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church to community

Churches started by immigrants are facing new challenges as they seek to reach their urban communities, especially the poor.

I was recently asked to spend time with a second-generation Korean-American congregation located in a major US city. They sought me out because they had been reaching out to their community for some time, specifically to two homeless shelters for women and children nearby. Church members held cookouts and invited the families; they babysat the kids for mothers' nights out. Then, lo and behold, some of the homeless families started showing up at Sunday services. Some of the kids from the shelters started coming to youth group meetings and Sunday school classes.

Until now, this church, which was started years ago by immigrants from Korea, had been largely ethnically homogeneous. The children of the immigrants, many of whom were born and raised in the States, came up through youth and college groups in the Korean churches, got jobs and started families, and started English-speaking Ministries (EMs). Some of the EMs remain under the leadership of the first-generation KMs (Korean-speaking Ministries), while others have ventured out into independence. Nevertheless, EMs have by and large focused on Korean-Americans and the children of other Asian immigrants and their spouses. Many of these EMs are made up of well educated professionals.

There are therefore more than a few gaps to be bridged when EMs seek to reach out to their communities in compassion, not the least of which are the cultural gap, the racial or ethnic gap, and the socioeconomic gap. To welcome into their congregation these newcomers from the community who are so different in so many ways seems daunting, even impossible. One of the church leaders shared, "Many of our people tend to stay away from them, not because they hate them or are prejudiced towards them, but simply because they don't know what to say to them or they're afraid of saying something stupid." Nevertheless, at least in my experience, more and more EMs are asking sincerely how they can grow in ministering to such neighbors. There seems to be a growing desire to become more missional among these congregations.

What can be said to such congregations?

One, to have such guests in our services is to be honored with a special opportunity to witness to the reality of the kingdom--not just that it exists, but in demonstrating what the eschatological community of Christ looks like. The new community is marked by reconciliation and justice, in which the nations are included into the one body of Christ and there is now no more slave or free, rich or poor. The church has the calling to live this kingdom reality out in the midst of our fractured world of exclusion and alienation. In Luke 14:15-24 (which I preached on during the aforementioned EM's service), Jesus tells the story of the heavenly banquet. The parable makes this point: the excluded and marginalized of the world--the poor, the lame, the crippled, the blind--are the honored guests in God's kingdom, and therefore in the church. However, is that how our special guests are seen in our churches? Or are they seen as problems either to be avoided or to be solved?

Two, know your calling - you aren't called to solve all their problems. But you are called to love them. I found that many Christians become fearful and overwhelmed because there are so many life-dominating issues among the poor, and they feel the pressure to solve them. This is an outflow of seeing the poor not as VIPs in God's kingdom but as problems. So this is a good time to remember that there is only one Messiah, and you are not him. Rather, we are called to walk with the poor--to treat them with dignity as God's image-bearers, to help when we can, yes, to the best of our ability, but remembering that we are neighbors, not saviors.

Three, focus on getting to know the neighbors and the community. You can't love what you don't know. But many of us try to do exactly that. Instead, spend the time listening and learning from the poor. Get to know the dynamics of the community around the church, and get immersed in the life of the community more and more. Develop friendships; have meals (not just ministry events) and go places together. Get to know the obstacles and challenges facing the poor; get to know their triumphs and joys; become familiar with their life stories; start to see how they have the potential within themselves to keep going despite the odds and experience transformation. Then the poor don't seem like such strangers to you after a while. Though there are many differences in how we view the world and how we live our lives, we are, deep down, quite similar. (There are many approaches in growing the depth of our knowledge; it will take more than this post to expand on the subject.)

Four, think of how you might forge partnerships with the poor, rather than simply how you can "serve" the poor. The poor are not simply passive recipients of your goodness and/or material resources; they are actors with gifts of their own to contribute. Be at one with the poor; don't keep the truncated relationship of a superior and an inferior based on worldly categories of privilege and power going one more second.

Five, remember that you are a sinner saved by God's grace. I say this because the gospel is the great equalizer of our social statuses. The ground is level at the foot of the cross. The gospel is what creates the kingdom community of justice and reconciliation. It is tempting to rely on our expertise and abilities when thinking of ministering to the poor or addressing the problems of the world, especially if you are well educated and hold high-powered jobs. ("We have MBAs; we pull in six-figure salaries; we got this.") But the message that declares "While we were sinners, Christ died for us" does not allow us to put such faith in our own resources. Yes, our abilities and resources are useful, but we are not to have faith in human abilities. Instead, we realize that we are all failures who need the redeeming work of Christ, just as the poor are. Human love reaches its end rather quickly; gospel-shaped love wrought by the Spirit of the crucified Christ will take us much further. The gospel saves us from paternalism and exclusion; it creates a truly just community. And that is what we ultimately need, not more do-gooders. A culture of meritocracy leads inevitably to injustice and exclusion, no matter how well intentioned we are; a culture of grace, however, produces true justice and real freedom from oppression. The foolishness of the gospel demolishes human wisdom. What an opportunity for the church to experience this power of the gospel when God's people live it out in relation to their community's poor!

Critical Time for EM churches

This is a crucial time for these EMs and immigrant churches. They are being presented with kingdom opportunities to grow deeper in their faith, and deeper into the reality of the gospel, when the community and its hurts start to walk through their doors. Will the church turn away, and seek to go back to the comforts of the old familiar ways? Will they tread the old, familiar path of humanistic and paternalistic do-goodism? Or will they embrace the gospel message that can shape our churches more and more into the eschatological community of Christ, to God's glory? Let us pray for the Spirit to move among these congregations.

About the Author

Kyuboem Lee

Dr. Kyuboem Lee

Dr. Kyuboem Lee serves as Adjunct Faculty at Biblical Seminary. He is the founding pastor of Germantown Hope Community Church in Philadelphia, and the General Editor for the Journal of Urban Mission

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