John Lee on the State of the Immigrant Church

John Lee is a member of Capitol Hill Baptist Church, and a student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of BCNN1.


The state of the immigrant church must be a concern to all church leaders.

“We’re having trouble keeping the next generation.”

“My immigrant senior pastor is infuriating.”

“The younger generation doesn’t respect the older generation.”

Why are second-generation immigrant Christians vacating immigrant churches?

It seems many immigrant churches are in the midst of a divorce. English ministries separate from immigrant churches to plant their own churches. English-ministry pastors feel neglected and suppressed. Immigrant senior pastors feel disrespected and misunderstood. Second-generation immigrant Christians feel vindicated as they turn their back on those who raised them. Older, first-generation Christians feel jaded as they see their children mature.

How did this happen?

THE STORY OF A TYPICAL IMMIGRANT CHURCH

Immigration

An immigrant family moves to the United States. Though they’re foreigners in an unfamiliar land, they know exactly where to go. It’s the first place everyone goes once they move in. The immigrant church.

The immigrant church is often the social centerpiece of the immigrant Christian. Where do you go to find jobs? The immigrant church. Where do you find places to live? The immigrant church. Where do you make your friends? The immigrant church. The immigrant Christian is able to hear preaching in their heart language and engage in Christian community with those who share their culture.

But then they have kids.

Separation

Children of immigrants live in two worlds. They live in the world of their parents, marked by their home country. They become cultural chameleons, able to adapt to whatever “code” the context demands. They can look up NBA highlights while nodding their head to the latest pop single in their mother country. Most of them know enough of their mother tongue to tell their mom that they’re hungry, but they lack the linguistic theological vocabulary to follow along with the immigrant pastor’s sermon.

The solution? An English children’s ministry. The parents drop off their children to their English kid’s ministry, and while the children dance to the latest Kidz-bop’ed English worship song, the parents sing in their mother tongue in the main service. The church hires a second-generation seminarian who is looking for ministry opportunities, and he teaches the children under the authority of the immigrant senior pastor.

But then the kids grow up to junior high. The immigrant church realizes that they need to start a youth ministry. They decide that the best person to lead the young teens is the children’s pastor they grew up with. So, with a fresh promotion, the newly-minted youth pastor continues to teach teenagers under the authority of the immigrant senior pastor.

As the kids get older, the immigrant church continues to develop new ministries to keep up with their children’s maturity. They begin with a children’s ministry. Then they add a junior high ministry. Then a high school ministry. Then a college ministry. Then a young adults ministry. All of it stays under the steady supervision of the adult immigrant congregation.

Over time, however, the supervision begins to feel like micro-management. The English Ministry (EM) pastor is unable to make administrative decisions without the Immigrant Ministry (IM) senior pastor’s approval. Cultural differences blockade otherwise smooth operations. The EM pastor starts to feel like he’s outgrown the clothes he’s been given.

On top of that, the second-generation children have been following the American dream. Learning from the hard work and discipline of their immigrant parents, they worked hard in school and climbed up the economic ladder. They’ve got better jobs, better pay. And better pay means better giving. And who was their spiritual authority since they were 8-years-old? Their EM pastor. They’ll follow him wherever he goes.

The EM pastor does the math. He hits eject and leaves his mother church with his young adults and plants a church.

The new church plant vows that they will not repeat the authoritarian practices of their parents. And yet, without training, the former EM pastor/now senior pastor feels overwhelmed. How is he supposed to lead this thing?

The immigrant church feels like their son just spat on their face and left to be a prodigal. Disrespected and dejected, they look for another pastor, hoping that with the next generation of children, the new EM pastor may be able to shepherd their kids without leading them astray.

As time goes on, the new church plant begins to reflect its community more and more, losing its ethnic-distinct identity as its linguistic barrier dissipates. The immigrant church shrinks as fewer immigrants move into the area. Eventually, the immigrant church dies. The fourth and fifth generations of immigrants fully assimilate into the broader community.

Or do they?

Assimilation?

Previous generations of immigrants have more or less followed this pattern: the first generation immigrates, the second and third generations feel a kind of identity crisis, and the subsequent generations assimilate into the broader culture.The Germans, the French, the Italians—they’ve all followed the same pattern.

But in the case of modern immigrant populations such as Asians and Hispanics, the pattern has been disrupted. Typically, immigrants came in waves. A large influx of Irish escape Ireland due to the Irish Potato Famine. Though they were initially treated with disdain, they eventually blended into majority culture. Immigration, identity crisis, assimilation.

Immigration among Asians and Hispanics shows no signs of slowing down—in fact, it’s only increasing. Immigrants just keep moving in, and the stream of first-generation, immigrant adults keeps the pulse of immigrant churches alive. Some immigrant populations are beyond the sixth generation. There have been decades of immigration and separation, but not much assimilation. (Most of these stats are from the U.S. Census Bureau and Pew Research.)

Immigrant churches aren’t going away anytime soon. So what do you do when you have one church with multiple languages and cultures? The current model doesn’t seem to be working.