Planting and growing ethno specific churches

Photo by USFS Region 5

By Peter Corney

Australian churches stand at the threshold of a great evangelistic and church growth opportunity. The challenge is to evangelise and plant churches among the large number of new immigrant groups in Australia. As a result of increased immigration and the receiving of refugees and asylum seekers many local congregations now find themselves in rapidly changing suburbs with new settlers from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. This is a great opportunity but it requires some significant mind shifts for most congregations.

The ethnic and cultural make up of an area can change very quickly. What was a generally anglo/celtic area and reflected in the churches membership becomes multicultural. It may take place gradually and creep up on a church or it may happen quickly. When I became the senior minister at St. Hilary’s Kew in 1975 it was solidly anglo/celtic. Now it has a Chinese congregation, a West Papuan Fellowship and a  ministry to refugees and asylum seekers and a small but significant ministry to Afghanis. The area of North Balwyn, now part of the Parish, has a rapidly increasing number of Asians. They now make up approximately 60 % of the students at the North Balwyn Primary school. When I was a curate at Holy Trinity Doncaster in the 60’s it was solidly anglo/celtic and european. In addition to those of English background there was also a number of orchardist’s with German heritage and a healthy Lutheran congregation was well established in Doncaster.  Holy Trinity now has two Chinese congregations and in recent times has baptized a significant number of new Chinese Christians. Several years ago I was speaking at a Presbyterian conference in Brisbane and met the pastor of the largest Presbyterian Church in Queensland – it was  Korean! These stories could be repeated in most of our large cities now.

The aim of this paper is to raise people’s awareness of this growing mission field and to outline some principles when establishing a new work.

The principles:

1. Remember the Great Commission.

In the great commission in Mathew 28: 18-20 Jesus commands us to …to go and make disciples all nations…(The Greek is pan ethnae – to  all ethnicities, all ethnic people groups.) At Pentecost the Spirit fell on believers gathered from a multiplicity of nations and people groups (Acts 2:1-12), each of these groups took the gospel back to their own people. From the beginning we were an international, multilingual and multicultural movement. Paul expressed it this way, in Christ …there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus… (Gal. 3:26-28.)

As our world shrinks, and as a result of massive international people movements, all the great cities of the world have become multi racial and multicultural. Western democratic societies are particularly attractive to people wanting to escape oppressive governments or violent conflicts. This is presenting Western liberal democracies with significant challenges. How do you hold together a society with people who now have very diverse cultures, worldviews and values. Will the great experiment of multiculturism survive and thrive or end in crisis? If anyone has an answer to this question and a unique contribution it is the community of Jesus! Indeed this was one of Christianities great contributions and attractions in the first three centuries of its rapid growth. (See Rodney Stark’s “The Rise of Christianity” Harper Collins 1997.)

Christianity has no sacred language like Islam or Judaism, it is not ethno or culturally specific or limited by race and language. Christians have lived as the citizens of many different cultures. Christianity is transcultural, every culture it inhabits is judged and influenced by the transcendent values of the Kingdom of God, the Christians ultimate home.   From the very beginning Christians prayed in their own native languages. The Bible has been translated into over 7000 different languages. Speaking of the Christian community the NT says, Here there is no Greek of Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all in all. (Col.3:11)

2. Study your context.

Many congregations have slowly died because they failed to respond to the changing demography of their area. Research your area to see what opportunities there may be to begin a ministry to a new immigrant group. Some, like the Sudanese in Melbourne come from an African Christian background, others like the large new Russian Jewish immigrant community have come with very little Jewish religious background. Years under the Soviets have left them with a great spiritual hunger but little to satisfy it. There are now several flourishing Christian Messianic congregations growing among this people group in Melbourne. The story is similar for many mainland Chinese immigrants. Years under communism has left them with little or no religious world view. Such people are very open to the gospel. On the other hand immigrants with an Islamic background will be much more difficult to reach and less open.

3. Study the people group’s culture.

Each people group has very different and specific cultural issues that must also be studied and understood before commencing a ministry to them. Attitudes to men and women, hospitality, social rules, time and punctuality, and of course language will all be different to your own. What is the most polite and effective way to issue an invitation to an event could be a critical piece of knowledge. Paul’s principle of cultural adaptation as outlined in 1Cor. 9:19-22 is to be our guide. This is cross cultural mission and the understanding and skills need to be acquired. Your CMS branch or your local theological college missions department should be able to assist you.

4. Recruiting a worker who speaks the language.

Language is the big issue and while many new immigrants are keen to learn English generally it will be critical to find a native speaker to head up the new work. Some congregations have started ESL courses as a contact point with new immigrants.

5. Connect the new work structurally with the main congregation and work towards strong relational connections.

Many ethno specific churches that were started in Melbourne in the past were begun by a group seeking permission to use an existing church building but with no formal link to the local congregation. The local congregation wishing to be hospitable made few demands on the new group. Such new church plants often remained independent, later acquiring their own buildings. One of the major problems with these churches is that they can easily remain isolated in a first generation ethnic enclave. Understandably they wish to preserve their language and culture but this often results in a reactionary conservatism that the second generation reacts to by drifting away. The original group refuses to have an English language service or to adopt any contemporary style. The leadership is frequently very patriarchal and often resistant to younger second generation leaders who have absorbed the Australian culture.  (A few years ago some Italian academics came to Melbourne to study the Italian spoken here by the post war generation of Italian immigrants as it had been preserved in the Italian community here in its 1940’s form while the language in Italy had evolved and changed!)

One of the ways to overcome these difficulties is to be closely linked to an established congregation. It is very important for the second generation to have a link to a wider Christian community that reflects more closely the host culture that they have now integrated with so they can transition from what they will often feel is the narrow world of the ethnic congregation. For young people to be able to attend a youth group run by the established congregation can be crucial to them continuing with an active faith rather than dropping out.

It is also important for the ethnic congregation to have strong links with the wider church. This is a correction against theological novelty, extremes and error and also reinforces the crucial idea that the Christian community is transcultural, that membership is by grace not race.

Ethno-specific or culture-specific evangelism and church planting is a very effective missiological strategy but has its traps and congregations can easily loose their missional and evangelistic edge if they remain trapped in an ethnic enclave. In some parts of the world this is forced on Christians by a very hostile culture but in Australia this is more likely to happen because people like the comfort zone of their own people. The same thing happens with middle class Australian congregations who fail to move out of their comfort zone to reach other socio economic groups who are different. It is also important for ethnic church leaders to be exposed to the ongoing training, ideas and resources available in the wider Church. The wider church also needs the enthusiasm, vitality and commitment that many new immigrant churches bring.

6. Leadership development.

The development of the next generation of leaders should begin as soon as possible and be part of the initial strategy for the work. The host congregation and the ethnic leaders should be on the look out from the beginning for the potential leaders in the next generation and begin a mentor and development program from early on. This will be crucial for sustaining and growing the work and keeping the second generation.

7. Develop a priority for evangelism.

One of the dangers for new immigrant churches is that they can become preoccupied with maintaining their traditions and being a cultural haven. This can turn them inward and away from outreach and evangelism. So developing this as a priority at the beginning is important, especially towards there own people.