International Churches Are a Witness to the Kingdom
Since 2018, I’ve been pastoring Tbilisi International Christian Fellowship (TICF), an international congregation of around 100 people in the former Soviet republic of Georgia. The church began in the early 1990s, soon after the collapse of Communism, as a fellowship for American missionaries. Over the years it has evolved into a multi-ethnic fellowship including Koreans, Indians, Iranians, Georgians, Russians, Germans, British, Canadians, Americans, Brazilians and Nigerians. Unusually for an international church, we have only a few Georgian nationals who attend. Most of the congregation are in Georgia on a six-year medical school program, as missionaries working with one of the many ethnic groups in the South Caucasus, are employed in the diplomatic corps, NGOs, or multinational corporations, or as digital nomads wandering the globe.
Multi-ethnic Christian expatriate communities like ours have an important role to play in connecting the gospel with a rapidly urbanising and globalizing human culture. These multi-ethnic fellowship of strangers and aliens, united around Christ as Lord, serve as a powerful witness to the presence of the kingdom.
International Churches and Their Challenges
An international church can be defined as a multi-ethnic congregation composed primarily of foreigners who are residing in the host country for a limited period. I’ll focus on English-speaking churches in non-English-speaking countries, since English is the world’s dominant trade language, although some international churches use French, Spanish, Russian, Arabic or other regional languages. There are around one thousand such international congregations globally.¹ My definition of international churches excludes immigrant congregations, whose members (especially in the second generation) desire to integrate permanently into the host culture. These churches have a more tenuous relationship with their surroundings, being composed of foreigners who will likely leave the country at some point, either to return to their home country or to move on to another global destination.
One of the greatest challenges facing international churches is the transient lifestyle of their congregants. A stay of three to five years is common, and many move on even sooner than that. The church’s “transient nature affects attendance, discipleship, giving, leadership development, and how the church ministers to one another and their community.”² It’s difficult to foster deep relationships when people are constantly coming and going. The continual flux also makes it difficult to raise leaders from within the congregation. Several years ago, our congregation voted to install a new elder, who only a month later had to leave the country after the international petroleum country for which he worked transferred him. This pressures the pastor to accelerate the process of raising up new leaders, who will learn the hard way not to ignore the time needed to hear from God and assess a leader’s character. As a result, more work lands on the shoulders of the pastor, who in a smaller church may be the only staff member. David Young, who moved to Bangkok to pastor, describes the isolation pastors of international churches feel: “They have left their country of origin. They may not know the host country’s native language, they work on the fringes of ecclesiastical support, and they live a great distance from family and friends. Their relational, cultural, emotional, and spiritual resources are often scarce.”³
Of course, members struggle with their own feelings of isolation and culture stress. Christian expats often regard the international church as an oasis: a comforting home-away-from-home, where they can be buffered from the strangeness of a foreign city, enjoy familiar worship songs, and receive the nourishment they need to keep going. Although these desires are understandable (and, to a certain degree, legitimate) they can degenerate into consumer demands that undermine the call to do mission together.
Some expats also have this consumerist mindset toward the cultures that are hosting them. An increasing number of digital nomads move from country to country, in search of good weather, fast Internet, and low cost of living. They sit lightly on their current residence, causing no damage but not bringing much blessing either. Other expats seeking to acquire a degree, build their careers, or have a family adventure are unusually not highly motivated to invest in their surroundings either. And because expats, unlike many nationals, always have the option of repatriation, they can leave when the country’s situation deteriorates instead of sharing in the suffering of its citizens.⁴
Although it’s tempting to romanticise ethnic diversity, it’s much easier to build community in monocultures. The fewer barriers people need to cross, the easier it is to bond. This was the basic truth behind church growth pioneer Donald McGavran’s Homogeneous Unit Principle.⁵ At TICF, the Indian medical students naturally congregate, while the American families gravitate towards each other. It’s hard to blame them: trying to connect across cultures can be exhausting.
The Rise of Global Cities
For all these reasons, international churches face unique challenges. Ministry back home seems effortless by comparison. But what if international churches had a special role to play in the intersection of gospel and culture?
