What Christians in the US Can Learn from Immigrant Pastors
According to an African proverb, “He who never travels thinks mom is the only cook.” That’s not a putdown of mom’s cooking, just an acknowledgement that there are lots of things you’ll never know if you don’t venture away from home.
Likewise, Christians who never listen to those from other parts of the world can assume the only way to practice the faith is the way you were taught and have gotten used to. That’s living on mom’s cooking.
Christians in the United States can learn a lot from believers from other parts of the world, including how unusual certain aspects of Americanized Christianity are. I interviewed pastors currently ministering in the United States who were raised and came to faith in another country. I wanted to learn what they saw and experienced of Christianity in the United States that was distinct from their country of origin. Through their eyes I saw many things about my homegrown Christian faith that I’d never noticed before.
“What was the first thing you noticed that was different from your home country,” I asked.
Wilmer Ramírez moved to Boston after pastoring for nine years in Guatemala. He quickly realized churches spoke a different language, not just English instead of Spanish, but a different set of assumptions.
“The first service I attended,” Ramírez recalls, “the pastor was announcing upcoming events, and he said, ‘Be sure to come. You’ll have a blast!’ I thought, I never heard that in Guatemala! Almost every event was presented in a similar way, highlighting how much fun it would be, not how you’d find purpose for your life or learn to walk with God. I wondered if ‘having a blast’ was the most important thing for Christians in the US.”
Mojic Baldandorj, who pastors the Colorado Mongolian Church, was introduced to Christ in Mongolia shortly after the fall of Communism. When he moved to the West, he quickly noticed the casual informality but arm’s-length relationships.
“I attended a Bible college where students addressed the president by his first name, which he had invited them to do,” Baldandorj said. “Everything seemed so informal, unlike Mongolia. But I learned you can’t just show up and knock on someone’s door if you want to meet, as I was used to. In the US, you have to make an appointment. In Mongolia, we aren’t so casual but are more accessible.”
For Mandy Smith, an Australian who pastors University Christian Church in Cincinnati, her first impression was the scale and resources of US churches and parachurch ministries.
“I came here to study at a Bible college with around 1,000 students, which is fairly small by US standards, but as far as I know there is not one Bible college or seminary that big in Australia,” she said. “The resources we have here are wonderful. But on the downside, there are few places in the world where this uniquely American version of Christianity can function because it requires printed curriculum/materials, large (heated and air-conditioned) buildings, technology, paid staff, extensive training programs, and more. It’s great to have it, but if we can’t imagine ways to do ministry without all that, are we limiting our mission? I’m encouraged to watch emerging Christian leaders in the US asking these questions.”
But perhaps the most significant distinguishing mark of US Christianity is the pervasive individualism that saturates the culture and the church, which differs from the community centered values in other parts of the world.
“We go to funerals of people we don’t know, simply because they are Ethiopian and are part of our larger community,” said Endashaw Kelkele, pastor of the Ethiopian Evangelical Church of Denver. “Not many Americans go to funerals of those they don’t know.”
His colleague, Ermias Amanuel, offered another example. “In the US, people drink coffee alone! In Ethiopia, if you have coffee, you share it with someone.” When people are dependent on one another, community is more important. Self-sufficiency and independence lead to breakdown of community.
This individualism affects more than just social interactions. At times, individualism trumps theology.
Jay Kim, a South Korean who now pastors a Presbyterian Church in Alliance, Nebraska, said, “The church in Korea is more interconnected, so much so that sometimes you feel like people know you too much. But in the US, though we go to the same church, the attitude is ‘your faith is your faith and my faith is my faith.’ Though they come to a Presbyterian church, many do not really follow Presbyterian doctrine.”
Signature Aspects of the Gospel
Are certain aspects of the gospel emphasized more in the US than in their country of origin? The immigrant pastors all identified elements that distinguished Americanized Christianity.
