I Love International Churches!
By an IC pastor in the Middle East
(downloadable pdf version 88k)
I love international churches! I have served as the pastor of an international church in the Middle East for sixteen years. I can’t imagine a more exciting and dynamic (oh yes, and exhausting) place to minister for the kingdom of God. When I try to analyze my love for the international church, there are three features common to international churches that come immediately to mind. (By the way, it is the very features which make international churches exciting places to minister that also make them such exhausting and sometimes frustrating places.)
It is built into the fabric and reality of international churches that people come and people go. We recently published a new church directory. The statistics tell me that 36% of our people are new to the congregation since the beginning of 2004. (I am writing this in May, 2006). Spring is the time of year when people start telling us they are leaving. Each year, it’s almost overwhelming. We hear the comment, “Everyone is leaving!” and it sometimes feels that way.
Being the pastor of an international church is like being pastor to the fish in a river. They just keep moving through. It’s not quite so bleak, however. It took me a while to realize it, but I’ve discovered that not all the fish in the river are salmon. A good percentage are, but there has been a nucleus of great “fish” that have taken up long term residence in our section of river. They provide the needed stability in a very transient environment. Another analogy has helped me keep my perspective on the issue. Being the pastor of an international church isn’t that different from being involved in a campus or university ministry. Each year there is an “intake” of new students to reach and disciple, and each year approximately 25% of the students will “graduate.” It’s a fact of life. We just have to prepare and strategize for it.
Like so much in the international church, this fact of life has a “good news/bad news” aspect to it. The good news is: People leave. I have a confession to make to you. I have solved a lot of problems in our church over the years by simply outlasting them! I am not really proud of that. It is just one of the realities of life in an international church I don’t complain about. When certain people have left, my primary response has been to heave a sigh of relief.
The bad news is: People leave. Some people leave a bigger hole than others. As I write this, we have just found out that our AWANA commander (leader of our Bible club ministry for children) is leaving. We have had a Christian counselor in the church for 5 years. He leaves in June. Who will replace him? One of the key leaders in our women’s ministry left last week. That hurts. It hurts organizationally and it hurts personally. But even that has a good news perspective to it. As the leader from the women’s ministry said in her farewell, “We’re making room for the wonderful new people the Lord is going to bring.” And he does.
There is more good news. This is what really excites me. The people who are leaving are all going somewhere else. If they have come to the Lord through our church, or been discipled, or been equipped in some new way for ministry, they will take that with them to their next assignment, and have a chance to make a positive impact for the kingdom of God in a new place.
The transience of the typical international congregation presents a challenge to us as pastors and church leaders. The challenge is to force ourselves to continue building relationships. There is a tendency to form scar tissue over the hurt of saying goodbye too many times. We can start to pull back. One of the questions that is part of the introduction protocol in international churches (right after “What is your name and where are you from?”) is the question, “How long are you going to be here?” If we’re not careful, we can begin to gauge our openness to friendship and investment in a person based on their answer to that question. That is a mistake. Some of the biggest blessings come in short-term packages. We must guard ourselves from becoming the dominant member of the ruling clique of long-termers. Stay open to the new comers. At the same time, we need to strive to find a balance between maintaining our long-term relationships and getting to know the new ones.
Diversity is another fact of life in the international church. Our new church directory lists people from 43 different countries. They come in all ages (although, in our case, not so many in the college-age bracket, and not many over 60). They are men and women. They are from different economic levels, ranging from housemaids to doctors, diplomats and executives in top companies. On top of that, they come from many different denominational and church backgrounds. (I have no idea how many, because we never ask that question.)
I remember reading Rick Warren’s book, The Purpose Driven Church some years ago. In one of the chapters, he describes the “target audience” for his church, describing an individual he calls “Saddleback Sam.” I sat and tried to come up with such a list of common characteristics for the people in our church, and I came up with a grand list of one: “Most of them speak English.”
I love the diversity of the international church. That is what attracted me to an international church in the beginning. My wife and I are both MK’s (missionary kids) who grew up in Africa. We grew up as typical TCK’s (third-culture kids), suspended between cultures. We fit in the international church. I love sitting in a Bible study with people from a dozen different countries, and discussing a passage of Scripture together. What a great way to understand God’s Word and its relevance to all of our lives!
