Is the intergenerational migrant church a pipe dream?

Is the intergenerational migrant church a pipe dream?

The Church is Jesus' bride—the Church is loved by Christ demonstrated by his death and resurrection. The Church is filled with people drawn together by God's grace and mercy. And the Church includes people from every nation, tribe, people, and language who will one day stand before the throne. And I want to say it before we go any further, I love her too.

Yet, the Church is also made up of the local expression of church: local congregations assembling together around God's Word and prayer. While no church is perfect—each with its own particular challenges, including socio‑cultural challenges—the migrant church is brings with it a set of unique challenges. In a previous blog post, I asked whether migrant churches bad news?

A healthy, intergenerational migrant church

I suggest that it's not all bad news. However, over 15 years of ministry in the Asian context, I have found few examples of healthy, intergenerational migrant churches. To give some clarity around this, I'll attempt to outline a simple and relative definition of healthy and intergenerational:

  • healthy:
    • ongoing discipleship at the various stages of life;
    • meaningful fellowship across language and culture;
    • shared leadership and responsibilities across church ministries;
    • outward‑looking evangelism and mission;
    • a Godward attentiveness (or a Monday-Friday life of worship) in the lives of its members.
  • intergenerational: generational representation across the key stages of life—childhood, teenagers, young adults, young families, families with teenagers, families with adult children, and retirees.

Why do we need them?

To be fair, I'm asking a lot of any church, let alone a migrant church, but it's a question I think we need to ask. Why? Why do we need a healthy, intergenerational migrant church? I want to suggest two major reasons.

Firstly, the lack of healthy, intergenerational migrant churches will damage gospel witness to current and future migrants. The gift of migrant churches is that they are strategically placed culturally and linguistically to reach the new migrants. I touched on this in my previous blog post. Just to outline some of the points:

  • language is less of a barrier for evangelism and discipleship;
  • the degree of crossing culture is smaller; this isn’t a given, it requires wisdom by church leaders to be aware of cultural changes in the country of origin;
  • and, pastoral understanding and sensitivity to the stresses of migration.

Secondly, it doesn't encourage the next generation to invest into the future of these churches. There are too many stories of people hurt by their churches; gospel workers and pastors burnt out by the challenges and demands of the migrant context. Let alone the increasing challenge of finding native language speaking gospel workers for the new waves of migrants spread across the Asian diaspora.

I wish it wasn't so. I wish this was an exaggeration. I wish I was wrong. (So please let me know if I am.) But my experience, the stories I hear repeatedly here in Australia and globally, suggest otherwise.

What would it take?

A national consultation by the Asian chapter of The Gospel Coalition Australia (phew, that's a mouthful) highlighted that it would take culturally sensitive ministries, humbly navigating a diverse theological landscape, and strategic partnerships to advance gospel ministry in the Asian‑Australian context. I want to attempt to unpack this in the context of a local church.

Culturally‑sensitive leaders

This begins with the church’s leadership. To be clear, in the Asian context, many default to the pastor. However, this cultural assumption is already fraught with danger. No, the whole leadership of the church needs to understand culture and its impact both on its present congregants, but also incoming migrants.

Let me illustrate the subtle complexities within my own church:

  1. First‑generation migrants from the 80s, many entering or already retired;
  2. First‑generation migrants from the 90s, many with adult children;
  3. Second‑generation migrants who grew up in Australia, some with children;
  4. Second‑generation migrants who grew up overseas, some with children;
  5. First‑generation migrants from the last decade, mostly students or graduates;
  6. Second & third‑generation migrant children and teenagers in local schools.

Even as I list these out, I'm overwhelmed by the various nuances between the cultural makeup of these different generations. While there is an immense amount of grace shown between these various sub‑groups, there's no denying there's significant differences between these groups in their approaches to leadership, finances, relationship, ministry philosophy and so on. On a positive and thankful note, the older generations have embraced the next generation and created space for them to share leadership in both organisation and ministry.

Humbly‑navigating theological differences

Another common feature of migrant churches is theological differences between generations, particularly first and second‑generation migrants. This is partially a result of the challenges of discipleship in a multilingual context. Since discipleship in migrant churches rarely occurs across linguistic groups, it means theological formation occurs in isolation in the different groups. Over time then, it's not surprising that differing theological views develop with subsequent generations.

In the Australian context, for example, one such issue is the Complimentarian/Egalitarian views around women in ministry and leadership. I don't intend to get into the discussion here, but I would like to identify some of the influences at play.

First‑generation migrants are typically established in their theology. Often, their theological views are shaped by their discipleship and church experience in their home countries. Their core theological views rarely change, nor are they impacted by the theological debates and issues of their host country. For example, the liberal debates around gender and marriage in Australia and the evangelical response from the Australian Church in the 80s has had little bearing on most migrant churches. While there is a pragmatic element to it, most migrant churches have no issue with women in ministry.

Second‑generation Christians, however, are often shaped by both their migrant church, but also, the theological landscape of the host country. Even with the challenges of language, the basic tenants of the gospel are communicated. However, theological and ministry philosophies are harder to communicate across language. This has resulted in points of conflict in matters such as different approaches and ideas around preaching and teaching, evangelism, and mission.

To navigate this context then requires deep humility and prayerful wisdom coupled with a clear stand upon theological matters of first‑importance and a gracious and winsome hand towards matters of second‑importance.

Strategic gospel partnerships

While migrant churches were established following the gold rush in the 1870s, a critical mass of migrant churches were established in the 1970s and 80s. This coincides with the rise of Asian migration to Western countries during the turmoils occurring at the time.

This gave birth to a number of high level partnerships with associations and congresses among the first‑generation, such as the Sydney Chinese Christian Churches Association and Chinese Coordination Centre of World Evangelism. In the 1990s, Chinese departments were established at Melbourne School of Theology, Brisbane School of Theology, and Christ College (now Chinese Theological College Australia).

However, these bodies have little connection to the second‑generation, not for lack of desire or intention, but simply because they speak a different language. In this space arose ministries such as JumpStart (Melbourne), RICE Movement (Sydney and beyond), RED (Adelaide), IGNITE Training Conference (Brisbane), and Connect Training Conference (Melbourne). Over the years, various denominations also have their own internal networks in the migrant/cross‑cultural context. In more recent years, Brisbane School of Theology established the Centre for Asian Christianity.

However, the conversations around first and second‑generation migrants seems to be a repeating one without any clear indication of progress. Why? Because, despite all the efforts of networking and partnership, it's not strategic. Many of these organisations and ministries operate in isolation. Most migrant churches, even within an established denomination, operation in isolation. Added to this is the difficulty of pastors, ministry workers, and church leaders lacking or committing time to build strategic partnerships.

In order for the conversation to genuinely move forward, it's not enough for these organisations and ministries to exist. We must partner together. Leaders, ministry workers, and pastors must partner together. Bible colleges must partner together. Churches must partner together. Otherwise, I fear that this conversation will just continue to go around in circles, and the challenges and issues we face repeat in the next generation. To be sure, God is sovereign and he will build his church. I only pray that it might be less painful as we partner together for his glory.

Is the intergenerational migrant church a pipe dream? It sure feels like it sometimes. But I hope and pray that, if we might train and raise up culturally‑sensitive leaders, humbly navigate the broad theological terrain, and strategically partner with like‑minded persons, ministries, and churches, then it may be more than a pipe dream. It might be a glorious reality and taste of God's glory as we see migrants and future generations come together under our Lord Jesus Christ.