Many years ago, I cut my pastoral “teeth” by working as the English-language missionary at a large (by my standards) church in South Korea. It might seem surprising to some that I (who think that churches should ideally not be separated along ethnicity) would have worked at a minority language congregation, but Sangdang English Worship Service was, more than one of my favorite periods of life, it was (and continues to be) a positive force for the Gospel in South Korea and around the world, bringing glory to God, as it tells people the good news of Jesus Christ.
The local church worked to fund a full-time missionary among the English speakers in their own city, and I think they were doing a great Gospel service by doing so.
Here are 5 reasons:
1) It reaches people few others are ministering to. While I do think that a church should be as little marked by divisions as possible, there are clear reasons why a Church might want to reach out to other languagr groups in their area. For English speakers (and, at the time, Russian speakers) in South Korea, there existed very few ways in which community could be built among us, and the fact was that very few of us had any background in the Korean language beforehand. We were isolated foreigners, and for good reason, few facets of the culture were prepared to help us find and develop community, much less become disciples of Jesus Christ and be strengthened in that. The English Worship Service (and the small group ministry, and the many events) welcomed English speakers, and as far as possible, worked to integrate us into the larger Church body.
As an aside, this helped English speakers survive in Korea much more readily, and come to love Korean culture. Where the vast majority of foreign English teachers in Korea tended to remain a year (or less), many people who became part of the English worship service remained in Korea much longer. Learning to love their Korean brothers and sisters more deeply, and to continue to pray for the country long after they’ve gone on to other things. (and if anybody wants to drop a couple of thousand into my paypal, I’ll be happy to go visit Korea again… just saying :-))
2) It fights ethnocentrism. One of the issues the modern Church faces (and the church has always faced), is understanding what parts of what we do as a Church are mandated by God’s call to His children, and what parts are merely cultural. By hosting minority language congregations in the larger church, Sangdang Church placed Christians of different ethnicities in close proximity. Our service ended the same time as the large morning service on the Korean side, meaning that our congregation often ate and talked with Korean Christians. We began to learn many ways in which Korean churches (I think) have better integrated obedience to the Gospel into their weekly worship. One example is the fervent prayer styles of Koreans, but another is the simple fact that Korean churches often eat together after service (thus building much stronger community). We could not have learned that if we had had to simply create a fully English church wholly separate from the Korean congregation. I think it also helped many of our Korean brothers and sisters see how the Gospel was not merely what their pastor said on a Sunday morning, but has a clear global mandate, as sometimes if you stood in the hallway, you could hear the same song of praise to Jesus sung in Korean, English and Russian.
This was different than merely calling people to join in with what you are doing as a Church (which subtlely claims that we are doing the right thing, and the foreigner should just assimilate), it sees the foreign Christian as a brother or sister, who may have things to teach as well as things to learn, and encourages us all to learn from Christ, regardless of our cultural assumptions.
3) It obeys the call to welcome foreigners. Let’s face it, the Bible commands us to be good to foreigners. While many assume that this is merely another way of talking about the downtrodden in a culture, as we see by the story of the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts, God desires to see believers reach out to befriend people who are not like us. That can be difficult given the existence of language barriers, but it is a picture of God’s call to a love that transcends difference to welcome people among us who have real difficulties being accepted in our cultures.
4) It can be a catalyst for global mission. Think for a moment of the kind of people who travel thousands of miles to live in a different culture, and when they get there, look for a Church. Oftentimes, these are at least somewhat motivated and gifted Christians. As a result, a minority language congregation accepted as part of a much larger congregation can often be full of talented Christian disciples who only need some support to grow in the faith and to help others grow in the faith. The people who came to SDEWS were often great Christians I had much to learn from, and who are in mnay different places around the world still ministering the Gospel in difficult places. Of the hundred or so regular attenders we had over the period I was there, a good dozen I can think of off the top of my head, are now functioning as strong discipling Christians in congregations all over the world (including pastoring the congregation I left).
When it comes to workers who remain monolingual in countries where they are expatriates, they are most likely to return to their home countries someday. If they have been discipled and strengthened in the faith, they can function as the most well-positioned missionaries in their home countries when they return home.
Even if they do not return to their home countries, these disciples are the kind of people who have already experienced the difficulties of living in a foreign land. They have already gone through some of the more difficult parts of being a missionary, and so can be uniquely suited to longer term missionary work.
One small-scale ministry of your church can help many people come to know Jesus all over the world. Even as I work here in Newfoundland, Canada, among a secularizing people, part of my ability to speak the Gospel has been strengthened by the work of English ministries of Churches in South Korea.
5) It helps the discipleship of your people – As with many of the things our Lord calls us to do in service to our neighbour, obeying Christ in welcoming the foreigner (not just tolerating foreigners among us) helps immensely in learning from Christ. More than just helping us to learn where our culture blinds us to some things the Gospel says, it is profoundly humbling to allow believers who do not speak your language to become part of you. You accept feeling the inadequacy they feel because they keep failing to communicate, you go through the stresses of misunderstanding one another as you struggle to obey Jesus, and you see the glory of God as He works through others to bring glory to His name. In all these ways, God can teach us to be better Christians by welcoming the foreigner as part of us, even when they do not speak our language.
Keep me in coffee
The author is often highly caffeinated. Keep him that way!