A few weeks ago I had the privilege of attending the first united symposium of the Chinese Alliance churches in Canada. These churches are part of the Canadian Christian and Missionary Alliance (C&MA) and offer services in Mandarin, Cantonese, and English languages. They represent nearly 100 churches which account for 20% of all C&MA churches in Canada.
There, I met Pastor Solomon Chiang, a seasoned church planter who was pastoring in Taiwan and came to Canada for his theological studies. He then pastored a Chinese church in Parsippany, New Jersey, before moving to the greater Toronto area, where he planted three churches in the last two decades, all of them exceeding several hundred members. He focused his ministry on reaching the Mandarin-speaking new immigrants from mainland China.
When asked of the reason why the churches are growing, he simply responds that the church demonstrates Christian love and that is the catalyst that draws people to Christ.
On the States’ side, diaspora churches now account for more than 46% of the nearly 2,000 C&MA churches in the Unites States. Pew Forum’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study reports ethnic diversity among North American churches increased from 29% in 2007 to 34% in 2014.
This number is projected to continue increasing as the rate of immigration continues unabated in the coming decades.
While the story of Global Christianity has taken center stage in recent decades, its implications for global migration has received far less reflection. We must consider the stupendous growth of the Church in Asia, Africa, and Latin America alongside the rise of global migration.
Many of these sending regions are not only thriving centers of Christianity, but are now actively ministering in their new diasporic locations. Pew Forum’s Faith on the Move reports that nearly half (49.6%) of all international migrants are Christians. In other words, the majority of migrants in the world are Christian. The numbers are further accentuated when considering immigration to the United States. The same report claims nearly three-quarters (74%) of foreign-born people living in the United States identify as Christians. These have tremendous implications for how we speak about diaspora peoples.
Often, our discussion on diaspora communities are limited to viewing them as groups that must be reached with the gospel and groups that must be mobilized to reach others.
Admittedly, the movement of people from “unreached” or “unreachable” regions to a global city offers unprecedented opportunities for gospel witness because migrants are more inclined to reconsider their faith commitment.
Similarly, nominal adherents may renew or intensify their religious belonging while on the move. Alongside this conversation, we must remember that the majority of people in the diasporas are Christians. That is why - despite predictions of the decline of faith in North America - we are witnessing the growth of diaspora churches in most of the major cities across North America.
Professor Soon-Chan Rah from North Park Seminary aptly observes:
As many lament the decline of Christianity in the United States in the early stages of the 21st century, very few have recognized that American Christianity may actually be growing, but in unexpected and surprising ways. The American Church needs to face the inevitable and prepare for the next stage of her history — we are looking at a non-white majority, multiethnic American Christianity in the immediate future.
Our discussion on diaspora communities must recognize the vitality, vibrancy, and flourishing of these congregations on the North American landscape. Diasporas represent communities that are not only to be missionized and mobilized, but importantly, they must be seen as members of the shared religious landscape and equal partners in mission.
Christian leaders from the dominant culture may express disappointment at diaspora communities’ belonging within their ethnic enclave or insistence on continuity of linguistic and cultural identity. They may be interested in simply assimilating diaspora churches into the dominant culture paradigm of English churches or multicultural churches.
This approach belies the ethnocentrism of the dominant culture and must be replaced by recognition of the validity of diverse types of churches, including ethnic and linguistic specific churches.
Diaspora churches also face internal challenges as they discern how to navigate the changes of home culture and host culture, and issues related to discipling the first generation and second generation. We cannot assume that assimilation will address the various complexities. Diaspora church leaders, especially second-generation leaders, can play a critical role in contextualizing the gospel within their own cultures with attention to the cultural and linguistic nuances for each generation.
As we reflect on the changing face of Global Christianity, we must recognize the changing face of Christianity in North America. Hispanic, Korean, Chinese, and Nigerian churches are a few of the many diaspora churches that now occupy the North American religious landscape. These churches embody the vitality and vibrancy of Global Christianity and stand alongside previously established North American churches as equal partners in mission.