At our church, we embrace and celebrate our diversity. We often hear comments about the church being “a taste of heaven.” Every year we have in International Carol Service, with groups or individuals from different countries presenting a carol from their country, either in national dress or home language. We have done fund raising events that featured international food courts. We have friendly competitions between nationalities. For several years, our church picnics have featured a tug-of-war between different nationalities. (We’ve had to suspend those – the South Africans kept winning!)
We encourage, but do not force mixing between the different ethnic groups in the church. There is a natural ebb and flow. Some of the ethnic groups seem to prefer to stay within their own group. We don’t force the issue. Some of our home fellowships are ethnically specific while others are mixed. When visitors come, we try to have someone from their home country make the call to welcome them. We attempt to use both homogeneous and heterogeneous dynamics to our advantage. We are not a melting pot. We are more like a stew pot. What we do try to do is increase the quantity and quality of the gravy!
One of the most difficult aspects of diversity in the international church is that of doctrinal or denominational diversity. I know different international churches cope with this in different ways. I’ll simply share my philosophy. The first thing I do is purge all denominational references or labels from my preaching or “up-front” speech. Even positive reference to a denomination can send uncomfortable signals to others. The most important thing I do is stay very close to Scripture in my preaching. I rarely preach topical or doctrinal sermons. I preach expository messages, passage by passage, usually preaching through a book of the Bible. I see my task as that of Ezra in Ezra 7:10: “to study to do and to teach…” the Word of the Lord. I study a text and then seek to explain it and apply it to people’s lives, with special attention to the unique aspects of living internationally. If someone takes issue with something I have said, I am then able to go back to the text in question, and ask, “How do you interpret these words?” We are able to come together to the Scripture as our authority. We may end up agreeing to disagree on a specific interpretation, but we also usually end up friends. Another phrase I use often when approaching a controversial passage or issue is, “Many sincere Christians disagree on this, but let me just share my position…” That simple preamble seems to take the heat out of many potentially divisive topics. God has been very good. Over 16 years, we have had very few serious doctrinal disputes.
All international churches are, by definition, strategically located. International churches are churches at the cross-roads of the world. They lie at critical intersections of the world geographically, (most in large cities) culturally, commercially and educationally. International churches are a product and a reflection of the increasing globalization of our world. Because of their strategic location, international churches are in a position to have an influence and impact far beyond their immediate locale.
I love this feature of international church ministry. A young Indian man was attending our church. He worked cleaning houses for people in the congregation. In getting to know him, we realized he had a remarkable story and a remarkable love for the Lord. The first believer from a Hindu family, he had subsequently led his entire family to Christ. He was supporting his younger brother in Bible college. He had a dream to one day attend Bible college himself. Our church decided to sponsor him to return to India for studies. He was the top student all four years at school. When he graduated, the Bible college asked him to join their faculty. He refused, believing God was calling him back to his home village. He returned home to plant churches, and today there are 11 congregations with a weekly attendance of over 1000 people in an area that is predominantly Hindu.
An American woman started attending our church. She worked for the U.S. Embassy. She was seeking for spiritual answers and had researched the various religions of the world. Now she was exploring Christianity. She joined Bible studies. Christians befriended her and gave her books to read. She attended the worship services regularly. She joined our evangelistic study. Over several months, she became convinced that Jesus was the Way and she gave her heart to the Lord. When her two year assignment in our country was nearing an end, her husband (a U.S. diplomat) was given a high level posting in Baghdad. She decided to request a posting to Baghdad as well, and it was granted. Her first action in Baghdad was to start an evangelistic study just like she’d experienced in our church. The first session was postponed because of a bomb scare! But she persevered and the class has been offered regularly for the last two years, in the high security zone in Baghdad.
I can go on and on, about former members of our church having an impact for the kingdom of God in Australia, in China, in Chinese language churches in Toronto, in Paris; the list goes on and on. When you minister at one of the cross-roads of the world, you never know where the influence ends. I love international churches!
Copyright © 2006 Author