of the opportunity to relate to one another in humility and gratitude. It also makes it more difficult for members to take responsibility for supporting those who teach them the Word (Gal. 6:6; 1 Tim. 5:17–18).

Instead of protecting that information, the leaders could decide to create a budget process that reveals each congregation’s giving and expenses over the past year and plans accordingly for the year ahead. Rather than seeing any disparity as a reason for pride or embarrassment, the elders should teach the congregations that this is an opportunity for the church to give thanks to God for their partnership. The congregation who gives more has a chance to see why their partnership with a smaller congregation is so strategic for the gospel. The congregation who gives less has an opportunity to properly acknowledge and give thanks for the growth happening in the larger congregation. In all this, the independent contribution of each congregation is recognized, their unity is promoted, and there is a greater sense of ownership for their respective ministries.

Not all of these examples will be applicable to your situation. Each immigrant church will have to consider what it looks like for them to recognize the independence of each congregation even as they work for each other’s maturity.

For any of this to matter, you must be convinced of the New Testament teaching that churches are made up of one assembly. If you’re an immigrant church pastor who is convinced by that argument, then you will patiently look for opportunities to turn the dial toward a greater a recognition of each language congregation as its own church, even while they remain interdependent and share facilities, resources, budget, children and youth ministries, and more. This recognition of both independence and dependence—of autonomy and partnership—may one day be formally recognized through a change in the church’s documents. Until then, the goal is to patiently and wisely shepherd your people along.

CONCLUSION: A FAMILY OF INDEPENDENT CONGREGATIONS

As immigrant churches pursue greater independence among their various language congregations, the goal is not simply to have separate churches so that we can cross our t’s and dot our ecclesiological i’s. That’s only half the picture.

The goal is to form a robust partnership, an association of like-minded churches. Of course, such associations are nothing new. Churches have long cooperated in missions, pastoral training, and many other causes. But these days, unfortunately, marketplace intuitions have lowered our appreciation of associations. Rather than being concerned for others, our churches are too often competitive and more concerned about building their brand, leaving associational relationships distant and nominal.

Here’s where immigrant churches can make a unique contribution in the evangelical landscape. After all, they understand the familial tie in Christ that exists between gospel-preaching congregations. Perhaps immigrant churches can lead the way in modeling how separate congregations can remain a family, serving one another and working together for the spread of the gospel. Who knows? Perhaps they will influence associations outside of their immediate, immigrant church context.

As someone who was saved in an immigrant church, I pray that God would continue use these churches not only for the spread of the gospel, but for the spread of biblical ecclesiology.

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

By:
Geoff Chang

Geoff Chang serves as an assistant professor of church history and historical theology and is also the curator of the Spurgeon Library at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. You can follow him on Twitter at @geoffchang.