International churches have arisen in the context of globalisation, urbanisation, and migration. The International Organization for Migration estimates that there are 272 million migrants (that is, people living outside their country of birth) globally.⁶ The vast majority of these immigrants are moving to cities. Indeed, the population of the world living in cities has grown from 30 percent in 1950 to 55 percent in 2018.⁷ The world’s economic output is driven by an interconnected network of global cities. A 2010 editorial in Foreign Policy declared, “The 21st century will not be dominated by America or China, Brazil or India, but by the city. In an age that appears increasingly unmanageable, cities rather than states are becoming the islands of governance on which the future world order will be built.”⁸
As human culture becomes increasingly globalised, and economies and societies become more complex and interconnected, global cities have become fast-paced centres of economic, cultural and political power that increasingly have more in common with each other than they do with suburban and rural populations in their own countries. These “nodes of innovation” attract multinational corporations and leading educational and cultural institutions.⁹ The cosmopolitan elite who lead and staff these organizations move with ease between London, Istanbul, and Shanghai because they share a common multinational culture. International students and ambitious and talented young people flock to cities for the unequaled opportunities on offer.
This movement of peoples has its dark side. At the bottom of society, the labour force toiling on construction projects or in service jobs is increasingly composed of migrant labourers — up to ninety percent of the population in cities like Dubai. Filipina social anthropologist Melba Padilla Magay observes,
Driven by the evils of poverty or political turmoil, or merely the thirst for adventure and the restless search for opportunity among postmodern “global vagabonds,” many are now experiencing a massive rootlessness. Migrants are being pushed and pulled into the vortex of global centers that have become like kitchen sinks sucking the dregs of human economic and political misery.¹⁰
In this rapidly changing world, it is now no longer accurate to think of ‘culture’ as an unchanging monolith: a more or less defined way of life with predictable, traditional practices that provide safety and order and a shared understanding of the common good. The global city is a place of human density and diversity. Every day, the residents of global cities navigate a swirling tapestry of languages, religions and ethnicities.
The Gospel and Global Cities
How might the gospel intersect with the culture of global cities in a way that promotes human flourishing? In the Biblical story, although Adam and Eve are placed in the garden, the human race is meant for more than idyllic pastoral bliss. The first pair are called to multiply and fill the earth, and the human race is hardly evicted from Eden before they are building cities (Gen 4:17). The city offered safety from the hostile wilderness, the opportunity for trade and collaboration, and a central shrine to fulfil humanity’s religious impulses. As agricultural technology slowly developed, more people were freed from subsistence farming to become artisans, merchants and priests in the city. Though alienated from God, it seems that humankind cannot help growing, developing, and fulfilling the cultural mandate. “History is the generational unfolding and opening up of the possibilities hidden in the womb of creation, both natural and human,” Al Wolters writes.
The given reality of the created order is such that it is possible to have schools and industry, printing and rocketry, needlepoint and chess. The creational law is crying out to be positivized in new and amazing ways. The whole vast range of human civilization is … a display of the marvelous wisdom of God in creation and the profound meaningfulness of our task in the world.¹¹
Yet cities have great capacity for evil. Because of their dense populations, sin is much more evident than in the country. Yet because human beings are divine image bearers, cities are also the places where the latent possibilities of human beings emerge. It is striking that the final eschatological vision in the closing chapters of Revelation does not involve the return to Eden, but entry into the New Jerusalem, lowered from heaven to earth, an unimaginably vast metropolis, filled with the treasures of the nations and populated by a joyous multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic citizenship. The city, it turns out, is humanity’s God-given destiny.
In Genesis 11, the human race had attempted to build a tower to heaven based on a single human language and human culture. This was not how God desired the city to be built. He introduced new languages, confused and divided the builders, and scattered the inhabitants of the city. But the multiplication of languages was a hidden blessing, designed to open up wonderful new possibilities within humanity, possibilities that will finally reach fruition in the New Jerusalem.
Linguistic, racial, and national boundaries have provided the framework for a variety of cultural and social experiments involving the human spirit. When the end of history arrives, then, there is something to be gathered in. Diverse cultural riches will be brought into the Heavenly City. That which has been parceled out in human history must now be collected for the glory of the Creator.¹²
A single culture, a single language, and a single ethnicity are not enough to uncover the multifaceted ways in which humanity is called to glorify their Maker. God rejoices in diversity because he delights in richness and abundance.
