I am about to make a whole lot of generalizations. So, get ready.
Of course, I do not know your church, and I do not know the immigrant church in your town. However, I know a lot of Western, majority culture churches and I spend a lot of time working with and studying immigrant churches. Generalizations have their purpose, and a short blog post simply does not provide the space to be nuanced. So, excuse the overstatements and try to hear the kernel of what I am saying.
We can (and must) learn from our immigrant brothers and sisters in Christ.
When evangelical Christians consider the large number of immigrants coming to North America, they most often turn first to the unreached. There are millions of Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist peoples living in, and moving to, the US. This is a healthy first concern, and I think more churches need to think about how they plan to proclaim the gospel to these new neighbors. So much so, we have a whole website dedicated to the idea.
Christianity in North America is not waning, it is just changing colors.
It is also true that the majority of people coming here are not unreached. In fact, the majority of immigrants come to us claiming Christianity. A great number of these are actually evangelical! Truth be told, the most significant church planting in North America is not being done by our majority culture. Immigrant groups are coming to the US and establishing churches in Spanish, Swahili, Korean, and Farsi. American evangelicals are now accustomed to bemoaning the demise of American Christianity, and the whole time they are missing the budding seeds of new evangelical movements. It is just not the same color or language we are used to seeing.
In this space, I have discussed the importance of partnering in missions with the many foreign-born Christians coming to North America. As we talk about reaching these unreached peoples coming here, we need to realize that we have partners moving in all around us to help with that goal. Many of these groups are closer in culture and have the same shared experience of living as pilgrims in a new country. We need to find these new immigrant churches in our cities and consider them partners in reaching our cities.
However, I want to make clear, that these new neighbors (and their new churches) are not simply tools to push your church’s new strategy. To the contrary, there is a lot your large American church can learn about Christianity from these immigrant churches. Not only do we need to partner with them in mission, we need to learn from them as iron sharpens iron. Too often, the only posture a majority culture church is willing to take to a minority culture church is paternal. It is the strong and knowledgeable reaching down the weak in need of education. Not only is that arrogant, it is patently false.
In order to explain my point, here are three things that immigrant churches in your community probably do better than your church.
They understand community.
If your church is like many in America, you have hundreds on a roll somewhere who never darken the door of your worship service. In fact, there is a good chance your church constantly fights against a consumerist, spectator understanding of church. We Americans are individualists, and we view church as a voluntary association that meets certain needs. Of course, this is far from the biblical picture of the church. The church is not an event, it is a living breathing community, a body that is joined together for mutual service and mission. Furthermore, it is not optional for the Christian, despite what many American Christians think. Too many Americans have the Lone Ranger Syndrome when it comes to the community of the church.
I am not saying that every other culture in the world views this differently than us, but most sure do. Most of the cultures from which Christian immigrants come are collectivist cultures instead of individualists cultures. In other words, they place very high value on the role of the group in the life of the individual. In fact, many struggle to see themselves as individuals. People from these cultures are much closer to the biblical mark when it comes to understanding church as the body of Christ. They know what it means to bear one another’s burdens. They understand that one person’s sin affects the whole group. They do not think of the gifts from God as a personal storehouse. In many ways, they are better at church.
Imagine the effect it could have on your church members to start associating with a church that understands community. Think of the potential for your church to learn about loving and serving others by watching a collectivist-culture church in action.
They can see your theological blindspots.
I pointed out one of these blindspots above, though there are many others. What is more, we do not know they are there. That is what makes them blindspots. It is natural for any culture to read Scripture and understand it through their own worldview. That colors our interpretation and application, and many times we never realize the extent to which this is true.
Sometimes, our culture helps us see things in Scripture clearly. For instance, our culture is a right/wrong culture, and because of that we see the judicial language in the Bible concerning sin and redemption very clearly. We get that Christ’s death on the cross and subsequent resurrection are a penal substitution for us, and that it makes us guiltless before God.
However, our culture obscures the other aspects of salvation that are very apparent. Most Americans never consider that the cross and resurrection were moments of great shame and honor, and even less consider this issue as it relates to fear and power. Truthfully, many of you reading this may not even know how those issues relate to the gospel. You can thank your cultural lens for that.
But having a partnership, a relationship, with a church from a completely different culture can reveal these blindspots. Our role toward all of these immigrant churches moving to the US is not simply to teach them how to do “real Christianity.” Far from it, they can teach a thing or two about theology.
They know how to be a witness as a cultural minority.
Finally, and this is perhaps the most pressing right now, immigrant churches are most likely used to being a witness in a culture where they are a minority. Many of the groups coming here are coming from areas where Christianity is not the major religion. Some are even coming from areas where Christians are persecuted. These churches understand how to be a gospel witness in the face of a culture that does not agree with them.
We need this expertise. We (the majority culture North American church) are not too good at witnessing from a minority position. We are used to having money, power, and influence as tools to leverage in local church missions with a general culture that agrees with us morally. That is all changing, and we struggle to keep up. Gone are the days where we can just shout our message louder to a culture that (for the most part) at least assents to our Christian background.
I am not saying we need to start moaning about being a persecuted minority. (You can probably ask some of these new immigrants about that.) I am saying that we need to learn how to be salt and light in a culture that increasingly distances itself from our narrative. The values have changed in North America, and increasingly the Christian views are seen as immoral. We need to know how to fulfill the Great Commission in this new environment, and fortunately that is old hat to many of these new immigrant churches.
Meet your new neighbors. Get to know and love these brothers and sisters who share a common Lord.
Keelan Cook serves as Senior Church Consultant for Union Baptist Association and Instructor of North American Missiology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. His primary areas of ministry focus include urban missiology, church planting, church revitalization, and unreached people groups.