Wednesday, 8 February 2012

First vs Second generation ethnic ministry

Here's some thoughts on Subcontinental ministry I put together for a ministry working group. Feedback appreciated.


All humans are created by God, responsible to God, sinful before God, redeemable in Christ, and, depending on their status in Christ, heading for ultimate glory or judgement. The gospel is the same for all people everywhere.

Subcontinental churches potentially become expressions of Subcontinental Christian culture rather than the gospel. I see no difference between this and Australian, Western ecclesial traditionalism – “we like it this way ‘coz it’s always been this way and it makes us feel comfortable.” The difference is that ethnic churches are tolerated, even celebrated, by both the broader church and the world, when they say this. The broader church encourages ethnically enculturated churches because of the HUP and a (rightful) interest in communicating the gospel clearly. The world tolerates ethnic churches because of multiculturalism. In contrast, Western churches where culture > the gospel become historic relics, opposed by Evangelical churches and ignored by the world.

Because these highly enculturated ethnic churches are tolerated or celebrated, they could be blind to the highly enculturated nature of their teaching, worship and formation. Even if they don’t intend to – even if the leaders are converted & mean well – they could end up with culture > the gospel. They too will be in danger of becoming historical relics, irrelevant to both God and the world. This tendency will be accelerated if the church has successfully contextualised the gospel in the home, Subcontinental context – that is, if local believers in the Subcontinent thoughtfully worked out how to express their devotion to Christ in their particular situation. The problem is: there’s no point simply transplanting something that’s culturally appropriate for the Subcontinent to Australia!

This will happen, in part, because second-generation Christian Subcontinentals do not share their parent’s Subcontinental Christian enculturation. In all other aspects of life they mix freely with Aussies, and their parents will encourage this, because that’s what they came here to Aust for – to give their children a chance at a “better life”, where “better life” = Western materialism. Second-generation immigrants are hybrids – they behave in certain ways very “traditionally” – more like their parent’s Subcontinental ways of behaving than their Aussie friends – but are in other areas of life very Western.

This hybrid-ness may occasionally cause conflict in the home. But it will certainly cause conflict with their Christian identity. If, for the ethnic church they attend, Christian culture > the gospel, their church experience will be culturally oppressive rather than evangelically challenging. These young people will eventually reject both the gospel and their inherited Christian culture, because they are not intellectually sophisticated or personally mature enough to distinguish them, nor should we expect them to be.

As these young people reject the gospel, they will instinctively trend towards Western materialism instead, because the whole purpose of immigration is a “better life”, where “better life” = Western materialism. But because of their Christian Subcontinental traditional values, they will probably not adopt a self-evidently destructive hedonistic lifestyle. Ex-Christian Subcontinentals become nice, clean, moral, healthy, wealthy, dignified materialists – the type you’d really love to have as your neighbour.

This is not inevitable for every single ethnic church; it is inevitable for an ethnic church that has not learned to distinguish between the gospel and their inherited Christianised culture. Fixing this is not as simple as creating an English-language service. Such a service could still be highly ethnically enculturated and oppressive. It requires deep self-insight and a critical view of both church and ‘liturgy’. It requires a deep enough grasp of what the gospel actually is, so that we can communicate it to the next generation, and then, having entrusted it to them, liberating them to enact it in a manner appropriate to their social situation – which we cannot assume is the same as ours. It is up to church leaders, not the children, to engage in such thoughtful, honest reflection. I suspect that most churches (not just ethnic?) tacitly expect the opposite: “we’re going to do things our own way, coz that’s how we like it; the kids can take it or leave it”.

Such thoughtful self-criticism is possible. The gospel will enable it, indeed demand it. A truly Christian church is a church founded on the gospel of Christ crucified and risen. Ecclesia semper reformanda est – the church is always being reformed. Second, such thoughtful self-criticism is a return to the individual church’s origins – to its history as a community of people working out what it means to live for Christ in a particular historical culture that ignores or denies him. Ad fontes – back to the source. Also, ethnic churches need the church ‘Catholic’ – they need to be examined and held accountable by other churches. If the church leaders are converted, then when other churches challenge them that it looks like culture > gospel, the leaders will listen.

Second-generation English-language churches are not necessarily the solution; the gospel is. It is tempting to contrast cultural oppression with evangelical liberation – but I think that’s the wrong dichotomy. The real contrast, I think, is between cultural comfort and gospel challenge. Sinful human beings seek comfortable self-affirmation rather than God’s approval – that is, we seek our own righteousness instead of God’s. Such comfortable self-affirmation could come through a familiar social context – a group and place where we do and say familiar things that make us feel welcome and valued – a ‘culture’. First-generation immigrants seek to replicate their comfortable culture; the second generation resist this and seek their own comfortable culture. The gospel cuts across both. It calls the parents to seek the children’s well-being over their own comfort; to desire that the children be converted and following Christ more than happily married and wealthy with a nice career; and to entrust the gospel to those converted children and trust them to grow in it and take it to future generations. It calls the children to submit to the parents, value their insights, and be patient with their foibles. “Honour your father and mother…” “Do not rebuke an older man harshly”. (Note: the verse does not say “do not rebuke an older man”, but “do not rebuke an older man harshly”. Also, the logic of the comparison with exhorting one’s father assumes that it is possible to gently upbraid one’s elders without disrespecting them).

