Welcoming the stranger

Four levels of commitment to immigrants

Few Christians in Canada can deny that the faces in our community have changed. Between 1986 and 1999 Canada received 3.5 million immigrants, many of whom have not received the gospel of Christ. The church has a tremendous opportunity to reach out to immigrants and demonstrate Christ’s love.

Charles Foster, author of Leadership in Multicultural Churches: Embracing Diversity, has observed different levels of commitment within churches to serve immigrants.

The first is simply a matter of church survival. Space is rented out to immigrant groups, or services such as daycare are offered with the intention of bringing new families into the church. Foster does not criticize this approach, as he sees it as a step above the church moving to an entirely new community to avoid the encroaching growth of immigrant populations. However, most have noted that relations based on pure economics are not generally good ones.

The second level of commitment is a missionary approach, which strives to be obedient to the Great Commission by making disciples of all nations. Actions are taken by the church to reach out to their ethnic neighbours. Some churches have been able to bring members of different ethnic groups into their congregations by being obedient to the Gospel. However, it is often noted that these churches, while appearing “diverse,” may actually feel “white.” Usually, this is a result of the church not striving to make additional changes to bring people of diverse cultures into the main life of the church by including them in leadership, worship, church educational programming, etc.

Foster calls the third level of commitment to multicultural ministry the catalyst/hospitality approach. These churches strive to welcome the stranger within their midst and believe the words of Christ . . . “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40).

These congregations believe strongly that the strangers that come into their midst often are God’s special envoys to bless or challenge them, like that of the three strangers visiting Abraham.

Congregations that fit into the category of hospitality/catalyst commitment to multicultural ministry are often impacted by the stranger who enters their midst. Yet similar to churches that are obedient to the Great Commission, they may fail to make institutional changes that will allow for foreigners to be incorporated fully into the different areas of leadership within the church.

The fourth level of commitment to multicultural ministry is one that has a theological vision. Churches in this category are intentionally multicultural and generally their mission statement will reflect this. This type of church often strives toward racial reconciliation, and stresses aspects of the Apostle Paul’s writings that emphasize the church as being members of one body.

As the church enters the 21st century, it must once again learn how to serve its community. Change is not easy. It is encouraging to recall that it was not easy for the early church to incorporate non-Jews into its midst. Peter needed to receive a vision from God and observe how the Holy Spirit came with power upon Cornelius and the other Gentiles with him, before he truly understood that “God does not show favouritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right” (Acts 10:34–35).

It takes a great deal of work and planning, but it is worth it. Prejudicial attitudes and practices must be confronted, cultural sensitivity must be cultivated, outreach strategies and intentional communication practices must be laid out. All of this requires a strong belief in the unity that is possible in Christ through the Holy Spirit, which joins us mystically together in one body. Clearly, this type of ministry reflects the glory of God, for it is written: “Every knee will bow before me; every tongue will confess to God” (Romans 14:11).

“[I]f you are not a visible minority, you will never understand what it means to be an immigrant in our land. They live under constant pressure to adapt and to adjust. They need to know that they are unconditionally accepted. . . . We assume that ethnic churches exist because immigrants don’t accept Canada. Ethnic churches spring up in our cities because we do not accept immigrants.”

Rob Brynjolfson in Becoming an Intentionally Intercultural Church, Rob Brynjolfson and Jonathan Lewis, eds.

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