by Thorsten Prill
An exploration of the motivation, challenges, and validity of expatriate churches around the world.
The increase in global migration has led to an expansion of
expatriate churches around the world. In spring 2008, for example, a
German-speaking Protestant congregation was founded in the United Arab
Emirates. The new church meets for its worship services at a local
Anglican church which also hosts Tamil, Korean, and Afrikaan
congregations. There are also African, Chinese, Hispanic, and Iranian
churches mushrooming all over the world. But what is the motivation of
those who attend or actively participate in the life of such churches?
What are the challenges these expatriate churches face? Is the
expatriate church a valid model of church at all?
Reasons for Attending Expatriate Churches
The reasons why people attend expatriate churches can be divided into
five categories: linguistic, cultural, sociological, theological, and
1. Linguistic. Expatriate churches are often the only
forum in which expatriate Christians can worship and have Christian
fellowship in their mother tongue. This function is especially
important to those expatriates who have little or no command of the
dominant language of their host country. Due to the nature of their
work and the limited time they are in the host culture, there is often
very little need or opportunity for expatriates to learn or improve
their knowledge of the local language.
2. Cultural. Besides being a place where Christians can
worship in their mother tongue, expatriate churches often function as a
cultural oasis where foreigners can meet people of the same or a
similar ethno-cultural background. They are places that remind people
of their home country and their native culture. In addition, expatriate
churches are places where the home culture is passed on to the next
generation. Thus, expatriate churches often celebrate traditional
festivals and run classes where the home language is taught and which
are attended by children from church families and non-Christian
families who otherwise have no links with the church.
3. Sociological. For some people, expatriate churches
also function as a refuge from racial discrimination or what is
perceived as such. The church becomes a safe environment. Negative
experiences in indigenous churches prompt others to join an expatriate
church. In these cases, it is the inability of indigenous churches to
integrate foreigners into their communities that causes them to found
or join an expatriate church.
4. Theological. Less common, but still important, are
theological reasons why foreigners become members of an expatriate
church. It is certain distinct theological traditions and teachings
that attract them. This is especially true for expatriate churches
which are part of a particular denomination. Retaining their liturgical
tradition or staying faithful to some fundamental theological beliefs
become the determining factors.
5. Missiological. Finally, there are those who believe
that expatriate churches are better equipped to reach out to their
fellow countrymen and women. They hold that they are better placed to
evangelize and disciple members of their own ethno-cultural group and
provide pastoral care for them than indigenous churches.
Challenges Expatriate Churches Face
While there are good reasons for the existence of expatriate churches,
it is also true that these churches often face a variety of problems
and challenges. The most common challenges are missiological,
theological, sociological, geographical, and in leadership.
1. Missiological. By their nature, most expatriate
churches limit their mission to people who belong to the same
ethno-cultural group. They are exclusive insofar as they do not feel
responsible to reach out and minister to members of different
ethno-cultural backgrounds. The danger for ethnocentric and insular
churches is that they tend to become not only inward-looking, but end
up as communities where their social life becomes more important than
2. Theological. Expatriate churches that are
inter-denominational in nature require a willingness to respect
divergent theological views and the ability to compromise over
secondary issues. Without this degree of tolerance and willingness to
compromise, there are grounds for tensions and conflicts between people
who hold different theological convictions…and a destabilizing threat
to unity. In contrast, a denominational expatriate church does not the
face the same danger. However, the challenge for such a church is that
its denominational background excludes expatriates from different
3. Sociological. One of the major sociological challenges
to an expatriate church is what can be called the second generation
problem. When expatriates decide to settle in their host country and
become long-term immigrants, expatriate churches are presented with the
problem of reaching the second generation who have grown up as third
culture kids. Cultural assimilation among the second generation can
easily estrange them from the expatriate church, and they may feel no
need to attend a church for foreigners. Additionally, many members of
expatriate churches are people in transition. This can create a double
difficulty: integrating them into the church but without any real
expectation of long-term commitment. There is the added danger that the
regular departure of church members after a relatively short time can
have a de-motivating effect on more settled members.
4. Geographical. Often, expatriate churches ministering
to specific ethno-cultural groups have ministerial catchments which are
much larger than a traditional parish. This has significant
implications for pastoral work. Pastoral staff have to travel long
distances to visit their church members and this is both time-consuming
and costly. In addition to this traveling problem, wide catchment areas
make it difficult to create a sense of community within the church and
to establish contacts with the local community.
5. Leadership. Finally, for some expatriate churches,
recruitment of pastoral staff becomes a critical issue. If the
expatriate church is located in a less “attractive” location, it might
struggle to find a pastor or youth worker for its congregation. As a
result, an untrained and inexperienced church member is appointed as
pastor. Expatriate churches which are part of a denomination in their
home country usually do not face this challenge because they are
provided with ministerial staff by their mother church. However, this
arrangement can remove local control. The church has no real choice
when it comes to appointing a pastor because candidates are often
pre-selected by the church authorities in the home country.
