Migration is our time’s greatest challenge (and opportunity).
Some time ago, I was asked to join an evening gathering bringing together an immigrant church and a Norwegian church in a city in Norway.
Although both churches were located in the same neighborhood, they had not known of each other until shortly before:
- Hearing about the immigrant church had caused curiosity and led to an initiative to get better acquainted and a common meal.
- The immigrant church saw this as an opportunity to ‘join forces’ for prayer and evangelism of the city and nation.
However, the two churches not only represented different ‘worlds’ demographically and culturally, but also in denominational affiliations and ministry emphases.
As a Norwegian and someone vested in bridging the divides between cultures, I find this scenario also helps frame the question of how majority churches in the West should relate to non-Western migrant-type churches in our neighbourhoods, regions, and nations.i
Migrant church diversity
The emergence of migrant churches in neighbourhoods of Western cities is not an uncommon phenomenon. Today, all across Europe and North America, a wide range of African churches, Filipino churches, Vietnamese churches, Chinese churches, Spanish-speaking churches, Tamil churches, and Romanian churches (a brief example) reflect bountiful smorgasbords of denominational, theological, and ethnic-linguistic diversity.ii
Speaking from extensive research of African churches in New York City, Mark Gornik says:
In New York City, you don’t have to travel to another country to experience African Christianity; all you need to do is to get on the subway. Come Sundays, in venues that span from converted basements to borrowed sanctuaries, New York City is home to some 150 African churches of diverse sizes, styles, types, networks, and languages. It is not just New York; cities such as Atlanta, Washington, D.C., Houston, Dallas, Detroit, Los Angeles, and many others that now have a significant number of African churches.iii
Today, the figures are likely to be much higher:
- In Hamburg alone, there are more than 100 African churches, while there are more than 1,000 immigrant churches in Germany as a whole.
- The Nigerian-based Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG) has close to 800 churches in the United Kingdom, some of them quite large, and gathers around 50,000 attendees at their Festivals of Life in London, often visited by prominent politicians or church leaders.
- Going back to the Norwegian context, there are possibly more than 100 migrant churches in Oslo and around 300 across the country.iv
Although migrant churches often go ‘under the radar’ in church statistics and public discourses, these churches represent a majority of new churches planted in recent decades.
Beyond diversity, however, in what ways do these migrant churches challenge Western churches and established church landscapes today, as well for the long haul?
Migration—our time’s greatest challenge (and opportunity)
In recent decades, globalization has brought worlds together at speeds and in ways hardly imagined in centuries before.v This is in part due to multiple streams of international migration.
As the International Organization for Migration (IOM) has said, ‘International migration is a complex phenomenon that touches on a multiplicity of economic, social, and security aspects affecting our daily lives in an increasingly interconnected world.’vi
Migration has also come to be one of the most controversial political and social issues in many Western societies today, as a result of the arrival of streams of refugees from tense regions in the world and multiple flows of migration from the Global South to the Global North.vii
Politicians and public opinion ask what this means for now and in the future. This is also recognized by the Lausanne Movement. The Cape Town Commitment states: ‘People are on the move as never before.
Migration is one of the great global realities of our era. It is estimated that 200 million people are living outside their countries of origin, voluntarily or involuntarily.’viii
Religion has increasingly been recognized as playing a vital role in migration trajectories and in the lives of many migrants. Philipp Connor, a researcher at Pew Research Center, says, ‘Migrants bring more than their nationalities with them; they also bring their religion.’ix
It is believed that about half of the world’s migrants come from Christian backgrounds.x This also reflects the global growth of Christianity and means that Western churches no longer represent the epicenter of Christianity or can assume they have the leading voice.
Thus, discussing migrant churches means more than considering ‘another church’ but engaging with the complexities of global religion and migration in our time. While the list of pressing issues could be extended, some of these include:
- How do Western churches relate to migrants in general and to challenges related to migration?
- What specific needs do migrants have and how can the church engage with these?
- What role does religion play in the lives of migrants and migrant faith communities?
- How do Western churches relate to global Christianity?
- To what extent can faith and churches represent bridges across the divide between the various ‘worlds’ of migrants and host societies?
