I think in two languages. Sometimes I even forget what language I’m speaking. The truth is, I feel most comfortable when I can switch between the two. Many children of immigrants face this “neither here nor there” sensation—we don’t fit in fully with American culture, but we are also different from our parents with their international roots.
We are part of the growing demographic of “second-generation Americans.” Bicultural and sometimes bilingual, we are not a new phenomenon, but we are a rapidly growing one. In the 1970s, one out of every 20 people in the US spoke another language at home. Today, the statistics are one out of five[i]. For my hometown of Worcester, MA, it’s one out of three[ii].
So how does the local church, which by nature reflects a local culture, reach this influential but sometimes elusive group with the Gospel?
Ethnic Churches: Let Faith Transcend Culture
There is a benefit in linking faith with culture. Especially for immigrants who are far from home, an ethnic-centered church provides a community and a support system. But when faith and culture are inextricably linked, this does an incredible disservice to children who will inevitably grow up with a blended culture.
In this model, faith will be seen as something our parents did – along with the foods they eat, the language they speak and the traditions they hold dear. And while I embrace many of these traditions, I also eat burgers, speak English and watch American football.
If I see Christianity as an extension of my parents’ culture, I may leave the faith as I move away from culture and into my own. Just as bad, I may water down the Gospel into a version of cultural identity, tolerance and moralism instead of the power of God to save (Romans 1:16).
With this awareness, churches should ensure that faith is connected to mission outside of the church’s immediate context. Encourage members to pray for and share the Gospel with people from all cultures.
Years ago, some Spanish-speaking friends told me about their experience sharing the Gospel with a new co-worker who recently immigrated from the Middle East and was still learning English. Surprised, I asked how they accomplished this, since they spoke very little English themselves and didn’t know a word of Arabic or Farsi. My friends chuckled and said, “Well, Gospel conversations in broken English are better than no Gospel conversations at all.”
(As an aside, teach your children the Gospel in whatever language they understand best. It is far too precious to lose “in translation.”)
Every church has a cultural identity, but the church cannot exist to simply preserve culture. In their pursuit to “makes disciples of all nations,” churches must teach that the Gospel is more important than whatever culture people identify as.
Majority-Culture Churches: Don’t Make Us Check Our Culture at the Door
With the emphasis on the Gospel as primary, I often hear well-meaning people talk about being “colorblind” to different ethnicities. Not only does this overlook the reality that every church reflects a culture (we all see through a cultural lens), but biblically, we see that Heaven will not be colorblind.
I love the way Tim Keller puts it in his book The Reason for God:
“Biblical texts such as Isaiah 60 and Revelation 21-22 depict a renewed, perfect, future world in which we retain our cultural differences (“every tongue, tribe, people, nation”). This means every human culture has (from God) distinct goods and strengths for the enrichment of the human race. As [Historian Andrew] Walls indicates, while every culture has distortions and elements that will be critiqued and revised by the Christian message, each culture will also have good and unique elements to which Christianity connects and adapts…”
Diversity was and is God’s idea. While there are things about my culture (and yours) that the Gospel will transform, Heaven will not wipe away our distinctiveness. So, acknowledge our differences! Celebrate them and give them a voice! We will glorify God in unity but as unique peoples for eternity, so why not start now?
The Church is the means to live and share the Gospel as Scripture calls us to—in community. But before it draws us together in community, it shows us who we really are: not Anglos, Puerto Ricans, Italians, African Americans, Koreans or Brazilians – but sinners. Is it easier to identify with sinners who look like you and have similar life stories? Yes. But the Gospel doesn’t call us to take the easy road, it calls us to become one Body made up of redeemed sinners like you and me from every nation, tongue, tribe and generation!
Itamar Elizalde is a collegiate missionary in Worcester, MA, and also serves at her home church, Casa de Oracion, in addition to volunteering with BCNE youth ministry. You can find her on Twitter @Itamar_E.