The State of the Immigrant Church
“We’re having trouble keeping the next generation.”
“My immigrant senior pastor is infuriating.”
“The younger generation doesn’t respect the older generation.”
Why are second-generation immigrant Christians vacating immigrant churches?
It seems many immigrant churches are in the midst of a divorce. English ministries separate from immigrant churches to plant their own churches. English-ministry pastors feel neglected and suppressed. Immigrant senior pastors feel disrespected and misunderstood. Second-generation immigrant Christians feel vindicated as they turn their back on those who raised them. Older, first-generation Christians feel jaded as they see their children mature.
How did this happen?
THE STORY OF A TYPICAL IMMIGRANT CHURCH
An immigrant family moves to the United States. Though they’re foreigners in an unfamiliar land, they know exactly where to go. It’s the first place everyone goes once they move in. The immigrant church.
The immigrant church is often the social centerpiece of the immigrant Christian. Where do you go to find jobs? The immigrant church. Where do you find places to live? The immigrant church. Where do you make your friends? The immigrant church. The immigrant Christian is able to hear preaching in their heart language and engage in Christian community with those who share their culture.
But then they have kids.
Children of immigrants live in two worlds. They live in the world of their parents, marked by their home country. They become cultural chameleons, able to adapt to whatever “code” the context demands. They can look up NBA highlights while nodding their head to the latest pop single in their mother country. Most of them know enough of their mother tongue to tell their mom that they’re hungry, but they lack the linguistic theological vocabulary to follow along with the immigrant pastor’s sermon.
The solution? An English children’s ministry. The parents drop off their children to their English kid’s ministry, and while the children dance to the latest Kidz-bop’ed English worship song, the parents sing in their mother tongue in the main service. The church hires a second-generation seminarian who is looking for ministry opportunities, and he teaches the children under the authority of the immigrant senior pastor.
But then the kids grow up to junior high. The immigrant church realizes that they need to start a youth ministry. They decide that the best person to lead the young teens is the children’s pastor they grew up with. So, with a fresh promotion, the newly-minted youth pastor continues to teach teenagers under the authority of the immigrant senior pastor.
As the kids get older, the immigrant church continues to develop new ministries to keep up with their children’s maturity. They begin with a children’s ministry. Then they add a junior high ministry. Then a high school ministry. Then a college ministry. Then a young adults ministry. All of it stays under the steady supervision of the adult immigrant congregation.
Over time, however, the supervision begins to feel like micro-management. The English Ministry (EM) pastor is unable to make administrative decisions without the Immigrant Ministry (IM) senior pastor’s approval. Cultural differences blockade otherwise smooth operations. The EM pastor starts to feel like he’s outgrown the clothes he’s been given.
On top of that, the second-generation children have been following the American dream. Learning from the hard work and discipline of their immigrant parents, they worked hard in school and climbed up the economic ladder. They’ve got better jobs, better pay. And better pay means better giving. And who was their spiritual authority since they were 8-years-old? Their EM pastor. They’ll follow him wherever he goes.
The EM pastor does the math. He hits eject and leaves his mother church with his young adults and plants a church.
The new church plant vows that they will not repeat the authoritarian practices of their parents. And yet, without training, the former EM pastor/now senior pastor feels overwhelmed. How is he supposed to lead this thing?
The immigrant church feels like their son just spat on their face and left to be a prodigal. Disrespected and dejected, they look for another pastor, hoping that with the next generation of children, the new EM pastor may be able to shepherd their kids without leading them astray.
As time goes on, the new church plant begins to reflect its community more and more, losing its ethnic-distinct identity as its linguistic barrier dissipates. The immigrant church shrinks as fewer immigrants move into the area. Eventually, the immigrant church dies. The fourth and fifth generations of immigrants fully assimilate into the broader community.
Or do they?
Previous generations of immigrants have more or less followed this pattern: the first generation immigrates, the second and third generations feel a kind of identity crisis, and the subsequent generations assimilate into the broader culture.The Germans, the French, the Italians—they’ve all followed the same pattern.
But in the case of modern immigrant populations such as Asians and Hispanics, the pattern has been disrupted. Typically, immigrants came in waves. A large influx of Irish escape Ireland due to the Irish Potato Famine. Though they were initially treated with disdain, they eventually blended into majority culture. Immigration, identity crisis, assimilation.
Immigration among Asians and Hispanics shows no signs of slowing down—in fact, it’s only increasing. Immigrants just keep moving in, and the stream of first-generation, immigrant adults keeps the pulse of immigrant churches alive. Some immigrant populations are beyond the sixth generation. There have been decades of immigration and separation, but not much assimilation. (Most of these stats are from the U.S. Census Bureau and Pew Research.)
Immigrant churches aren’t going away anytime soon. So what do you do when you have one church with multiple languages and cultures? The current model doesn’t seem to be working.
A COMMON PROBLEM WITH NO CLEAR SOLUTION
This tension is broad. Asians, Hispanics, Romanians, and many other immigrant groups face the same difficulty.
Which raises the question: Why hasn’t anyone figured this out yet?
Immigrant churches are disconnected from broader evangelicalism. The linguistic barrier blocks them from meaningful interactions with majority-culture churches, even in their own cities. Though their EMs may have a few people with a different ethnicity, their world is predominately monocultural. They exist in a cultural bubble.
