Say no to assimilation

In my last article on "Reaching the New Sydney", I presented the challenge of reaching the multi-cultural population that is the New Sydney.

As we consider how to do this, there is a fundamental issue that first needs to be addressed.

Over the years, I have encountered the view that runs something like this - "It's OK to set up a culturally distinctive ministry for evangelistic purposes (to reach "them"), but once they become Christians, they should assimilate into the local church (become like "us")."

To which I ask the question - "Why is that? What's the reason for that view?"

As I turn to the Scriptures for answers, this is what I see:

Event #1 - Tower of Babel (Genesis 11)

Sinful humanity up to this stage still "had one language and the same words" (v1). But as an expression of their pride and hubris in building this city and the to "make a name for ourselves" (v4), God, aware of the power of this united humanity - "they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them" (v6), judged them by confusing their language and scattering them over all the earth.

Fast forward a few thousand years to.

Event #2 - Pentecost (Acts 2)

The disciples of Jesus are "filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues" (v4), and the dispersed Jews from "every nation under heaven" (v5) hear the disciples in their own (home) language. In a mighty reversal of Babel, God draws together three thousand souls into salvation and fellowship. It's interesting to note that this reversal did not involve God speaking through His disciples to the multitude in one language, nor was there a return to pre-Babel original language, nor is there any suggestion that the miracle of the disciples multi-lingual facility continuing from that point on. The new Christians continued to speak their native tongue, and no doubt, this only served to take the gospel further afield, and Christian fellowships/congregations to sprout up in and around their home towns.

Fast forward a few thousand more years to.

Event #3 - The Heavenly Song (Revelation 5)

In the apostle's heavenly vision, the four living creatures and twenty-four elders sing the following song to the Lamb -  “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.” (v9,10). It seems to me the distinctiveness of language, cutlure, tribal groupings, people groups, and national groups are preserved yet brought together united in their service to God and rule of the earth. There is no one culture nor one language that typifies Christians.

So if, at Pentecost, and in our final state, we do not lose our language/cultural distinctiveness, why do we need to apologise for culturally distinctive continuing ministries in the now?

The Rev Andrew Lim is assistant minister at St Andrew's Cathedral where he is the founding pastor of Asian Bible Church (ABC). He also oversees Cathedral Bible Study (CBS) and the Cathedral's Australia Day Convention and Queen’s Birthday Convention.

Comments (23)

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  • Phil Nicholson
    May 2, 09 - 5:00am
    I am with you on this. But I think apart from any biblical argument there is often a hidden prejudice held by those who demand assimilation. The dominant (Anglo) culture is blind to the fact of their own culture and assume that everything done in Anglo churches is done in an accultural manner that should suit everyone. So English speaking ethnic churches are often accused of being unnecessary and divisive. What is not recognised is that assimilation demands the minority group sacrifice their cultural distinctives while the majority are able to keep their own.

    If majority churches expect assimilation, then they should also expect to sacrifice many of their own cultural distinctives and practices in order to welcome and serve those from other cultural backgrounds. This is something we rarely see happening.
  • Brett Bovey
    May 2, 09 - 3:43pm
    G'day Andrew, I must say that I am not all that convinced about the strategy of establishing culturally distinct ministries for evangelistic purposes - as you point out there is a dualism inherent in that approach when there is an expectation of assimilation later on. Not to mention the false distinction that has arisen between evangelism and discipleship as well - though you are not really addressing these issues. I would hope that rather than assimilation of a minority group into a majority, we might actually consider the reality of our new identity in Christ free of other distinctions, as Jesus prays in John 17 (and in fact Jesus prays might be an attraction to the outsider as well). However this ideal needs much more thought on its implementation among differing ethnic groupings of course, as one more Anglo speaking here.
  • Michael Canaris
    May 2, 09 - 5:15pm
    If majority churches expect assimilation, then they should also expect to sacrifice many of their own cultural distinctives and practices in order to welcome and serve those from other cultural backgrounds.
    Paradoxically, though, some emigre cultures (particularly those which Australia has been allied with in the past) may view some of those distinctives and practices in a favourable light. Speaking for myself, one factor which stands to the Anglican Communion's credit is the steadfast support those countries wherein it was relatively prevalent gave to Poland in its darkest hours of Nazi and Bolshevik tyranny.
  • David Clarke
    May 3, 09 - 10:41am
    Among the 'tribes' of Sydney the cultural distinctions often overlooked by the Anglican church are to do with wealth and education.
  • John Reed
    May 4, 09 - 1:21am
    Totally agree on the dangers of assimilation. But what is the best alternative? Historically, there seem to have been two poles in inter-cultural relations: assimilation (they must become like us) and segregation (they must stay separate from us). Both have fostered unhelpful models. Is there a third, middle way (the good old Anglican Via Media)? Australian society, for example, has struggled to define/understand/live out "multiculturalism". It seems to me that in the church we must take all the more seriously the task of working out this issue. You rightly point out the dangers of assimilation. But surely we must also avoid segregation, in the face of the Biblical call for unity amongst God's people?
  • Jeremy Halcrow
    May 4, 09 - 1:56am
    reconciliation is a biblical term. Does it have any relevance in this debate?
  • Phil Nicholson
    May 4, 09 - 5:10am
    Historically, there seem to have been two poles in inter-cultural relations: assimilation (they must become like us) and segregation (they must stay separate from us).


