by Dan P. Bowers
During the latter half of the twentieth century, globalization has caused the dispersion of millions of English-speakers to the ends of the earth.
During the latter half of the twentieth century, globalization has caused the dispersion of millions of English-speakers to the ends of the earth. Throughout major cities of the world today hundreds of international churches have been planted to make disciples of English-speaking expatriates. Many work with nationals from the host country’s middle and upper classes. Through this contact, thousands of English-speaking nationals have become involved in these churches. What is the missionary potential for international churches reaching out to indigenous people?
GLOBALIZATION CREATES OPPORTUNITY TO REACH INDIGENOUS PEOPLES
“Globalization” is a buzzword to describe the emergence of worldwide interconnectedness in areas such as economics, communication and pop culture (Menconi 2001, 6). Daniel Sanchez referred to this phenomenon as “the CNN culture” (Pederson 1999, 4). Global communication empires use English to transmit news and entertainment worldwide.
Does globalization create an opportunity for international churches to reach out to indigenous peoples? Richard H. Bliese described two opposing components of globalization: the forces of “homogeneity” and “particularism.” While particularism creates borders, homogeneity makes borders porous by “universalizing markets, ideas and technology from without” (1997, 204). Particularism appears to raise barriers for reaching indigenous people, while homogeneity facilitates such outreach.
Historian Andrew Walls suggests two forces that can facilitate Christian mission. One is an “indigenizing” principle that creates a sense of identity in diverse communities. He identifies the other as a “pilgrim” principle that tends to “universalize” the vision of the church (1996, 43). The indigenizing principle suggests that an international church could retain its identity as an expatriate ministry while welcoming any indigenous people attracted to the church.
International churches (ICs) appear to be moving away from being a “confined cultural island” as more English-language churches form overseas. During the 1980s a few mission boards planted ICs with the aim of reaching into the expatriate community. One example is Crossroads Christian Church in Geneva, Switzerland, which initially targeted the international community. In time, English-speaking Swiss were attracted to its “seeker-sensitive” ministry.
TENSION BETWEEN ISOLATION AND INTEGRATION IN THE IC
Most ICs are finding that their worship attracts English-speaking nationals. Since ICs exist in a foreign country, many struggle with the tension between isolating and integrating nationals. Integration is the active assimilation of indigenous people into the worship and leadership of the IC. Isolation means that the IC resists becoming involved with those who are from the indigenous community. Isolation also involves a conscious choice to keep the indigenous participation in the expatriate church to a minimum (Pederson 1999, 58). It seems necessary for ICs to preserve enough non-indigenous elements to maintain a witness to the expatriate community.
Many ICs are naturally inclined to isolate themselves from the local people. Lonely foreigners may think of the IC as a safe haven, a “slice of life” back home. Security concerns may also dictate isolation over integration. In restricted access nations, such as China and most Middle Eastern countries, the government may mandate the isolation. For example, to attend the Beijing International Christian Fellowship, one must possess a foreign passport.
An IC may opt to isolate itself to preserve its expatriate identity. For many years the Seoul Union Church prohibited nationals who had never lived overseas from becoming members. Eventually this policy was overturned in an attempt to integrate English-speaking Korean Christians. The International Baptist Church (IBC) of Manila has evolved into an English-language Filipino church. The concern is that if ICs stop focusing ministry on expatriates, the national pastors and churches would have little interest in evangelizing them.
Must international churches choose between isolation and integration? Should expat congregations integrate with the indigenous population as part of the overall mission strategy of the church? David Pederson believes that choosing between the two is not necessary. As an expatriate church receives proper teaching and leadership, it can be both an oasis for expatriates and a launching pad to the indigenous people (1999, 65-66).
When the International Christian Fellowship of Caracas (ICF) was planted, its leaders decided not to isolate themselves from the nationals but rather welcome them with a view to planting a Spanish-language church. This decision seems to have enabled ICF to keep its identity as an expatriate fellowship.
Christian Associates International (CAI) is deliberately planting expatriate churches in Europe as launching pads to reach the continent for Christ. The “high impact” English-language churches they are planting aim to reach Europeans and train them to be “high impact” leaders who can kindle national church renewal.
USING ENGLISH TO REACH INDIGENOUS PEOPLE
How can the English language be used to reach out to the indigenous people? During the 1970s, a Baptist missionary to Austria found that because Baptists were considered a sect there, few nationals would have anything to do with his ministry. He changed his strategy and started an English-language church he said was for Americans. Parents let their children attend because it improved their English and introduced them to the international community.
Christians are not the only ones taking advantage of globalization and the English language to reach indigenous peoples. In the article “Using English to Promote Islam” published in the Muslim World League magazine, the author argued that since English has become the universal language, Muslims should seek to work in that medium to help make converts to Islam. He suggests teaching English as a foreign language and holding Quran study sessions in English for students and business people. Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses also make use of the English language to make converts outside of Anglophone countries.