This strong cultural identity makes stepping into a broader church context difficult. Majority-culture Christians are bewildered by cultural eccentricities. Why, in Romanian churches, do men and women sit on opposite sides of the room? Why, in Korean churches, do people pray individually and out loud?
The bubble is thick. Many immigrants don’t feel “Together” at large conferences like Together for the Gospel. Rather, they’re visiting Jurassic Park to see their favorite dinosaur preach. Afterward, they recede back to their bubble where they live and minister.
Immigrants don’t have many examples of those who have successfully traversed the cultural boundaries and engaged broader evangelicalism in the public sphere. Diverse models of Christian faithfulness seem absent. Where is the Korean [enter public preacher’s name here]? Where is the El Salvadorian [enter public scholar’s name here]?
Because of this, immigrant Christian groups don’t know how to edify and learn from broader evangelicalism—and broader evangelicalism doesn’t know how to edify and learn from immigrant Christian groups. No one speaks to each other. The bubbles haven’t been popped. The conversation doesn’t progress.
In addition to isolation from broader evangelical culture, immigrant churches lack a national connectional awareness. The pastors in Southern California don’t know the pastors in Queens. The pastors in Houston don’t know the pastors in Portland. When pastors in immigrant contexts speak to each other about problems in their churches, they’re regionally closed off. Every region in the US has a hamster wheel of discussion where pastors lament the same problems without moving forward in the discussion.
Furthermore, immigrant churches lack the public platform necessary to even have a national discussion. Websites like Desiring God, The Gospel Coalition, and 9Marks share a reader base exposed to the same material on a national scale. They’re able to have nationwide discussions that progress as Christians contribute to various topics at hand. Immigrant churches lack such opportunities, and as a result their conversations fragment into faint murmurs. They never progress.
Sadly, even if immigrant churches could solve their isolation and fragmentation, many would fail to come up with sufficient solutions because of their pragmatic philosophies of ministry. It makes sense. No one taught these churches how they ought to structure themselves. They played the cards they were dealt. They resorted to pragmatism because what else was there for them?
Pragmatism causes the conversation to splatter all over the place, like a blender without a lid. Immigrant pastors discuss the efficacy of live, in-ear translation for every single English-speaking adult. They talk about hiring more staff, or planning joint revivals. They toss around discombobulated questions about this, that, and the other while the preliminary and primary question is ignored: What does the Bible say about the church?
This frenzied pragmatism fractures any conversation into semantics. Discussions become so specific and so idiosyncratic that they lack substance. Pastors stay distracted, and yet again the conversation doesn’t progress.
HOW DO WE PROCEED
Isolation, fragmentation, and pragmatism can feel like insurmountable obstacles. How can the immigrant church address this tornado of cultural division? While division in the church has caused much harm, it also presents an opportunity: we ought to have a united conversation about what the church is, and how it ought to be governed.
In other words, the immigrant church problem is at least in part a polity problem.
Back to Basics
Before someone answers “What do we do with the immigrant church?”, they need to first answer “What is a local church?” Trying to come up with solutions to the immigrant church without a solid understanding of the local church is like trying to write a novel without knowing how to construct a sentence. One precedes the other.
Of course, unique cultural context matters. But so does biblical conviction. Cultural ignorance fights for in inapplicable solutions while biblical ignorance fights for unfaithful solutions. Immigrant churches need to be informed both culturally and biblically in order to tackle the problem at hand.
But biblical faithfulness comes before cultural application. The local church doesn’t belong to a culture, it belongs to Christ. Churches must begin with biblical principles, and then apply those biblical principles to various cultural contexts. Principles before application.
In order to find biblical principles, we need to go back to basics—we need to go back to the Bible. Christians in immigrant contexts need to dig their noses into their Bibles to see how God instructs Christians to structure their churches. Only then can we have a productive conversation about the immigrant church.
Conversations about immigrant church structures are alarmingly sparse.
Part of the hesitation comes from a lack of established authority on the subject. Many will squirm at the thought of publicly declaring, “This is the way immigrant churches ought to be structured.” (Or writing an article stating that this is the state of immigrant churches!) But the reality is that no one is an expert in this field. If we wait until the experts speak, there will only be silence. The only way we can progress in our thinking on the immigrant church is by having the conversation anyway.
So let’s have it. Let’s contribute thoughts. Let’s evaluate each other’s contributions. Let’s get to know each other’s churches. And with cautious, yet principled experimentation, let’s equip each other with biblical insight as we progress through trial and error. A focused, substantive conversation avoids ambiguous, pithy statements and puts us to work—real work.
Churches need guidance. In order to have guidance, we need wisdom. In order to gain wisdom, we need to see each other’s ideas and engage thoughtfully. We need to chisel away at bad material and refine good material.
This article is the first in a series of articles about the immigrant church. I hope it will function like an online think tank as different pastors and church members in a variety of immigrant contexts offer meaningful contributions to this discussion. Let’s work together to push the conversation forward. [You can also join me and four pastors at the Asian-American breakout at T4G.]
Editor’s note: This article is the first in a series of articles on immigrant churches. Next, pastor Jonathan Szeto will tell his story of leaving the immigrant church only to return and pastor one.