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New Ethnic Churches: Visit one soon

You no longer need a passport or have to sign up for a mission trip to meet Christians from other countries. Hearing other people's faith perspectives is now as easy as visiting a new church.

You've probably heard the phrases "the browning of the church" or "the browning of America." The first refers to the fact that Christianity is growing faster in Latin America, Africa, and Asia than in North America or Europe. The second describes demographic changes in the United States.

The U.S. Census Bureau reports that between 2000 and 2003, Hispanic and Asian populations in the U.S. each grew about four times faster (13 percent) than the nation's population overall. Meanwhile the nation's black population rose almost four percent, compared to a white population increase of one percent.

But if you haven't visited many churches lately-or haven't looked into why your denomination has grown-you may have missed how easy it has become to meet Christians from other countries.

The world at your doorstep

In 2001 the Southern Baptists' North American Mission Board reported that 58 percent of its new church starts were classified as language or ethnic congregations. Catholic dioceses and Protestant denominations in Australia, New Zealand, and Canada report similar growth from churches made up of refugees, immigrants, and international students.

Likewise, the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) in North America has increased its membership through new ethnic congregations.

Anne Zaki discovered this while seeking out ethnic congregations in Grand Rapids and Holland, Michigan, two communities that form the historic cradle of the CRC. In 1991, this area had five ethnic CRCs. Now it has ten such congregations.

But Zaki had no ecclesiastical mathematics agenda. She simply missed what she and her husband, Naji Umran, experienced during their two years at an English-language international church in Cairo, Egypt.

"On any given Sunday we had worshipers from 20 different countries. Different worship teams led each service, and a worship team might include someone from Ireland, Nigeria, and Norway.

"One Sunday we might all sing while marching in, Sudanese style. The next we might follow a rather formal liturgy," says Zaki, now the resource development specialist for global and multicultural resources at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship.

Expect variety

Once she started looking for immigrant community churches within a 45-minute drive of her Grand Rapids home, she found African, Hispanic, Korean, Cambodian, Vietnamese, and Laotian CRCs. If you check your phone book's yellow pages or denominational directory, or simply look for notices in ethnic grocery stores, you may find immigrant churches in your community.

"Depending on how big they are, some of the CRCs I visited have English translations. Still, there's something really profound to me to be in a place where I don't know the words that are spoken-but I know God understands exactly what they are saying and I am singing," Zaki says.

Mwaya Kitavi, evangelist at African Community Fellowship, says most people in his church have been in the U.S. for less than 10 years. A few emigrated as professionals; most came as students or spouses of students.

"They came from Pentecostal, Anglican, Lutheran, Baptist, Reformed, and Methodist churches in Africa. It's a challenge to blend all these denominations together in liturgy. Finding common ground is also a challenge when some people still think and act in terms of their country of origin as opposed to their continent of origin," Kitavi says.

Many countries of origin pepper each Hispanic church as well, where worshipers range from professors to undocumented workers.

Look for things in common

Zaki found "a definite similarity of liturgical order" in the Christian Reformed churches she visited, though worship styles varied. If you attend a traditional church, you might feel right at home at Comunidad Cristiana, which sometimes has rather sedate services accompanied only by piano.

And if you're used to a more high-decibel experience, you'll find it at Peace and Hope or at Misión Rey de Reyes, where a soloist with a portable microphone sometimes circulates throughout the sanctuary.

Moon Bae Kim, pastor of Grace Korean, says most Korean churches use or modify a liturgy common to many Korean denominations. "We also use a unified Korean hymnal. That way any Korean feels at home here," he says.

Zaki noticed an intergenerational emphasis at many Asian, African, and Hispanic churches. The whole family stays together during the worship service, even if that means tolerating wiggly children. Churches often ask children and teens to lead songs or read the Bible.

Pastors, parents, and grandparents at ethnic CRCs pray a lot about something that older CRCs faced during waves of Dutch immigration-how to resolve issues between first and second generations. Church experts report that many ethnic churches lose 75 to 80 percent of their second generation. Some from the second generation switch to multicultural congregations or new church plants. Others quit going.