What role does the church play in this telling of the gospel? According to Ephesians 2, the church is God’s new society, a scale model of humanity as it is meant to be. Through the atoning work of Christ, Jew and Gentile are united in one body, as the evidence that God in Christ is reconciling all things to himself. Thus, the theological and pastoral passion driving most of Paul’s epistles is that Gentiles can be full members of the church without becoming culturally Jewish. Unity is essential, because the congregation is, in the words of Lesslie Newbigin, “the hermeneutic of the gospel”: the living demonstration of its truth and power.¹³
Although the vast majority of the Empire’s subjects were country-dwellers, Paul and the other apostles strategically planted churches in the cities of the Empire, knowing that over time the cultural influence of transformed cities would impact the countryside.¹⁴ These churches were planted at an unprecedented period of human migration:
Merchant-driven colonization occurred. Jews were scattered throughout the region: Roman soldiers and foreign auxiliary soldiers retired and settled in areas away from their homes; and slaves were captured from a variety of areas of the Roman frontier and transferred throughout the Empire to be incorporated into the diverse mix of peoples that inhabited the cities of the first century AD.¹⁵
The pax Romana eased travel through the Empire, especially by sea. Rodney Stark has shown that by the end of the first century, 64% of port cities had a Christian church, compared with only 24% of inland cities.¹⁶ Like cities with international airports today, these port cities attracted people travelling for commercial, government and personal reasons: including many Christians eager to share the gospel and plant churches. We should picture the first churches, therefore, in densely-crowded port cities that reflected the diversity of the empire. These churches were ethnically, culturally and socially diverse, with many members having origins elsewhere in the Empire and using Greek as a common tongue. Because migrants experience both physical and spiritual displacement, they were likely far more open to gospel than they would have been in their village back home.¹⁷ Such diverse little churches made it possible for the church to grow from a few hundred Jewish disciples at Pentecost to a force that would take over the empire in only three centuries.
The Strategic Role of International Churches
It doesn’t take much imagination to perceive the similarities between these early congregations and international churches today. Could God be using international churches for strategic kingdom purposes in our own time?
International churches are multi-ethnic, although this is rarely the result of deliberate strategy: it’s just what happens when Christians from all over the world are looking for a church family. There is a growing body of literature promoting the vision of a multi-ethnic church, most of it from the United States. The challenge there, it emerges, is that white Christians assume that diversity means allowing minorities to participate in “their” space — a church where white ways of doing things are simply assumed to be the default setting. In a recent Christianity Today cover article entitled, “The Multiethnic Church Movement Hasn’t Lived up to Its Promise,” sociologist Korie Little Edwards laments, “Multiracial churches tend to mimic white churches in their culture and theology; whites are not comfortable with black church culture or addressing the elephant in the room, race; multiracial churches work — that is, remain diverse — to the extent that their white members are comfortable.”¹⁸
An international church in Bishkek or Bogotá does not face the same temptation, at least not to the same degree. The expats in the congregation share the experience of being outsiders in the host culture. This unsettling situation is profoundly healthy, as we discover we all have been confronted by the reality that what we always assumed as “normal” is highly conditioned by culture. We gather as people who have all experienced marginalisation and alienation. This does not magically erase all assumptions that Western ways of doing church are automatically correct. Nevertheless, our common situation as foreigners significantly reduces the power imbalances in multicultural churches and opens up possibilities for richer experiences of worship and community.
