International Church: Some Unique Features or a Case of Simple Semantics

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The Missional International Church Network (MICN, http://micn.org) defines an “international church” as a church that “primarily serve[s] people of various nationalities (expatriates) and church backgrounds living outside their passport (home) countries”, and a “missional” church as one that is “shaped by and oriented around the mission to which Christ has commissioned His followers”.

During the first quarter of 2013, I spoke in several self-described “international churches” located in large cities.   There is one congregation that is mono-ethnic and mono-culture, but bilingual due to its mostly first and second generation Far East Asians. Affixed to their church sign or billboard is included: “International Church.” Their pastor introduced himself as “pastor of “… International Church.”  Another congregation claims to be an international church though their marketing identity does not specify “international church”.   Their ministry is mostly among Filipino immigrants.  Still another church has declared itself to be an international church after several church splits.  They had tired of their ethnic identity and perhaps their history had created a stigma, so they have rebranded themselves as an international church.

I have encountered similar “international churches” in London, Frankfurt, and Singapore.  It seems that the term “international church” is on the rise, just as the terms “mega churches,” “seeker” and “friendly” churches, “house churches”, and “cell-based churches” were and still are popular.  The term “International Ministries” are also used by many cultic organizations.

I have been thinking, observing and taking notes on the rise of the international churches. In recent months, I have had several casual and formal conversations with pastors of these “international churches” and I have asked many questions, but to my surprise, these church leaders have given me different answers.

What is an international church? Should we define an international church based on ethnicity and cultural identity or ministry?  What is the operational, structural definition for these churches.  Should international churches be denominational or inter-denominational?  Of course, everyone is free to call themselves International Church regardless of geography.  Will geographical locations matter? For example, can a first-generation Korean immigrant-congregation in London, UK be considered an international church?  What happens to the second-generation members who form their own “English Speaking Congregation” meeting simultaneously, but in another location under the same roof as the first-generation “mother congregation?” Is demography an important qualification to become an international church? Who may be the core members?  Are they mostly if not all expats mostly from the West or the Global North who temporarily reside in another country?  How about these congregations from the East and Global South who have immigrated to the West and Global North?  Many of them are now calling themselves “international ministries” and or “international church” such as my initial examples.

While, we can hope that my initial “international church” examples above are “missional” churches, none of them would fit the MICN description of an international church.

Now let me introduce two Edmonton churches that serve people of various nationalities and church backgrounds living outside their passport countries, but do not include “international church” terminology in their name or church description.

Beulah Alliance Church (http://beulah.ca), led by Dr. Keith Taylor, is a 91-year old congregation that has adapted over the generations to maintain a relevant voice in society both locally and globally.  According to its website, “over 900 volunteers presently assist with various ministries to children, youth and adults.  Furthermore, over 40 churches today trace their roots to its influence.” A visit to Beulah’s campuses would reveal a congregation composed of European-background Canadians, First Nations (Aboriginal Canadians), “new Canadians” who have recently immigrated for permanent settlement in Canada, and a large number of international migrant workers who are “expatriates”.

What strikes me most about Beulah is that it is “one church, [in] multiple locations.”  While Beulah’s main campus is in the west end of the city, it gathers people in satellite locations – in the southwest of Edmonton, University/central Edmonton, and soon, in southeast Edmonton.  Beulah has also recently daughtered a church in north Edmonton.  The University location is specifically a Spanish-speaking location ministering to the growing Hispanic community in Edmonton.  What the website does not mention is that Beulah also hosts an Arab congregation on Saturday nights, and is a primary partner in an international initiative – an international congregation in Hanoi, Vietnam.  Beulah’s staff also reflects the multi-cultural demographic that it ministers to.  Though Beulah is not listed as an “international church”, it intentionally seeks internationals, and it is glocal – Global and Local simultaneously, in its ministry scope.

The other church I want to tell you about is South Edmonton Alliance Church (SEAC, http://seachurch.ca), pastored by Rev. Genghis Chan and located in Millwoods, the ethnically diverse southeast quadrant of the city.  SEAC was founded as South Edmonton Chinese Alliance Church.  Originally a mono-culture church catering to Chinese immigrants, SEAC has grown to include a vibrant English-Congregation that reaches the community Chinese or not.  Of note, SEAC actively seeks newly migrated Chinese immigrants, and Chinese expatriates who are in Edmonton on working or student visas, while simultaneously reaches non-Chinese in the neigbourhood.

SEAC is actively involved in the community, partnering with various non-profit organizations such as Christian Immigrant Support Services, Big Brothers & Big Sisters of Edmonton, and Canadian Blood Services.  SEAC offers free tax preparation for low-income families, hosts community garage sales, family fun nights, a homework club, and a community pantry.  In 2012, SEAC launched the Millbourne Community Life Centre that provides services such as the community closet and community pantry – services very relevant to the immigrant and migrant communities of this part of Edmonton.  They also regularly release their staff to represent them in global ministry initiatives.

So here we go back to the discussion of what can be considered an international church. Allow me to backtrack a bit.  In 2000, my daughter travelled to Ulsan, South Korea to teach English in a Korean preschool.  While she was there she had a very difficult time finding an English congregation.  In her city only the Latter Day Saints Church (i.e. Mormon) had a visible English congregation.  She finally found a group through her foreigner’s compound who gathered every two weeks to worship and fellowship together.  An Anglican clergyman and his wife who were stationed in a nearby port city to work with foreign seafarers would come in and minister to them.  Could this group be called an international church, because they were composed of internationals?  Are my first three examples “international churches” because they are composed of people who had travelled on international flights to arrive at their destination?  I would propose not.

MICN’s definition of an international church is a wonderful starting point.  It is absolutely relevant for megacities and metropolitan centres (Kuwait, Hanoi, Dubai, etc.).  We are, however, living in times when international migration is effecting mid-sized cities as well, and some local churches, for whatever reason want to use the term “international church” but may be neither international in intention or practice.  May I suggest something?  When I think of an international church I think of one that intentionally seeks expatriates as reflected in their outreach strategies and programs; one whose congregation reflects a vibrant multi-cultural community; and one who is involved in strategic ministry initiatives that are “international” in reach.  Beulah and SEAC both fit this broadened description.

May I propose that all churches, particularly in urban centres, strive towards the ministry of an international church?  With the influx of not only new immigrants (those who migrate for permanent settlement), but also migrant workers, international students, long-term business workers (on international projects), recreational migrants (i.e. long-term tourists), intentionality is necessary.  Simple semantics aside, some unique features to strategically reach the diaspora locally and abroad are required.  Beulah and SEAC are vibrant and viable examples of how this can be done and their ministry models can be an inspiration for all urban churches.

I am thankful that the growing international church movement is working with The Lausanne Movement in proclaiming the Whole Gospel (by the Whole Church) to the Whole World.

Sadiri Joy Tira (D.Min., D.Miss.) is the LCWE Senior Associate for Diasporas; Vice President for Diaspora Missions at Advancing Indigenous Missions (AIM); Director of the Institute of Diaspora Missiology at Alliance Graduate School (Philippines); and Diaspora Missiology Specialist at the Jaffray Centre for Global Initiatives at Ambrose University College (Canada).

Author: Sadiri Joy Tira
Date: 06.05.2013

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