What the American Church Can Learn from the Immigrant Church

Last year, our church staff held an inspiring live zoom interview with Tim Keller, who has now gone to be with Jesus. 

There was one comment Keller made that I could not stop thinking about for a while. In an almost throwaway sentence, Keller said, “Immigrant churches might be holding the key to the future in America.” 

(This comment was regarding the way forward for the American church in light of the present cultural moment with all of its divisions and post-Christian challenges.)

This struck a nerve because I grew up in an immigrant church. 

I spent 21 years in one immigrant Korean church. It was the context in which I got saved, formed a grid for discipleship, and even cut my teeth in church ministry. 

But while I’m super grateful for my immigrant church experience, I know a lot of second generations Korean-Americans who have mixed feelings (and even traumatic experiences) from the immigrant Korean church. 

So Keller’s comments made me pause and ask, “What would the immigrant church bring to the table for discipleship in America?” 

I want to share three things, but first a preface:

1) I want to clarify for my non-Asian readers the difference between an immigrant Korean church and an Asian-American church. The immigrant church is predominantly 1st generation, Korean as the primary language, with an English-speaking ministry as a subset. If you walked into a Korean immigrant church, you would feel like you were in a different country. Asian-American churches are usually second-generation with English as the predominant language. I would not necessarily group the Asian-American in the same category as the Asian immigrant church although there is overlap.

2) I fully recognize my views do not articulate the potential learnings we can glean from every immigrant church experience. I cannot speak for and from the Hispanic, Norwegian, Chinese, or Samoan immigrant church experience (to give a few examples). I can only speak from my Korean immigrant church experience (and there would be variance depending on who you talk to). 

Here are three things the American Church can learn from the Immigrant Church: 

1. The Weekend Experience as More Than a Worship Service 

In my immigrant church experience, we gathered on Sunday for worship service and then stayed after. For the entire day. 

Now, this was because my immigrant church was made up of commuters from a wide area, but here’s the gift it provided: The acceleration of assimilation and connectedness. 

So even when someone would leave the church, they didn’t leave to simply check out another church service, but they were really looking for a new community. 

Here’s the contrast I see with the stereotypical American church: People come for an incredible worship experience, then they leave right after the service. Now this is good because the purpose of the weekend gathering is hyper-clear. But I wonder how much we end up de-accelerating this person’s assimilation to the church. I wonder how this hinders evangelism since Jesus said the best mode of witness is when unbelievers see the love the Church has for one another (John 13:35).

Wouldn’t the best way for someone to get connected to the church be to stay beyond the service? Isn’t our experience of Christianity meant to be an experience of the community and not just the individuals who facilitate the service?

The immigrant church has a decades-old credibility of a strong, organic environment for assimilation and familiarity.

2. Prayer as the Driver, not the Last Option 

I recently read, [paraphrasing] "Christians should view prayer as the steering wheel and not the spare tire.” 

This has been my experience of the immigrant church. I mean think about it, how else did the immigrant church make it to where it’s at today? Immigrants who don’t speak the language showed up in a new place and somehow planted churches, made disciples, and even bought facilities. How did they do this with such limited resources and influence? 

“Prayer” the immigrant church would say. Desperate, passionate prayer. 

Here’s the contrast I see with the stereotypical American church. There can sometimes be an unspoken posture that prayer is a good sprinkle to the work we’re already doing.

And I am very guilty of this posture. I mean, I speak the English language, I have some gifts and some resources. I’m part of a network. I've got a tribe. So, while these things may be answers to prayer, I can easily, faithlessly turn them into my source of trust and lose my dependence on God. 

The immigrant Korean church will have corporate prayer in their weekend services. They will hold early morning prayer services. They will call the pastor and ask them to come over to their house to pray for them. Prayer is the driving force behind the church.

3. The Ferocious Mindset of an Exile Belonging to a Different Kingdom

The Korean immigrant church is never charged with political syncretism in America. Why? 

They were immigrants. They were foreigners. They were just learning the language. No one viewed the immigrant church has having a political agenda or being married to a specific political party. If anything, the immigrant church was forced to adopt the exilic mindset proposed in 1 Peter 2:11. 

So while the witness of the immigrant church can be hurt by a language and cultural barrier, that witness has not been hurt by a barrier of political compromise. In the eyes of the culture, the immigrant church has been “politically pure.” 

This is a contrast to some of the ways those outside the church view the American church. Currently, some outside the church believe the American church, along with its gospel, has been compromised by American politics. While I believe that’s not true of all churches, it is true of some churches. 

I wish this exile mindset  from the immigrant church would make its way to the American Church.

I've learned so much from my immigrant church. I am so grateful for that experience. I also love the American Church and believe the Lord will continue to prune her for greater effectiveness and witness in the days and years ahead. 

If you’re currently in an immigrant church, I encourage you to continue to love your church and celebrate the beautiful faith legacy it has given and continues to give.

If you grew up in one but are no longer in one, we can celebrate the good while processing and rejecting that which wasn’t helpful. Some of us may even need to forgive the immigrant church. This will be a journey, but one worth taking.

If you’re in an American church, I encourage you to visit an immigrant church in or near your city. The Lord has used that church to bless and encourage others. While there may be multiple barriers to you understanding the service, you will certainly be encouraged and strengthened by their faith and resiliency.

This article was written by Steve Bang Lee, Pastor of Multiplication at Mariners Church and co-author of On the Table and The Image of God Bible studies. 

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