International churches also tend to be quite diverse in terms of Christian traditions, for “denominationalism, which tends to be worn rather loosely even in the home country, is quickly shed in a foreign culture.”¹⁹ In many large cities, there may be only a single English-speaking evangelical church, so it is not even possible to shop around for a church of one’s preferred persuasion. Christians are forced to put aside their preferences and tastes to worship together as the body of Christ. This may, of course, result in a lowest-common-denominator approach, where theological convictions are watered down to avoid division. This would be a mistake. As Grace Ji-Sun Kim and Graham Hill remind us, “It’s not enough to talk about unity in diversity. Diversity without theological substance is shallow and secularized. We need a vision of unity in diversity under Christ that is rooted in Scripture and theology.”²⁰
To survive, multi-ethnic international churches must allow secondary and tertiary issues to remain peripheral. Healthy leadership must direct the church what makes it truly catholic: the crucified and risen Lord around whom we gather. Ethnic, social and denominational identities must be submitted to the lordship of Jesus. In a world increasingly rent by fear, envy, and injustice, this is a powerful demonstration of the presence of Spirit. International churches can be places where the outsider can see that “there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.” (Col 3:11, NIV) This unity is not the result of a human-driven diversity, but a sign of the lordship of Jesus and a foretaste of the eschaton, where “the healing of the nations will characterize life in the consummated kingdom — that is, the final reconciliation — because Jesus will take his rightful place as Lord of lords and King of kings.”²¹
When international churches gather as a diverse family united in Christ, they are liberated to offer genuine hospitality to other strangers in the global city. Philoxenia, the Greek word for hospitality, means ‘love of the stranger’. In a world marked by xenophobia, Christians are called to reach out to the outsider, following God’s call to “welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you.” (Rom 15:7, ESV) Christine Pohl observes that “the periods in church history when hospitality has been most vibrantly practiced have been times when the hosts were themselves marginal to their larger society” — exactly the situation of international churches.²²
International churches thus have a strategic role to play in God’s plan to bring the gospel to the world and redeem human culture. These vibrant multi-ethnic communities in the world’s global cities, having nothing in common but Christ, are a powerful witness to the presence of the kingdom, and a sign of God’s hospitality to an alienated world.
- Paul Dreesen, “The international church experience: how English-speaking international churches reach, disciple, and minister to their target audience” (D.Min. dissertation, Asbury Theological Seminary, 2020), 2.
- Dreesen, 131.
- David W. Young, “Redirecting the International Church from an Oasis Paradigm to Missional Thought, Community and Practice” (D.Minn diss., George Fox University, 2017), 153–154.
- Young, 41, 42.
- Donald A. McGavran, Understanding Church Growth (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1970), 190–211.
- World Migration Report 2020 (Geneva: International Organization for Migration, 2020), https://publications.iom.int/system/files/pdf/wmr_2020.pdf
- “The speed of urbanization around the world”, United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, htps://population.un.org/wup/Publications/Files/WUP2018-PopFacts_2018–1.pdf.
- Parag Khanna, “Beyond City Limits,” Foreign Policy, August 6, 2010, https://foreignpolicy.com/2010/08/06/beyond-city-limits/.
- Michael Crane and Scott Carter. “Gateway to the Nations: The Strategic Value of International Churches in a Globalized Urban World,” International Journal of Urban Transformation 4, no. 1 (April 2019), 117.
- Melba Padilla Maggay, Global Kingdom, Global People: Living Faithfully in a Multicultural World (Carlisle, UK: Langham Publishing, 2017), 62.
- Albert M. Wolters, Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformation Worldview., 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 44.
- Richard J. Mouw, When the Kings Come Marching In: Isaiah and the New Jerusalem, rev. ed (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 86.
- Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society (London: SPCK, 1989), 227.
- Rodney Stark, Cities of God: The Real Story of How Christianity Became an Urban Movement and Conquered Rome (New York: HarperCollins, 2006), 25.
- J. Daniel Hays, From Every People and Nation: A Biblical Theology of Race (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 141.
- Stark, 75.
- Warren Reeve, “Unleashing Great Commission Potential through International Churches,” in Scattered and Gathered: A Global Compendium of Diaspora Missiology, ed. Sadiri Joy Tira and Tetsuano Yamamori (Carlisle, UK: Langham Publishing, 2020), 393.
- Korie Little Edwards, “The Multiethnic Church Movement Hasn’t Lived up to Its Promise”, Christianity Today, February 16, 2021, https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2021/march/race-diversity-multiethnic-church-movement-promise.html.
- Ernest Eugene Klassen, “Exploring the Missional Potential of International Churches: A Case Study of Capital City Baptist Church, Mexico City” (D.Min. diss., Asbury Theological Seminary, 2006), 37.
- Grace Ji-Sun Kim and Graham Hill, Healing our Broken Humanity: Practices for Revitalizing the Church and Renewing the World (Downers Grove: IVP, 2018), 35.
- Al Tizon, Whole and Reconciled: Gospel, Church and Mission in a Fractured World (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2018), 84.
- Christine D. Pohl. Making Room: Recovering Hospitality As a Christian Tradition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 106.