The questions above are too complex to admit easy answers. A 2008 report called ‘Together or Apart?’, emerging out of a Nordic Consultation on Migration, the Changing Ecclesial Landscape and the Challenge of Migration, discussed issues of integration within the context of the majority church of Norway.
In it, Norwegian researcher Ingrid Vad Nilsen wrote:
We know that migrants tend to gather in faith groups based on nationality, ethnicity, language or culture. They choose faith-based segregation—or maybe this was not their first option? Many places in Norway, migrants are so few that separate faith groups is not an option. What happens then? Do they become assimilated into Church of Norway congregations—as backbenchers? Or are they integrated and welcomed as partners of faith—where a new multicultural congregation evolves? Or are they becoming marginalized and passive as they cannot find the style of church they are used to?xi
Thus, one may ask why Nigerians or Filipinos prefer their African or Filipino congregations to being part of their neighbourhood Norwegian churches or why Norwegian churches remain predominantly Norwegian.
While not attempting to answer these questions in full, it is not difficult to identify tangible hurdles to be addressed:
- Awareness and recognition: To what extent do we ‘know’ our neighbour? For instance, while a local migrant RCCG church may have just a few attendees, do we recognize that RCCG is one of the largest and fastest-growing Pentecostal church bodies in Africa with global impact way beyond Nigeria?
- Cultural gaps – making room in the house: How willing are we to make room at the table for those from other cultures? How much are we willing to change our churches, leadership, services, and programs so that those from other cultures will feel more at home?
- Structural and organizational preferences: Western and migrant churches alike may prefer or be bound to organizational structures, which make change slow or difficult. Besides, to what extent are churches willing to revisit their set agendas?
- Technology and distance: It may be easier for immigrant churches to connect to their transnational networks through live streaming than to cross the street or deal with cumbersome bureaucracy to connect with Western churches next door.
- Theological distance: At both ends of the spectrum, some theological differences may represent seemingly insurmountable challenges.
For many migrant churches, Western theological discourses on moral issues seem unorthodox, while to Western churches, global theologies often appear over-spiritualized or outdated. To what extent is it considered possible or even desirable to overcome such theological hurdles?xii
What is at stake?
So, cannot majority church and migrant communities remain happy in their own worlds? I believe this question represents both an intercultural challenge and a theological challenge, which are related and have practical implications:
- The intercultural challenge relates to how can we get to know each other and overcome cultural differences to live lives enriched by each other.
- The theological challenge relates to how faith can become a resource in crossing these boundaries.
Beyond being issues of a practical nature, I believe some of what is at stake involves the following:
1. The identity and nature of the church: If the church is the church universal, the church includes the migrant churches. Beyond identity, this also relates to power structures, resources, and organizational layouts.xiii
2. The role and impact of the church in society: Migrant churches may challenge Western churches regarding their response to secularization. While many Western churches decline or have put down traditional evangelization efforts, many migrant churches seem to assume that responsibility. What can be learned from migrant churches and their home churches in this?
3. Mission and evangelism of Western cities, nations, and the world: In the spirit of Lausanne, world mission and evangelism remain the primary challenge for the church today. In what ways are migrant churches and Western churches required to partner to succeed in this mission?
Are we up to the challenge?
What then can be done to avoid immigrant and Western churches remaining in their ethnic and cultural enclaves? In the following, I suggest some brief points which may provide opportunities for social innovation as well as discipleship:
1. Discerning the times. As expressed by the Lausanne Movement in the Cape Town Commitment, ‘We are convinced that contemporary migrations are within the sovereign missional purpose of God, without ignoring the evil and suffering that can be involved.’xiv
2. Discover social, cultural, and spiritual capital: Immigrant church communities represent vast resources of social and cultural capital, not least in relation to their own ‘worlds’ and how these can be served and reached for Christ. This represents knowledge that most Western churches do not have. Many immigrant churches also represent spiritual fervor that many Western church leaders envy.
3. Discussing common visions and projects: Both immigrant churches and Western churches face challenges related to reaching the next generation and to mission and evangelism. How can they join hands on an equal footing in reaching common goals?
