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Coworkers of the Great Commission

The flourishing of diaspora churches in North America

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In recent months the rhetoric on migrants has become especially charged. There are quite a few who advocate for the building of walls, both literally and metaphorically, and embrace policies that restrict the arrival of refugees and even ban migrants from certain countries. But what if the global migration of people and the sprouting of diaspora churches reflect the growing edges of Christianity in North America?

As immigrants arrive on the shores of the United States, they bring with them not just their luggage but also their faith. What if immigration is the very tool that God uses for the revitalization of Christian faith in North America?

We have yet to fully grasp the importance of these congregations that already represent a significant part of the Christian and Missionary Alliance (C&MA) family. This new reality was vividly on display when I attended the first united symposium of the Chinese Alliance churches in Canada in fall 2016. These churches are part of the Canadian C&MA and offer services in Mandarin, Cantonese, and English languages. They represent nearly 100 churches, which account for 20 percent of all C&MA churches in Canada.

There I met Pastor Solomon Chiang, a seasoned church planter who was pastoring in Taiwan and came to Canada for his theological studies. He then pastored a Chinese church in Parsippany, New Jersey, before moving to the greater Toronto area, where he planted three churches in the last two decades, all of them exceeding several hundred members.

Rev. Chiang focused his ministry on reaching the Mandarin-speaking Chinese while many of the earlier churches represented Cantonese-speaking congregations. He began reaching out with kindness and warmth to the new immigrants from mainland China who had no prior knowledge of the faith. His hospitality and generosity provided a radical Kingdom alternative of Christian fellowship in an otherwise lonely, dreary routine of work.

When asked the reason why the churches are growing, he simply responded that the church demonstrates Christian love and that is the catalyst which draws people to Christ.

Christianity and Global Migration

Stateside, diaspora churches now account for more than 41 percent of the nearly 2,000 U.S. C&MA churches. Pew Forum’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study reports ethnic diversity among North American churches increased from 29 percent in 2007 to 34 percent in 2014. This number is projected to continue to increase as the rate of immigration persists in the coming decades.

While the story of global Christianity has taken center stage in recent decades, its implications for global migration have received far less reflection. We must consider the growth of the Church in Asia, Africa, and Latin America alongside the rise of global migration. Many of the migrants leaving these regions are now actively ministering in their new diasporic locations.

The Pew Forum’s Faith on the Move reports that nearly half (49.6 percent) of all international migrants are Christians. The numbers are further accentuated when considering immigration to the United States. The same report claims nearly three-quarters (74 percent) of foreign-born people living in the United States identify as Christians. These stats have vast implications for how we speak about diasporic peoples.

A Changing Landscape

We often view diasporic communities as groups we must reach with the gospel and groups we must mobilize to reach others. Admittedly, the movement of people from “unreached” or “unreachable” regions to global cities offers unique opportunities for gospel witness because migrants are more inclined to reconsider their faith commitment. Similarly, nominal adherents may renew or intensify their religious belonging while on the move.

We must remember, though, that the majority of people in the diasporas are Christians. That is why, despite predictions of the decline of faith in North America, we are witnessing diaspora churches growing in most of the major cities across the continent.

Professor Soong-Chan Rah from North Park Seminary aptly observes:

As many lament the decline of Christianity in the United States in the early stages of the 21st century, very few have recognized that American Christianity may actually be growing but in unexpected and surprising ways. The American Church needs to face the inevitable and prepare for the next stage of her history: We are looking at a non-white majority, multiethnic American Christianity in the immediate future.

Diasporic communities across the North American landscape are vibrant and flourishing. We are not only to missionize and mobilize them, but we also must see them as members of the shared religious landscape and equal partners in mission.

Equal Partners

Those from the dominant culture may feel disappointment at diasporic communities belonging within their ethnic enclave or their insisting upon continuity of linguistic and cultural identity. They may wish diaspora churches would simply assimilate into the dominant culture’s paradigm of English churches or multicultural churches.

That approach to diaspora churches fails to recognize the importance of ethnicity and language as crucial components of people’s identity. Failing to affirm these in others assumes the normalcy of a dominant culture emphasizing uniformity rather than engaging in the difficult work of building unity by affirming the uniqueness in our diversity.