“Predestination and free will!” said Ramírez. “Such issues of theology are prominent here, but they’re not on the radar in Guatemala. On the other hand, evangelism is downplayed here, not seen as essential because so many Christians don’t publicly talk about their faith. In Guatemala, Christians will preach the gospel on buses and public transportation because we’re a ‘church on mission.’ We don’t expect people to show up at church unless they’ve first heard the gospel.”
For Kim, the uniquely American emphasis of the gospel is seeing faith as a means to personal benefit, rather than a sacrificing of personal benefits for eternal rewards.
“Here we talk a lot about our personal lives,” he said. “Faith is a means to better emotional health and relationships. It’s harder to talk here about sin, salvation, heaven, and hell. In Korea, the talk is more about how to get close to God, develop a life of prayer, and become spiritually strong. In America, we don’t really emphasize our sin, our righteousness, our salvation. Here, when I’ve talked about our sinful nature, I’ve had some church members leave. So I find myself talking more about psychological and relational issues, ‘how to live a better life now’ rather than living in anticipation of eternal life in heaven or hell.”
Grace and Its Unintended Consequences
A recurring observation, mentioned by several of the immigrant pastors, was the centrality of the doctrine of grace in US Christianity—and its unintended consequences. While belief in God’s unmerited favor and forgiveness is foundational to Christianity everywhere, the US version often comes with a connotation of ease that suggests effort is unnecessary. Resting in God’s grace is quite different from “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12). This can lead to a lax approach to the spiritual life.
Some of the pastors pointed to the easy accommodation to culture on display by American Christians: being entertained by violent or sexual content in the media, for instance, or indulging in alcohol and drugs and gambling, or adopting the American nonstop pursuit of “more.”
Several of the immigrant pastors mentioned the conspicuous absence of prayer meetings and Christians fasting together in America. In Korea, for instance, where daily 6 a.m. prayer meetings are standard, “there’s peer pressure to practice spiritual disciplines,” said Kim. “The temptation there is hypocrisy, to appear more spiritual than you actually are. But in the US I pray less than I did in Korea. No one checks on my discipleship; we don’t talk about it. It’s all left up to the individual. Here we’re not hypocrites; we’re just lazy.”
“Ethiopian believers gather each week to pray for two hours, and periodically will fast for seven days, occasionally for 21 days,” said Kelkele. “While in Ethiopia we might not emphasize grace enough, in the US people don’t sense the urgency for this. They talk about prayer, but don’t actually pray together very much.”
Different Types of Resistance to the Gospel
In what ways does resistance to the gospel take different forms in America?
While much of the Global South assumes the reality of spirits and the challenge is how to overcome spiritual forces, the atmosphere in the West is generally skeptical of talk of the spirit world.
“In Guatemala, with its deep roots in Mayan and Aztec spirituality, the spirit world is real! Most people will have a story of a spirit that inexplicably tormented them in some way,” said Ramírez, who now is director of Hispanic Initiatives at Denver Seminary. “But in the US, with its secularism and naturalism, people expect reason to explain everything. Few people have the eyes to see spiritual realities. They consider them merely superstition.”
On the other hand, the long history of Christianity in the US leads to its own sorts of resistance.
“It’s hard for the gospel to feel new here,” said Smith. “Most people have heard some form of Christianity (from cultural references to it in the media). But they’ve often heard a perversion of it. So the resistance isn’t to the gospel as often as it is to some misrepresentation of it. My hope is that we can enter with humility into those conversations and instead of defending our religion, introduce folks to the person of Jesus.”
What to Make of All These Differences
While there are lots of differences between the US and the countries that these immigrant pastors have come from, the similarities outweigh them.
As Kelkele concluded, “Most of the differences between our cultures are minor. The big problem in every culture is lukewarmness, an absence of passion for what’s really important. Christians of every culture need to grow in their love for Jesus.”
Marshall Shelley is a contributing editor to CT Pastors and director of the Doctor of Ministry programat Denver Seminary.