Furthermore, pastors who are seconded serve only a limited time abroad,
which can create further problems. Pastors need time to adjust to
working in a foreign country and culture.
Summary: Pros and Cons
On the basis of what has been said above, there are six arguments that
can be marshaled in support of the establishment of expatriate churches:
1. The Language Argument: Expatriate churches allow Christians lacking fluency in the language of the dominant culture to worship in their mother tongue.
2. The Social Network Argument: Expatriate churches give
people the opportunity to meet people of the same ethno-cultural
background and similar life experience.
3. The Cultural Argument: Expatriate churches can sustain home culture by offering language classes and by celebrating cultural festivals.
4. The Safe Place Argument: Expatriate churches provide a safe place from discrimination in wider society and indigenous churches.
5. The Evangelism Argument: Expatriate churches can evangelize members of their own ethnic group more effectively than indigenous churches.
6. The Pastoral Care Argument: Expatriate churches are
better equipped to meet the pastoral needs of members of their own
ethnic group than indigenous churches.
However, expatriate churches also face challenges which are
specific to these churches and could be regarded as arguments against
the establishment of such churches. These counter arguments can be
summarized as follows:
1. The Limited Mission Argument: By focusing on members
of their own ethno-cultural group, expatriate churches limit their
mission and exclude other ethnic groups.
2. The Recruitment Argument: Expatriate churches may find
it difficult to recruit qualified full-time pastoral staff, and, in
consequence their ministry is undermined.
3. The Community Argument: Expatriate churches experience
difficulties in creating a sense of community because their members are
widely dispersed in huge catchment areas. In addition, expatriate
churches are isolated from their local community. As a result, there is
the danger that they become inward-looking.
4. The Second Generation Argument: Expatriate churches
may find it difficult to serve and engage second-generation immigrants
who have either adjusted to or become assimilated into the host culture.
The list of pros and cons shows that there is no definitive answer to
the question posed about expatriate churches being a valid church
model. Having served as a pastor of German and Chinese churches in
Britain, I have experienced both the limitations and the advantages of
such churches. I have, however, also encountered another church model
that has proved to be useful in overcoming some of the restrictions
I have found this model at Cornerstone Church, a large
independent evangelical church located in Nottingham, England. In
recent years, the church has not only experienced a constant growth in
membership, but also a significant increase in international diversity.
It is normal for over thirty different nationalities to worship in this
church. While seventy-five percent of those who attend the Sunday
services are British, twenty-five percent have a foreign background.
Diversity is also a feature of the church membership: fifteen
nationalities are represented. Among the internationals who come to
Cornerstone are both forced and voluntary migrants, such as students,
scholars, doctors, and businesspeople. The largest groups among the
internationals are Chinese, Persian, and Spanish-speaking Christians
and seekers. All these groups have their own weekly Bible study or
house group meetings. In addition, the Persian-speaking Christians meet
for their own worship service on Sundays, which runs parallel to the
main English service on the same premises. These internationals are
supported by full-time pastoral workers and volunteers—both British and
In this model, expatriate Christians become part of an
indigenous church and form a kind of church within a church. However,
there are many points of contact for expatriate and British Christians
at Cornerstone. There are multilingual prayer meetings and evangelistic
events, as well as social activities, such as church meals, retreats,
soccer, golf, and badminton tournaments. There are Persian and Chinese
New Year celebrations, which are attended by both expatriate and
indigenous church members. Furthermore, the children from expatriate
families are fully integrated in the church’s English-speaking
children’s and youth programs. Since they are often fluent in English,
they do not find it difficult to join the various church activities for
children and young people.
Finally, there are many ministries at Cornerstone where
expatriate and British Christians serve together. It is not unusual to
have a postgraduate student from Singapore, a medical doctor from
Germany, a refugee from Iran, and a British pensioner serving side by
side as parking stewards on a Sunday morning or leading evangelistic
Bible studies for international students on a Monday night. The church
within a church model that can be found at Cornerstone not only allows
expatriates to worship in their own language and in a way that is
culturally relevant to them, it also offers them an indigenous safe
haven. It provides them with the opportunity to make friends with
indigenous Christians, fellowship with their own second generation in
the same church, and reach out with the gospel of Jesus Christ to
members of their host culture. In addition, indigenous Christians
benefit greatly from their contact with expatriate believers as it
helps them to experience that the Church of Christ is indeed God’s
colorful international family.
Thorsten Prill is
a missionary with Africa Inland Mission (AIM), lecturing at Namibia
Evangelical Theological Seminary in Windhoek. He was pastor of two
expatriate churches in the English Midlands and international chaplain
at the University of Nottingham, England.
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