It seemed like a great idea when I first heard about it at the 1997 National Missionary Convention in Tulsa. It was there I met Wayne Long, former missionary to Brazil two Brazilian men from a mission effort in the northeastern United States, Sergio and Helio. They represented the work of Hisportic Christian Mission in planting churches within the Brazilian immigrant community. As a result of that first meeting I visited one of the churches connected with this ministry two years in a row. In more recent years my family moved to the northeast and became active with the Brazilian Church of Christ in Newark, New Jersey. It was while with this church over the course of nearly 5 years that I began to perceive a problem that isn’t entirely immediate, but will become an issue in the not-to-distant future. It simply doesn’t make any sense for Brazilian immigrant congregations to expect to retain their cultural and linguistic purity into a second generation.
First, consider the “great commission.”
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” – Matthew 28:19-20 NRSV
Did Jesus say, "Go and make disciples of everyone who looks, speaks and acts like you”? No. How about, “…make disciples of all nations, organizing them into separate and distinct congregations along racial and ethnic lines”? Again, no. A church planted in Brazil will likely be composed mostly of Portuguese-speaking people sharing a very similar cultural background. The congregation’s make-up would likely be a fairly accurate reflection of the neighborhood or city in which it exists. In a similar fashion, I’m not at all surprised if a congregation in Kirksville, Missouri consists primarily of white, working-class people. What about a church ministering in a place as culturally diverse as northern New Jersey?
Second, I know there will be objections. It makes sense to evangelize people in their native languages. It’s easier to connect with people within existing social and familial circles. Church services can’t be conducted routinely in multiple languages (this isn’t the United Nations!). To all these I agree, to a point. To share the Gospel most effectively there needs to be a shared language. We generally find the best avenues for evangelism to be those that already exist among friends and family. Of course it wouldn’t build anyone up to try to conduct a worship service that amounts to little more cacophony of very different languages. Remember, though, that I’m talking about mission work among Brazilian immigrants.
Mission and church planting among Hispanic immigrants may be very different from the experience of the same among Brazilians. Hispanics tend to maintain cultural and social cohesion better than their Brazilian counterparts. Why? Two reasons seem to be the status of families and also replenishment from outside.
Hispanic communities in my part of the United States tend to be composed of larger extended families. Perhaps due to different immigration policies or physical proximity to the United States, Hispanics of many countries have been able to bring large parts of their family here to live and work with them. I’ve known people in Newark who own sections of city blocks where everyone’s from the same family. Grandparents, parents, children, cousins, uncles, aunts, etc. All in roughly the same geographic area. These families have a far greater facility of maintaining their distinct identity as a sub-culture in the United States than do Brazilians. The latter tend to come as individuals, marry or just live together and have children. Nuclear families are more the norm among Brazilian immigrants in the northeastern United States. Nuclear families face challenges in preserving their language and cultural memory. They blend into the larger culture as their children speak English and become involved in school activities with friends who aren’t Brazilian. As the family goes, so goes the church.
Don’t get me wrong! It’s a great thing to either plant a church or start a small group that reaches out to Brazilians immigrants. There’s also a lot of work to be done in organizing the Brazilian immigrant community and helping it find a voice. At the same time, such works in a church context should not resist the encroachment of the larger culture, particularly in language. If English is the “heart language” of the children, they should hear it in Sunday School and youth group. The church isn’t the conveyer of one nation’s language and heritage. It is the reign of Christ. Further, plans should be made to transition the ministry as a whole almost entirely to English by the time the first generation of church children raised in the United States reaches adulthood. An alternative is to get them involved in other English-speaking congregations locally, though this would actually fail the “all nations” international imperative of the great commission.
As a church works towards it’s more international, less Brazilian future it will be freed up to reach out to other people in the community, folks for whom English serves as a common language. This was the experience of the early church in the Roman Empire, where diversity prevailed but the common trade language was Greek, the same language in which the New Testament was written.
The work of the church is the mission of God, and the mission of God is the make disciples of all nations, bringing them into fellowship with Him through Christ. We preach that Jesus is Lord of the nations and that, therefore, there can be no distinction. We say we are one. Are we ready to live this truth?