    I think the 3rd way is a biblical multiculturalism - a freedom to express and live out cultural distinctives with a unity focused on the gospel. We rarely see this in practice because the alternatives are just much easier.

    Multicultural churches only work when we are committed to them as a biblical imperative and willing to face the pain of working through difficult issues. It requires explicitly building this goal into the purpose of the church, including all the different cultural groups in leadership, taking time to work through the difficulties raised by the different cultures involved.

    And I think it is the majority culture that bears the bulk of the responsibility to initiate these steps and be willing to set aside their personal comfort and preferences to make it possible.

    Working in an international Christian organisation, I find we need to spend a lot of time seeking to understand one another's culture and talking about our different views of leadership and power, decision making, conflict resolution, planning, etc, etc, etc. Only as we understand one another and seek to apply the gospel in these areas are we able to build strong relationships and productively serve together. It is hard work but very rewarding.
  • Phil Nicholson
    May 4, 09 - 5:14am
    Actually, I think some of the most multicultural churches I have seen in Sydney are the Chinese churches. They are often working in 3 different languages and bring together people from half a dozen different nations in Asia with very different histories and backgrounds. I suspect they have done a lot more to work through the difficulties of cultural differences than most Anglo churches.
  • Phil Harding
    May 4, 09 - 10:50pm
    In Acts 2 and Rev 5 all the different cultures are praising God together, not in separate gatherings.

    Of course we shouldn't lose cultural distinctiveness, but isn't the ideal for any church to be mix of all ages, socio-economic backgrounds and cultures (as far as these are represented in that church's local area)?? Many of the epistles are directly concerned with this sort of healthy diversity.

    Sure it may be really hard to maintain cultural distinctives in a multi-cultural gathering, and sure mono-cultural gatherings have great strategic functions, but these are separate issues to what the church itself is called to look like.
  • Andrew Lim
    May 5, 09 - 8:37am
    Hi Phil's,

    Harding: The "togetherness" in Acts 2 and Revelation 5 is focused on and in praise of God. There's no suggestion necessarily that the miracle of Acts 2 extended to the diverse groups conversing with each other, as their languages remain distinct and separate. The cacophony of noise is no doubt music to God's ears, but to each other would still remain a babble, in Acts 2, in any case. Now, in Revelation 5, I guess communication barriers would be broken down so in the end state, we are all multi-lingual (Yippee! No more Mandarin lessons for me).

    Nicholson: Great to hear from you. It's been too long.
  • Phil Harding
    May 6, 09 - 1:48am
    Andrew, yes their languages remain separate in Acts - I just don't see how this is a justification for mono-cultural churches. There is a big difference between "cultural distinctiveness" and cultural groups being physically separate.

    When we need to have mono-cultural or language-based ministries, surely the ideal is to have these groups be a part of a broader church that refelcts all the ages, races and classes of its local community?

    We could take another example, that of age. Some Sydney Anglican evening services are geared towards teens and uni students, and (often without meaning to) end up only having this age group attend. Now, God loves young people and validates what is distinctive about being a young adult - but this isn't cause to separate from the rest of the local christians and never fellowship with families and seniors.
  • Andrew Lim
    May 6, 09 - 2:03am
    Phil H, putting culture aside for one moment, there is still the issue of language. In a "broader church", how would the groups communicate? Whose language should be lingua franca of the "broader church"? Should that be the majority group? And if so, why so? You see the difficulty?