While we need more multicultural churches, we must also recognize the validity of diverse types of churches including ethnic and linguistic-specific churches.

Diaspora churches also face internal challenges as they discern how to navigate the changes of their home culture and host culture and issues related to discipling the first generation and second generation. We cannot assume that assimilation will address the various complexities.

Diaspora church leaders, especially second-generation leaders, can play a critical role in contextualizing the gospel within their own cultures with attention to the cultural and linguistic nuances for each generation.

For example, this past semester at the Alliance Theological Seminary where I teach, a second-generation Chinese-French student did his research on the emerging cosmopolitanism in urban cities such as Paris and its implications for missions in a post-Christendom context; a Hmong-American student examined the traditional view of marriage in Hmong culture and the complexities of marriage rites among the second generation; and a Chinese-American retired corporate executive presented his research on strategies of retaining the second generation in Chinese churches.

Our affirmation of the uniqueness of culture and ethnicity allows us to take seriously the changing context of the world and the relevant questions that emerge in light of global migration and world Christianity.

As we reflect on the changing face of global Christianity, we must recognize the changing face of Christianity in North America. Hispanic, Korean, Chinese, and Nigerian churches are a few of the many diaspora churches that now occupy the North American religious landscape. These congregations embody the vitality and vibrancy of global Christianity and stand alongside previously established North American churches as equal partners in mission.

Adapted by the author from ChristianityToday.com, November 10, 2016. Used with permission.

Migration: A Biblical Legacy

The Scriptures are copious with references to migrants and their transformation in the process of migration. Consider Ruth, a foreigner, a Moabite, one of the descendants of Lot, who found herself at the field of Boaz (Ruth 2:2). The Levitical law had provisions for the foreigner and the poor to pick up the grains that did not make the first-cut in the harvest (Lev. 23:22).

Consider Jesus in Samaria speaking to the woman at the well (John 4). What is Jesus doing visiting a land that was settled by the intermarrying between pagans and Israelites under the Assyrian empire? Jesus surpassed the surrounding ethnic and nationalistic exclusivity of the Jews to provide for the inclusion of the Samaritans in the redemptive plan of God. We do not have space to trace Joseph as a victim of human trafficking, Daniel as a highly skilled immigrant worker (H1B Visa) in the palace of the Persian king (Dan. 1:6), Nehemiah and Ezra engaging transnationally in missions from Persia to their homeland in Jerusalem (Neh. 1:1), or Esther, an orphaned child in diaspora who became the queen of the empire through intercultural marriage.

What about the apostle Paul, who was the son of immigrant parents having been born in Tarsus yet being raised in Israel as a Pharisee (Acts 22:3)? He embodied the hybridity of the cultures and thus was uniquely shaped to embrace the calling to be “a light to the nations” (Acts 13:47). Or what about Timothy, the child of an intercultural marriage (Acts 16:1), and the unnamed men from Cyprus and Cyrene who were most likely diaspora Jews who were the first to bring the gospel to the Greeks in Antioch (Acts 11:20)?

The story of the gospel is replete with migrant narrative. We remember that Jesus, our Savior, was at one time a refugee fleeing King Herod. We must also remember that Egypt played a redemptive role in incubating the infant Jesus from a genocide (Matt. 2:13).

Our reflection on the story of migration must remember that we ourselves are sojourners and exiles in the land awaiting our heavenly Kingdom. Thus, the Bible has much to say about immigration, how we are to treat immigrants, and how God uses them to perpetuate the spread of the gospel worldwide. Our reflection and engagement on this issue must therefore keep central God’s heart for the immigrant, the poor, and the widows that can be traced throughout the Scriptures.

—Stanley John

2 responses to Coworkers of the Great Commission

  1. Many fear that there are terrorist among the refugees. While there is a chance those who hate America and Christianity are implanting themselves among the refugees, they should be shown love to win them to Christ, and watched to alert authorities if their evil intents become visible. We need to trust God to protect us as we reach out in love, even if some are enemies.

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