Why I Love Pastoring the Immigrant Church—And Why You Would, Too
The last church I wanted to pastor was an immigrant church. I’d just graduated from seminary. If I had to tier the types of Silicon Valley churches I wanted to serve, the “Google Church” would have been at the top of my list. This is the established, healthy church with great ecclesiology, vibrant elders, and a good reputation. I would have also relished the “Tech Startup Church,” a cutting-edge church plant where I could shape its various contours and be at the center of evangelistic energy.
You know what would have been at the bottom of my list? The immigrant church. I thought my newly minted MDiv deserved “better,” that pastoring an immigrant church felt like joining “Yahoo,” a passé and suboptimal organization.
Twelve years later, I realize how wrong I was. I’ve happily served as the English pastor of an immigrant Chinese church, and I have learned to love it. It thrills me to serve here; there’s no place I’d rather be.
Below I’ve written three reasons I love ministering in an immigrant church. My hope is that you too will discover its distinctive beauty in the mosaic of local churches God has designed.
1. Immigrant churches are a gateway to the Great Commission.
The mission of the church is defined by the Great Commission (Matt 28:16–20; Acts 1:8). Yet since the tower of Babel, the world has been fragmented by its various language and people groups (Gen 11:6–8). God responded to man’s disobedience and arrogant self-exaltation by dispersing them over the face of the earth, making it harder for people to communicate. These real barriers of language and culture were erected as God’s judgment. They seemingly hinder world evangelization. But they also magnify the glory of Christ.[i]
One way this occurs is through the ministry of the immigrant church. After all, the immigrant church possesses rare insight and access into the missionary imperative. Using its own culture and language, our Chinese congregation is able to engage a people group that feels out of place in the United States. There’s nothing like sharing a meal and a conversation with someone who reminds you of home. This isn’t to say that the life of the church is to be built upon similar life experiences or ethnicity, but culture and language proficiency usually remove obstacles to hearing and communicating the gospel effectively. I still remember calling upon a fellow elder in our church to meet my grandfather as he lay dying in the hospital. Born in the same Chinese province as my grandfather, this elder was able to connect with him and share the gospel clearly. That day, my grandfather repented and placed his trust in the Lord Jesus Christ.
What’s more, an immigrant church has a window into the mission work of their mother country. The People’s Republic of China has had a history of opposition and suppression of the Christian faith even though its government claims to guarantee freedom of religion. Here, opportunities abound. Many immigrants can move within their home nation’s borders with ease; Western missionaries are rarely afforded such opportunities. From training house church pastors without a translator to transporting needed resources to local missionaries and churches, this kind of freedom opens up a lot of doors.
The English ministry of our Chinese church has front-row seats not only to witness, but also to support these endeavors. By serving our English-speaking children, youth, and adult members in our Chinese congregation, we free our Chinese congregation for ministry among those we could never reach on our own.
2. Immigrant churches are full of Christians who know how to live as pilgrims and exiles.
For several decades, evangelicals have decried the decline of Christianity in the United States.[ii] In addition, cultural opposition to Christianity has steadily increased and believers have awoken to find themselves pushed to the margins of a post-Christian society.
It’s a joy to serve in a church that’s never thought of itself as the “moral majority.” Our Chinese congregation understands what it means to be “sojourners and exiles” (1 Pet 2:11) because they’re currently not in their own country. In a society that’s not always friendly to outsiders, they’ve largely been on the periphery of cultural influence. Immigrant churches are comfortable being a prophetic minority, different and set apart from this world by life and doctrine. George Marsden notes this “psychological-social” phenomena among immigrants. He writes, “Their communities emphasized doctrines and practices that symbolized separateness from the larger community.” [iii] With less political baggage, I’ve observed that born-again immigrants are good American citizens. They will stand for justice and fight for liberty—not fundamentally because this country is their home, but because they’re residents of an eternal city (Phil 3:20; Heb 13:13, 14).
Indeed, it’s refreshing to encounter a church where nominal Christianity, though not absent, is less prevalent. For many members in our Chinese congregation, they’re first-generation Christians. They come from a background with very few cultural incentives to feign belief.