"Being youth of two cultures presents challenges. Some parents want their children to keep the African tradition, but their current culture presents them with new traditions. Most of our youth go to public schools and have friends from unchurched homes. Their friends tell them that church is irrelevant," Kitavi says.

Prepare for a warm welcome

To address needs of second-generation worshipers or spouses from other ethnic groups, many churches find ways to make worship bilingual.

"We provide interpretation of the whole worship service, so we are always ready to welcome non-Koreans. We have three to five Americans attending our worship," Kim says.

At Cambodian Fellowship, evangelist Socheth Na preaches in Khmer while presenting an abridged English version in PowerPoint. He does the same with Scripture readings and chooses songs in both Khmer and English.

Asked how he became a Christian, Na simply replies, "Love. I'd heard about Jesus in high school in Cambodia, but it was through love of my refugee sponsors that I came to know Christ." Everyone at his church is a convert from Buddhism to Christianity, and their evangelistic concern shines through worship, community celebrations, and outreach.

Wanting to share the gospel and build Christian fellowship leads many ethnic CRC members to eat together at church each Sunday. Whether as extended coffee breaks (think lots of snacks) at Lao Community or lunch at Grace Korean, catered by a different member each Sunday, these meals provide an easy way for churches to invite visitors for more conversation.

Several ethnic CRCs share their building with another congregation, so members are used to mixing with other groups. For example, Cambodian Fellowship meets after Central Avenue CRC does, but both congregations do vacation Bible school, after-school programs, church picnics, and occasional "unity services" together.

If you'd like to visit a church of an ethnicity other than yours, but you worry about intruding or standing out, Jerry and Dorothy Deters suggest you visit anyway. They say the joys they've experienced can happen anywhere.

Every week they attend the 9:30 a.m. service at Niekerk CRC and then go to the 10:45 a.m. service at Lao Community.

Their friendships with Laotian Christians started almost 25 years ago. "We still can't speak Laotian, but by this time, anyone who wants to talk to us can talk in English. They call me 'Papa' and ask for advice about housing and jobs. Women who have a problem go to 'Mama.'

"We've developed very good friendships and have been invited to many banquets and celebrations. We click with them very well. But it's not just us. Any American visitor that walks in is very welcome," Jerry Deters says.

Learn More

Visit ethnic Christian Reformed Churches in West Michigan, aboriginal congregations in Canada, or find other new ethnic CRCs in North America (see pp. 6-11). Acquaint yourself with leadership issues (see pp. 9-11) in Korean and Hispanic CRCs.

Study the statistics on unchurched Asian Americans. Discover how Korean churches in Canada work to retain their second and third generations. Read a speech in Korean about a new Korean-American hymnal.

See how immigrants have enriched Catholic parishes in the Boston area.

Ethnic Harvest shows which nationalities live in your zip code (in the U.S.) and offers links to online, audio and print versions of Bibles, the Jesus film, and more, in many languages. It also explains how to reach out to people from different people groups, especially if a church in their own language is not available in your area.

If you tend to think of Christianity as mainly a North American or European faith, then read Philip Jenkins' Atlantic Monthly article about how the global center of Christianity is shifting. You can also read or listen to interviews with him.

Start a Discussion

  • In what ways does your church, as a whole or as groups or individuals, try to meet or worship with churches of other ethnicities? What have you learned through this? How have you applied your learning?
  • If your church is mainly from one ethnic group, what unique blessings or drawbacks do you experience? How well does this uniformity fit your theology?
  • Given that the second and third generations from many ethnic churches sometimes seek a multicultural church, how well is your church equipped to find and welcome such Christians?
  • How often does your church-as a whole or within certain groups-pray that God would bless your church and "enlarge your territory" (1 Chronicles 4:10)?

Share Your Wisdom

What is the best way you've found to incorporate ethnic church ideas in your congregation's worship?

  • Have you figured out effective ways to share your building or programs with an ethnic congregation?
  • Have you volunteered to share your expertise in becoming a multicultural church with churches that don't know how to become more diverse?
  • Have you looked for nearby congregations of the same ethnicity to discuss how you might join forces or support each other?
  • What insights have startled, moved, or otherwise affected your church as you've begun to more intentionally pray for or visit with Christians from other ethnic churches?