The European Baptist Convention gives this rationale for English-language ministry: “Since English is the most widely used language in the Western world, English-language churches have a great opportunity to reach people from many nations with the Good News of Jesus Christ.” Wagner suggests giving fresh thought to missionary activity in English. He suggests five ways that North American missions can use English-language ministry in western Europe:
1. Working with various cultural minorities living and working in Europe;
2. Working with Americans, Australians, Canadians and other native English-speakers;
3. Working with Europeans for whom English is their mother language;
4. Working with other Europeans for whom English is their second language;
5. Use English-language international institutions to train young people for Christian service (1993, 171).
Most international churches were begun using English to reach out to native English speakers (2 and 3 above). Many found that the use of English and the presence of expatriates attracts nationals (4). Some are reaching out to other cultural minorities through English-language ministry (1). Does the trend toward the global use of English and the presence of expatriate churches abroad signal a greater opportunity for reaching indigenous peoples?
THE MISSIONARY POTENTIAL OF INTERNATIONAL CHURCHES
Today’s dispersion of Christian expatriates abroad bears some similarity to the scattering of God’s Old Testament people among the nations (Ezekiel 11:16). J. Christy Wilson suggested that this dispersion presents a great opportunity for English-language churches to not only minister to expatriates, but to reach out to indigenous people. He proposed three main purposes for international churches: (1) to provide fellowship, renewal and growth for Christian workers serving abroad; (2) to bring a gospel witness to the growing numbers of non-Christian expatriates; (3) to serve as a base for witness to the indigenous people.
“In conjunction with the ministries of missionaries, these congregations can be stepping stones to cross-cultural witness which must take place if the world is [to be] evangelized” (Wilson 1980, 120). This suggests a two-fold mission for international churches: to the expatriate community and to the indigenous community.
INTERNATIONAL CHURCHES MINISTERING TO EXPATIRATES
Historically, some of the earliest Protestant missionary endeavors were directed at expatriates. During the colonial era, English-language churches were planted in North America and throughout the British Empire to minister to the spiritual needs of British settlers abroad. Henry Martyn went to India to minister to English-speaking civil servants of the British government. C.T. Studd served in south India from 1900 to 1906 in an English-language church as a minister to planters, soldiers and government officials (Wilson 1980, 121).
After World War II, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) began planting ICs in Europe to minister to US military personnel. The SBC’s Foreign Mission Board (now called the International Mission Board) established more than one hundred English-language congregations around the world. Today most of these churches are not only self-supporting but are also able to help support missionary work to the indigenous people.
While some may question the validity of investing precious mission resources in international church ministry today, others believe that mission agencies should target English-speaking expatriates. In a 1987 Fuller Seminary study titled “Unreached Peoples: Clarifying the Task,” Americans living in Geneva were classified as an unreached people group (Wagner 1993, 157).
Addressing the needs of expatriates in sensitive and stimulating ways will not only help them grow spiritually but also can impart to them a vision for taking the gospel to the others on their next overseas assignment. For example, the International Christian Fellowship of Caracas rekindled the faith of a Trinidadian family. As the family grew in the Lord, the expat wife became burdened for other wives in her husband’s oil exploration company. She began a Bible study that ten women attended. Several professed faith in Christ. Her husband got involved in a street children ministry in Caracas. In 2001 the family was transferred to Stavanger, Norway, and went with a vision for outreach to both expatriates and nationals in their new home.
THE MISSION OF INTERNATIONAL CHURCHES TO NATIONALS
David Pederson believes ICs must move away from being “a haven for people out of their culture” and become vital congregations not limited to reaching expatriates. “The IC is not the only means for mission…but a vital key in world evangelization” (Pederson 1999, 30). He cites the example of Greater Europe Mission’s three-phase strategy: plant an international church, then a daughter church for nationals and finally a leadership development center for nationals.
Linus Morris, founder and director of Christian Associates International (CAI), believes that the multiplication of English-language expatriate churches “can serve as a first step leading to the revitalization and growth of national churches in adjacent areas.” CAI has planted fifteen international churches, mostly in western European cities. All are designed to reach and equip nationals to reach their countrymen with the gospel. These English-language churches intentionally seek to attract nationals through their worship and outreach (Pederson 1999, 64).
Union Church of San José, Costa Rica, is an example of an international church launching out to the indigenous people. The church has worked to overcome its “rich gringo” image by targeting Costa Ricans for outreach. It has evolved from a congregation of mainly foreign English-speakers into a bilingual church which ministers primarily to permanent residents. It serves as a bridge to the local community by partnering with nationals who rescue prostitutes, feed children and evangelize the lost (Bowers 2003, 139).