    The unity we have is not an organisational one of physical togetherness, but the "seated in the heavenlies" one of communing with the same God in our distinct and different langauges. The attempts I have seen to force a continuing structural unity (one-off events such as the inter-denominational conferences aside), have been neither helpful to the cause of the gospel nor beneficial to its members.

    So, which way forward? Without purposely blowing the Cathedral's own trumpet, I love the family of congregations here with their different cultural emphases (morning church, youth-and-uni church, young workers church, healing church, Asian churc) because (perhaps paradoxically) it enables all of us to reach out to more people. Happy to chat about this structure with you sometime.
  • Andrew Lim
    May 6, 09 - 2:09am
    Oh, one more thing. All churches are mono-cultural to some extent. It's just that some churches don't realise they are. The tragedy is, sad to say, as an example, that some homogenously Anglo churches don't seem to realise by their clear Anglo culture, arcane language, paternalistic/imperialistic attitude that this is itself a mono-culture which they mistakenly perceive to be "open to all", but instead sets up significant barriers for fellowshp.
  • Phil Harding
    May 6, 09 - 5:42am
    There are plenty of exmaples of churches in Sydney which have language-specific congregations who then all meet together as well. At these "all-in" times, the leaders can either use both languages (if they are bi-lingual), or subtitles/translations can be used. I realise how hard the logistics are, but such examples do exist and I believe are a testament to the unity of God's people.

    But logistics aside (many mono-cultural non-anglo churches in Sydney speak english anyway!), the real issue here is the nature of church unity. I infer from your "seated in the heavenlies" langauge that you have a Knox/Robinson view on this matter. I believe this is a minority in evangelical ecclesiology today, and respectfully hold a different position. But from a purely practical perspective, I would argue that visible diversity/unity is very important in giving outsiders a proper view of what church is and who it is for. Mono-cultural ministries are great at attracting people it's true, but there can also be a danger in their becoming club-like. In the worst case scenario, they can become places for people who simply find it easier to get on with others just like them. But this leads us into the whole debate about the homogenous-unit principle, about which much ink has been spilt!

    PS: I totally agree that most churches are mono-cultural without knowing it, particularly middle-class anglo churches here in Sydney. I think this is very sad and not the way it should be!
  • Mark Short
    May 6, 09 - 6:36am
    Hi Andrew,

    I do agree with Phil that your ecclesiology seems somewhat underdeveloped (even within a Knox-Robinson framework). That is, the church is both a heavenly AND an eschatological reality ie it is called to model in its life now what will be true for all of God's people in the end. I don't see how this can occur without people from different races and cultures gathering together at least some of the time. Being covered by the same administrative umbrella (eg a Parish) is not sufficient it seems to me.

    I realise diversity of language means it will not always be possible or advisable this side of glory. In the end though I think your article lets Anglo's like me off the hook far too easily. Genuine hospitality most go beyond a willingness to let a group use a building or some vague sense of 'partnership' that never finds expression in the nitty-gritty and messiness of face to face relationships. Under your scenario for example, there is no theological imperative for an Anglo to choose to attend a predominantly non-Anglo congregation as an expression of unity in Christ.

    I write this as a Rector of Parish which has gone from almost entirely Anlgo to 30-40 per cent non-Anglo over the past 3-4 years and as one who could write a book about the mistakes he's made during that time!!
  • Jeremy Halcrow
    May 6, 09 - 6:59am
    Do we need to take into account a 'power dynamic' here.

    I think what Andrew might be objecting is the view that minority cultures should be forced to adjust to the majority culture's preferences.

    reconciliation is a great term because it implies the sacrifice of preferences by all communities in question.. I once described it very clunkily as 'dynamic enmeshment'
  • Andrew Lim
    May 6, 09 - 8:15am
    Thank you again for your contributions to the discussion.

    In it all, no one has addressed the very real problem of communication and language.

    Sure, it's possible for everyone to gather together in the name of Christ here on earth, but in what sense is it a real fellowship when people in the group cannot understand others in the group, nor understand the content of the meeting?

    As an example, we have many Korean visitors to our 10:30am gathering, which uses a high-level of English. When asked how much of the content they understand, the typical response is between 0-5 per cent of what was said. For all intents and purposes, while it might warm the hearts of the non-Korean side of the congregation to see some Asian faces, there has been no genuine fellowship.

    Thoughts?
  • Phil Nicholson
    May 6, 09 - 8:45am
    In it all, no one has addressed the very real problem of communication and language.