Second-generation Subcontinental immigrants need the same that first-generation Subcontinental immigrants need, which is what the whole world needs – to be challenged, through the gospel, to worship God in Christ.


Kamal Weerakoon said...

Facebook friend of mine just said:

You said that churches where culture > gospel are very much like 'Western ecclesial traditionalism'. I agree in a sense, yet the same thing could be said of some parts of Western modern church, too, couldn't it? I mean, some Christians in modern churches can be so confident that their church culture is superior to that of traditional churches, yet being blind to the fact that their church culture is only just that: an expression of Christian culture. My point is that the risk of confusion between culture and the gospel is not only present in the traditional churches, but in modern churches, too

AlexP said...

Yupe, that Facebook friend (see previous comment) is me.

Another point, Kamal. You said in the second to last paragraph that it is tempting to contrast cultural oppression with evangelical liberation, and that it is a false dichotomy. That's a good point and I am inclined to agree (though need to think a bit more about it). I also like how you link our sinful tendency to seek comfortable self-affirmation with our tendency to seek our own righteousness before God.

What confuses me a bit (and perhaps you can clarify) is that 4 paragraphs prior to that, you seem to make what seems to me like a similar (false) dichotomy between church experience being 'culturally oppressive rather than evangelically challenging'.

Kamal Weerakoon said...

Glad to see you figured out how to post comments.

What I mean in the previous paragraph is that young people may feel that "doing church" is a form of cultural conformity rather than a deep personal and corporate engagement with the transcendent holy God in Christ by his gospel. I mean "church" to mean broadly the particular community of believers. So by "doing church" I mean "formal" Sunday church and bible studies and everything else associated with that particular believing community, which in this case happens to be an ethnic community also. The point of this blog post is that such confusion of Christ and culture is NOT essential to an ethnic-specific church, but is, I think, highly likely - UNLESS the church leaders humbly work hard at being self-critical, and the basis of criticism being the Biblical gospel.

Of course, anyone can say anything to cover up ungodliness. People can say "I'm being oppressed, I'm being oppressed", when what they actually mean is "I want to do what I want, not what the bible says is right." So people could claim cultural oppression as a psychological defence against an evangelical challenge.

But the challenge of the gospel needs to be contextualised. We all need to know what it means to follow Christ in the particular situation that God has providentially located us in. But this is not cultural oppression, it is cultural redemption. Or perhaps we could say - purposefully enculturated redemption. What does it mean for me, with my particular personal history, in my particular social context, to live radically and wholly for Christ?

cyc said...

Some great thoughts Kamal. I think this issue of second generation English ministry is universal across all ethnic migrant groups.

Some thoughts I had, especially when I was writing my exit thesis, are similar to your observations as well. Especially the need to have gospel > culture.

However I reckon, even to the second generation the ethnic culture is not something you can do away with that easily. The question is not how to replace the culture with gospel, but rather how to use the cultural backgrounds to promote the gospel. This was clear in Acts where those who came to Antioch with both Jewish and Hellenistic culture started to evangelise Greeks (I am strongly convinced it is the non-Jewish Gentiles being mentioned here, rather than Hellenistic Jews).

But the problem with most people's understanding or idea of 2nd generation English ministry is either make it a small subset of the 1st generation ethnic ministry or separate out completely from the 1st generation.

As you highlighted, having an English ministry as a subset of 1st generation ministry would mean we are driving out the 2nd generation people because they cannot clearly identify with what is enforced upon them, especially the language.

But on the other hand, splitting completely and establishing a second generation English congregation apart from the 1st generation church has not real meaning either. I mean, wouldn't it be better to send them to the main stream Australian church instead?

Also added problem is that there will always be migrants. There will always be the 1st generation migrants who have children growing up amongst the Australian culture. How will we teach them the gospel from a young age apart from their parents?

I find that 2nd generation English ministry really needs to be within the 1st generation church.

Not just to cater for those who can't speak the ethnic language, but also to empower the ethnic church in local evangelism as well. I mean how will the ethnic church influence the local community except through their English speaking children?

So I would suggest that the 1st generation should focus their energies on not just maintaining the status quo of the culture/religion/faith they brought over from the mother country. But also/rather focus on growing the children, to teach them the gospel, train them in the gospel so that they could form a church themselves with strong ties back to the 1st generation church. (A bit like how Antioch had strong ties back to Jerusalem, but their focus was strongly towards Gentile mission).

You know what, we should probably have this topic as one of our discussion points when we meet up. I would love to bounce ideas with you and possibly a church model that would be beneficial.