Methods in local church ministry and mission are too often based on the perceived goals of the church instead of the unique nature of their community.
Before I sound too critical, I believe many local churches have noble goals, but they are often more self-serving than the church ever realizes. Many churches focus on growth and now diversity as success metrics. These are not bad things. In fact they are good things, but a poor understanding of them can subtly replace more biblical success metrics, such as making good disciples and multiplying gospel witness in the community.
For instance, is it better to have one larger church in a city or multiple smaller churches? That is a hard question to answer. And when we talk about diversity, we often have a shallow understanding of that term.
Sometimes, a church simply wants different colors of skin. They are not looking for real cultural diversity, or language diversity, or age diversity, or economic diversity. In fact, many churches are simply trying to figure out how to do church the way they want to and convince other kinds of people to come do it that way with them. This is not real diversity.
As North American churches are waking up to the new reality of unreached people groups and unprecedented cultural diversity in our cities, many are expressing a desire to minister to these groups. That is fantastic; however, actual methods can expose motives.
Local churches that genuinely desire a biblically faithful ministry to these diverse groups will need to take the posture of missionaries. They will need to understand the people, what they believe, how they think, and what is important to them. This is called cultural acquisition, and ministry that cares about the needs of these people will seek understanding before developing methods.
Take for instance the generational differences that exist in immigrant communities. As people begin immigrating to North America from around the world, they will most often seek out people from their home culture if given the chance. This is one of the driving factors behind large people group communities forming in US cities.
As this happens, year-after-year people group communities develop that share culture, language, religion, etc. Eventually, the first immigrants will have children, and given long enough, their children will have children. Within a couple of decades, a mature community has developed with older individuals and little babies. In many cities, this is a very present reality.
This is important, because each of these three generations represented will most likely relate to their new host culture in different ways. Of course, this depends on dozens of factors, but that foreign-born generation will be least likely to assimilate into the surrounding culture. Many may never learn English past basic phrases. However, those third generation children (the grandkids of the first group) will perhaps have been raised as fluent in English as their mother tongue. For some, they may know English better. Often, they will consider themselves truly American with a foreign heritage.
Local churches that genuinely desire a biblically faithful ministry to these diverse groups will need to take the posture of missionaries. They will need to understand the people, what they believe, how they think, and what is important to them.
The second generation stands in yet a third place between the two, sometimes identifying as American and often identifying with their family identity. Each group has different levels of language and cultural proficiency in both their host and home culture.
Honestly, this is an oversimplification itself. What about that person who was born in another country but came here with their family as a baby? What is their category? Or, how about those groups that work really hard to maintain their cultural identity, and the third generation still speaks their heart language far better than English?
I point all of this out to demonstrate the complexity that exists in trying to reach the radical diversity that now fills our cities. Such complexity requires a church that is both observant and is more concerned with meeting the needs of these people than meeting some success metric.
Unfortunately, many local churches who seek to reach these people group communities do not take the time to realize any of this. In fact, they may simply attempt to do ministry as usual, hoping they can convince some of these people to be part of a thoroughly western church.
Of course, that third generation may feel right at home in a western church. They may learn and grow best there. That does not mean, however, that the church has been successful at reaching that community. There are many others who would not feel comfortable in a western church, or worse, who would not understand the English service well enough to comprehend. They will need another solution, and it most likely involves a church in their language.
Many churches say they want to reach internationals, and some will wind up with people of different ethnic descent in their congregations and feel they have accomplished their task.
Instead, our ministry should be first concerned with the eventual discipleship of those we are trying to reach. That means sharing the gospel in a way that makes sense, it means providing them with avenues of biblical teaching in ways that make sense, and it means equipping them to do missions in the best way possible.
For some, these goals may be accomplished by pulling people into your church, especially second and third generation groups. However, it may mean planting churches in a different language where better discipleship can occur, and missions is facilitated to others of that language.
Editor’s Note: Keelan Cook is a senior church consultant with the Union Baptist Association in Houston, Texas, and is working on a Ph.D. in missiology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He spent time as a church planter in West Africa with the International Mission Board (IMB) and doing ethnographic research in Washington, D.C., with the North American Mission Board (NAMB). His focus is urban and diaspora missions. This originally appeared on blog.keelancook.com.
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