4. Develop common arenas and learning communities: The Cape Town Commitment encourages Christian churches and leaders to ‘respond to the missional opportunities presented by global migration and diaspora communities’ with Christlike witness and action, further urging ‘immigrant and indigenous churches together to listen and learn from one another, and to initiate co-operative efforts to reach all sections of their nation with the gospel.’xv
Perhaps the Thy Kingdom Come prayer movement in the United Kingdom can provide one living example of alliance-making efforts across cultural and theological differencesxvi.
Started as a small initiative in 2016 by the Church of England, the movement has grown to involve churches of many denominations and in several nations.xvii
Also, through joint prayer, majority churches and immigrant churches have found a common vision for joining hands and hearts for ‘the renewal of the nations and the transformation of communities.’xviii
Are we up for the challenge?
Stian Sorlie Eriksen serves as associate professor and Programme director of intercultural and religious studies at the Faculty of theology, diaconal and leadership studies at VID Specialized University in Stavanger, Norway, and as associate professor at the Norwegian School of Leadership and Theology in Oslo.
He holds MA, Mdiv, and DMin degrees from Oral Roberts University, and a PhD in theology and religion from VID Specialized University.
This article originally appeared in the July 2019 issue of the Lausanne Global Analysis and is published here with permission. Learn more about this flagship publication from the Lausanne Movement at www.lausanne.org/lga.
i Editor’s Note: See article by Sam George, entitled, ‘Is God Reviving Europe through Refugees?: Turning the greatest humanitarian crisis of our times into one of the greatest mission opportunities’, in May 2017 issue of Lausanne Global Analysis https://www.lausanne.org/content/lga/2017-05/god-reviving-europe-refugees.
ii See Frieder Ludwig and J. Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu (eds.), African Christian Presence in the West: New Immigrant Congregations and Transnational Networds in North America and Europe (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 2011).
iii Mark Gornik, The Word Made Global: Stories of African Christianity in New York City (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2011), 3-4.
iv 2010 and 2012/2013 DAWN Norway reports. Figures depend on which and how churches are counted.
v Editor’s Note: See article by Sadiri Joy Tira, entitled, ‘Diasporas from Cape Town 2010 to Manila 2015 and Beyond: The Lausanne Movement and scattered peoples’, in March 2015 issue of Lausanne Global Analysis https://www.lausanne.org/content/lga/2015-03/diasporas-from-cape-town-2010-to-manila-2015-and-beyond.
vi International Organization for Migration (IOM), World Migration Report 2018, 1.
vii Editor’s Note: See article by Cindy M. Wu, entitled, ‘We Too Were Once Strangers: Living out our faith during the worst refugee crisis of our time’, in May 2018 issue of Lausanne Global Analysis https://www.lausanne.org/content/lga/2018-05/we-too-were-once-strangers.
ix Philipp Connor, Immigrant Faith: Patterns of Immigrant religion in the United States, Canada and Western Europe (New York: New York University Press), 19.
xii Theological education has also proven to be one common arena for intercultural engagement and theological reflection. The ÖkuFiT initiative in Hamburg has, for example, proven to be one such successful initiative; http://www.missionsakademie.de/de/veroeffentlichungen-programme/oekufit.php.
xiii For example, the Baptist Union of Norway has intentionally sought to become a ‘multicultural denomination’, which in recent years has attracted an increasing number of migrant churches, even churches that have not necessarily considered themselves ‘Baptist’. It is also believed that this has contributed to the growth and vitality of the denomination; https://baptist.no/om-oss/strategi/flerkulturelt [in Norwegian]. Also, the annual Pentecostal festival (Pinsefest) in Oslo, initiated by the Multicultural Church Network of the Christian Council of Norway has, for example, become a yearly event where Catholic, Orthodox, Pentecostal, and other churches meet to worship and fellowship across cultures, languages and denominations: http://www.norgeskristnerad.no/index.cfm?id=383192; http://www.norgeskristnerad.no/index.cfm?id=439719.
xvii https://www.christiantoday.com/article/archbishop-welby-it-is-our-duty-to-rebuild-the-walls-of-jerusalem-just-as-they-did-in-nehemiah/109734.htm. The annual week-long Prayer for Oslo has also become a joint ecumenical effort for praying for the city and the nation, involving both Norwegian churches and immigrant churches; https://bonnforoslo.no/.
xviii Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, https://www.thykingdomcome.global/about.
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