A number of ICs share facilities with national churches and help support ministry to the indigenous people. An IC in Stockholm shares a building and finances with two other congregations, one Swedish, the other Korean. They work cooperatively in community outreach and plan to plant another non-indigenous church that will be multicultural, using English and Swedish.
Some ICs in countries closed to missionaries have amazing opportunities to touch the indigenous people. J. Christy Wilson’s church in Afghanistan is an example. Tentmaking teachers planted Community Christian Church of Kabul in 1952. When Wilson was called as its first pastor, services were held in a home in Kabul. With the growth of the expatriate community, homes were not large enough for worship services. The church sought and received government permission to construct a church building in Kabul in 1970. God used the church to reach out to thousands of world travelers who flocked to Afghanistan in the 1960s and ‘70s to do drugs and study Eastern religions.
A funeral for a Canadian worker at a British military cemetery presented a unique opportunity to preach the gospel before a largely Afghan congregation. Afterward, the church decided to start a work among the many blind people of Afghanistan. The church recruited Christian teachers who taught Braille in the local language. A project was also started to bring eye doctors and nurses to Afghanistan. But persecution began because of Afghan conversions. In 1973 the church building was destroyed, the work with the blind was shut down and Christian teachers were given one week to leave the country (Wilson 1980, 121-124). Since the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001, however, efforts have been made to re-establish an international church ministry in Kabul.
ISSUES IN INTERNATIONAL CHURCH OUTREACH TO NATIONALS
One concern of ICs in reaching out to the indigenous people is the possibility that they may lose their identities. This happened recently with a former Southern Baptist church in Caracas. During the 1970s, missionaries of the Southern Baptist International Mission Board planted an expatriate church. Fluctuations in the expatriate population meant the church struggled to become self-supporting. After the missionary pastor left, an expatriate member became the lay pastor. As the number of Venezuelans attending increased, worship services were translated into Spanish. In time, Spanish-speaking members outnumbered English-speaking members. When the lay pastor resigned, the congregation called a national as pastor. Today the ministry is entirely in Spanish and is largely indigenous. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this, the church lost its identity as an expatriate ministry. Perhaps if this church had had a vision for planting a national church it might have been able to keep its international identity.
Although ICs exist on foreign mission fields, many serve the original target group with little consideration for impacting nationals. To reach nationals, ICs must develop plans for ministering to the needs of indigenous people. A new breed of international churches planted since 1980 is breaking new ground. They envision reaching English-speaking nationals and internationals who will impact the host country by planting national churches.
It appears that most North American boards have not considered the mission potential of ICs. Few have been involved in planting them. In some cases boards have advised their missionaries against contact with English-speaking expatriates (Bowers 2003, 192). It is understandable that mission boards would require their personnel to be involved in national churches and cross-cultural ministry while on foreign assignment. But isolating them from expatriates and expat ministry may lead to missed opportunities to partner with ICs in launching out to the indigenous people.
Those involved in international church ministry must realize that as English-language congregations, they exist in a mission field with great potential for reaching nationals for Christ. Many ICs can plant churches among middle- and upper-class nationals. Most are in world-class cities. Some are in countries closed to traditional missions. All ICs must consider their strategic position to become launching pads for mission to the indigenous people.
North American mission boards should re-examine their view of and relationship to international churches. Globalization opens doors for using English-language ministry as a launching pad to indigenous peoples. ICs and mission boards could enter strategic partnerships to target nationals in major cities of the world.
Bliese, Richard H. 1997. “Globalization: A Challenge for Lutheran Missiology in the 21st Century.” Currents in Theology and Mission, 24 June, p, 204.
Bowers, Dan P. 2003. “International Churches as Launching Pads for Mission to Indigenous Peoples.” Doctoral dissertation. Denver: Denver Seminary.
Menconi, Peter. 2001. “The ‘Global’ Church.” Focal Point. Spring, p. 6.
Pederson, David. 1999. Expatriate Ministry: Inside the Church of the Outsiders. Seoul, Korea: By the author.
Wagner, William Lyle. 1993. North American Protestant Missionaries in Western Europe: A Critical Appraisal. Bonn, Germany: Culture and Science Publishers.
Walls, Andrew F. 1996. The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission of Faith. Maryknoll, N.Y: Orbis Books.
Wilson, J. Christy. 1980. Today’s Tentmakers. Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.
Dan Bowers served two years as pastor of the International Christian Fellowship of Caracas, Venezuela. Prior to that he served nineteen years as senior pastor of Hope Baptist Church, Manchester, Maine. He holds a D.Min. from Denver Seminary. His doctoral research project was on the International Church as a launching pad for mission to indigenous peoples. For access to his research go to: www.geocities.com/revdanbow2004 or contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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