Are migrant churches bad news?

Are migrant churches bad news?

If you told me at the beginning of my ministry journey that I would be pastoring in a migrant Chinese church, I’d call you crazy. Why? Because it’s one of the most challenging ministry contexts I know. Don’t get me wrong; ministry can be difficult in its own right. After all, gospel ministry is about working with the problem of sin in people, life, and our world.

I grew up in a Chinese church. As I understood the gospel for myself, I wrestled with the cultural expression of the church. In my nativity, I thought this was a compromise of the gospel. A syncretism bordering on heresy. A failure to grasp the truth of God’s Word. How naive!

I would realise that the problem wasn’t the Chinese or migrant culture. It’s people. We’re sinners in a broken world. This sin plays out in our lives, relationships, and churches, whether Asian or Australian, migrant or local. Culture isn’t the main problem; our sin is. However, even our sin is expressed through culture.

Challenges of culture

For this reason, migrant churches (not just Chinese) are challenging because of the layers of culture at play. They get tangled up like power cables or strings of Christmas lights stored away until next Christmas.

Few churches are the same. Associate Professor Daniel Lee unpacks these layers of culture—cultural heritage, migration experience, host country, and one’s experience within a host country. On this last point especially, the experience between first-generation migrants and second-generation children is often significantly different.

First-generation migrants must adapt, change, and survive in a culture different from their home country. Second-generation children typically grow up in the host country, so they don’t need to adapt or change to the same degree as their parents. Rather than surviving, relatively speaking, they thrive. This difference in experience unwittingly serves to be a point of intergenerational conflict.

Over the last decade, I’ve attempted to find examples of healthy, intergenerational migrant churches in Australia, and I can count on one hand the number of encouraging stories I’ve heard. (Maybe I’m not looking in the right places. Let me know, and please let me be wrong!) The challenges of migrant churches don’t seem isolated to the Australian context. It’s a similar story across the oceans.

Potential of the Migrant Church

However, God is working through and out of migrant churches to build his kingdom in the messiness of it all. Maybe God plans to use these cultural challenges and difficulties to refine and sanctify his church.

Yet, the migrant church is uniquely placed to advance the Great Commission. The nature of a migrant church means its strategically placed to reach out to incoming migrants of the same language. (While there's an element of shared culture, this isn't always the case as culture is never stagnant.) Migrants are more likely to understand what it means to live as pilgrims and exiles in this world.

Mike Raiter believes that “Asian immigration is saving the Australian church.” Whether these words are prophetic or not will be revealed in time.

Mike Raiter, “Asian immigration is saving the Australian church.” (29:53)

Fellow pastor Adam Ch’ng rightly suggests it will take culturally sensitive ministries, humbly navigating a diverse theological landscape, and strategic partnerships to make this happen. The challenges are real, but I believe there’s hope yet for the migrant church in Australia and across the world.

What’s the good news?

The good news is one day, we will see the Apostle John’s vision become reality:

After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no-one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice:

‘Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb.’

— Revelation 7:9–10 (NIV)

I pray that we might get a taste, a sample, of that now in our churches. The migrant church seems a natural place where we might glimpse this, but it will come at a cost. The exact cost of discipleship, of following Jesus, is to lay down one’s life (Mark 8:34–37)—including one’s cultural and racial identity. We’re to take up the cross of Christ so that we might serve one another in his grace and love. That’s a post for another day.

Are migrant churches bad news? In my younger years, I thought they were. Nowadays, I’m a bit more optimistic about their future. If nothing else, I believe the gospel is good news for migrants and our migrant churches.

How do you feel about the migrant church? Drop me a message and share your story with me. I’d love to hear your story. If you’re ministering in a migrant context, I’d love to connect and partner with you on this journey.