This is where the English ministry proves so vital in ministering to the children of the Chinese congregation. As D. A. Carson has noted, it only takes one generation for the gospel to be “assumed.”[iv] Yet earnest Chinese congregants feel that there’s a very real cultural and linguistic divide. Unwilling to split up the family and farm their children out to an unfamiliar church, they lean heavily upon a like-minded English ministry that comes alongside their children to teach them what it means to live as citizens of heaven (Phil 3:20).[v]
3. Immigrant churches are ripe for revitalization.
Just as there are unique strengths in the immigrant church, there are unique challenges as well. For example, it’s easy for a Chinese congregation to take its English ministry for granted. With clear strengths in evangelism to a particular people group, some immigrant churches are rightly accused of being ethnocentric. In a church full of exiles and pilgrims, it’s far too easy to remain insular. What’s more, immigrant churches often have an underdeveloped ecclesiology, still needing to work out if multi-services in completely different languages can even be delineated as one ekklesia.
Rather than entering into the untidy confines of an immigrant church, it sometimes seems easier to church plant or join a more traditional single-language church. And yet, the immigrant church shouldn’t be left to the highways and hedges. It’s ripe for revitalization. In many immigrant churches, there’s an incredible appetite for the Word of God. Wonderful translations from the best of Western Christian scholarship are now readily available—from Calvin to Carson.[vi] It’s a great joy to see the gospel not only change a person’s life, but to change decades of unhealthy church patterns. It’s a joy to see a church regulate its life according to God’s Word and, as a result, have its corporate life flourish like never before.[vii]
But such revitalization will be slow, and it almost always must be done from within. After his dismissal from his Northampton pastorate, Jonathan Edwards served colonialists and Native Americans in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. He recognized the need for two congregations with two services since they were separated by language.[viii] Yet he also kept them in close relation as one way to maintain good relations with those whom he served: to live among them, to share their everyday concerns, and to minister to them by example and according to God’s Word.[ix] As an English minister of an immigrant church, one must model healthy church practices, labor in love and humility, persist in preaching, and allow the Word to do its transformative work. It takes a temperament much like the Puritan Richard Sibbes who chose to remain within the English church even during the campaign for conformity.[x] We must show patience without compromise alongside a winsomeness to win some.
Early in my ministry, I read Nine Marks of a Healthy Church with our Chinese elders. Reading it as a staff, the initial response was something like, “We don’t know if we agree with all nine marks, but that first one seems right.” Since then, both our Chinese and English congregations have striven to exposit God’s Word in the pulpit. After thirty years without a statement of faith, our church established one in English and translated it into Chinese. It took over six years of preaching and teaching before I was recognized and installed as an elder of the church. And only within the past two years have we begun implementing church membership. The work has been slow. But it has also been fruitful.
Pastoring an immigrant church is both demanding and a delight. In nearly every American city, such churches exist—almost always in anonymity. Have you ever considered partnering with or praying for a nearby immigrant church? Have you ever considered pastoring one yourself? Ministry in the immigrant church will likely not result in accolades, nor will its pastors be lauded among broader evangelicalism. But the labor is a joyous necessity—at least until the final ingathering of “every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev 5:9).
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[i] John Piper, “The Pride of Babel and the Praise of Christ” in Spectacular Sins (Crossway Books, 2008), 65—73.
[ii] David F. Wells, No Place for Truth (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1993).
[iii] George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture, 2nd Edition (Oxford University Press, 2006), 204.
[iv] D. A. Carson, Basics for Believers (Baker Books, 1996), 26.
[v] See Jonathan Szeto’s argument this in “Gone and Back Again: My Departure and Return to the Immigrant Church.”
[vi] See akow.org
[viii] Jonathan Edwards preached in English to one congregation and to Native Americans with a translator. It could be argued that in this situation Jonathan Edwards was part of a 2nd generation immigrant church! George M. Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (Yale University Press, 2003), 392.
[ix] Ibid., 394.
[x] Mark Dever, “Sibbes and Conformity” in The Affectionate Theology of Richard Sibbes (Reformation Trust Publishing, 2018), 21–42.