    My experience has been that most people accept the need for separate churches or congregations when there is a language barrier. Most objections arise when there is a common language and the difference is "only" culture. It is at this point when I think the majority culture tends to start pointing fingers about closed ethnic churches, blind to their own mono-cultural identity. As has been mentioned, it is the majority/host culture that probably should bear the bulk of the responsibility in working to bring reconciliation and integration (but not assimilation) of the various cultures into a common church.

    Even then I think there will sometimes be good reasons to preserve ethnic English speaking churches and it is dangerous to criticise them without seeking to understand their own expressed identity and reason for being.

    BTW, it is encouraging that an increasing number of English-speaking Chinese churches are now leaving "Chinese" out of the church name and have a significant minority of non-Chinese who attend.

    I don't think this is necessarily a denial of our unity in Christ, any more than is the existence of denominations.
  • Andrew Lim
    May 6, 09 - 9:56am
    As for my supposed Knox-Robinson ecclesiology, well, I'm quite used to being in the minority ;-)
  • Andrew Lim
    May 6, 09 - 11:07pm
    Mark, don't appreciate the "somewhat underdeveloped ecclesiology" dig. Maybe you've misunderstood me, but I'm not in disagreement that "the church is a heavenly and eschatological reality". To clarify, the heavenly church is currently in session, as people meet in different local congregations, at different times, in different languages, in different countries. We share a spiritual unity that transcends time and distance and culture. However, we do look forward to one day sharing in the physical/spiritual reality of not only spiritually gathering around God's throne, but doing so with our new resurrection bodies too.

    In the interim, there's many ways to skin a cat. Having a range of different cultural and sub-cultural congregations under the one umbrella (much as we do at the Cathedral) I think is a step forward from the many mono-cultural congregations that don't exactly roll out the welcome mat to those who don't fit in with that mono-culture.

    At my old Chinese church, there was great concern that the people of the different congregations - Cantonese, Mandarin, and English - also display our spiritual unity by getting together as a group physically. While I didn't mind doing so, the overwhelming consensus was, that as nice as it was to smile politely across the room and nod and attempt to communicate crudely using sign language, our time could have been better spent.
  • Chris Pettett
    May 7, 09 - 12:50am
    Hi Andrew,

    I think this is a great debate. I'm of the view that when we all gather together as a Church we are united to Christ.

    Your thesis can be similarly applied to viewing the relationships between the young and the elderly in church. At the Cathedral there is a service dedicated as a service for young people. In a sense, there is a cultural gap here because it excludes someone who doesn't identify as young. But as Christians we share something that goes far beyond our prejudices, age, or culture - which is the point of Pentacost and Revelation.

    It is a matter of being Christian first.
  • Phil Harding
    May 7, 09 - 3:49am
    Andrew, based on your illustration you seem to be thinking of "fellowship" as comfortable verbal communication. I think this is a bit narrow, as many would say they have had encouraging and fulfilling fellowship when this is not the case - with those of other languages, people with mental disabilities and very young children. I certainly have, it just didn't look like having a comfortable chat over tea.

    Sure, there are important types of fellowship that require the same language, and that is where we need to think about separate gathering times. As I mentioned before, there are practical examples of this around Sydney, including the use of subtitles, translations and all-in "easy english" services before separate meetings (this is a great one, because it encourages the anglos to adapt for those with less english).

    I suspect we largely agree on most of this. However, like Mark, I believe the ideal we should strive for is a church that represents as closely as possible how God would have us live together. I took your article as saying that separated mono-cultural services is a good enough scenario. While I agree it is preferable to what we often see in Sydney, I just don't see this as the church's highest ideal.
  • Mark Short
    May 7, 09 - 5:21am
    Hi Andrew,
    The "somewhat undeveloped ecclesiology" comment was not intended as a "dig" but a serious and sober assessment. Surely an honest airing of real or perceived differences is vital in moving a conversation forward?
    In that vein, I'd be interested in hearing how you understand the church as an "eschatological" reality as well as a "heavenly" one ie are the two terms essentially saying the same thing or does one add to the other? Or are you saying that it's only the church after the return of Christ which is eschatological?
    To make it clear where I'm coming from, I'm not opposed to mono-cultural gatherings. We have one in our Parish and I've advocated for its continued existence in response to some (mild) misgivings from others. I'm just not convinced you've articulated an adequate theological basis for working through some of the practical decisions which have to be made.

    Blessings in Christ,

    Mark