Throughout my childhood and teenage years, my old church would tour the other churches in New Hampshire and lead out in worship service. They were especially interested in the instruments we brought for special music – anklung--piped instruments that, when shaken, produced a wonderful array of notes few thought could be coaxed out of clanging wood--and kolintang, wooden xylophones. Sometimes I felt out of place, as if I and my culture was a gimmick. What enthralled me more were the intelligible words of the preacher because the sermon was always in English at the American churches.
As a Seventh-day Adventist and a second-generation immigrant, my view of ethnic congregations, I venture, is typical of those in my shoes. My parents practiced their English at home with me and so I never mastered Bahasa Indonesia, the language of my home islands. My God was Indonesian, which is to say He was boring and vaguely understood, His substance evaporating in Bahasa’s large vocabulary and complex morphology. I was only familiar with broken potluck English, and confusion on my end.
However, my problem with ethnic congregations goes beyond the language barrier, which by no means was insurmountable. Rather, I struggle to find a place for it within the Christian mission of inclusiveness and openness for all believers. If the walls of separation we construct for ourselves do indeed dissolve within the Fountain of Living Water, if there really is “neither Jew nor Gentile […] for you are all one in Christ Jesus” then it would seem to me that Indonesian, Hispanic, Caribbean, Korean, African churches would all need to lose whatever cultural and ethnic identity they claim to in order that Christ’s ideal for the church might be fulfilled.
I understand the difficulty inherent in this proposal. Both America and the Church are meant to be melting pots. That means that the ingredients should one day become homogeneous, sharing, at the very least, a common language, common principles, and common culture. However, for the immigrant landing in JFK, LAX, ATL, or ORD for the first time, having finally received their Green Card or Student Visa or whatever the document may be, the idea that they let go of their native tongue, the sounds and mannerisms that form their identity is terrifying and shameful. My parents, upon immigrating to New England, joined an Indonesian church because it provided a safe, comfortable environment in which they could slowly acclimate and assimilate into American society. Without RISDAC and DISDAC or any of the ISDACs (Indonesian SDA Churches) and the resources and spiritual nourishment they provided in an alien and sometimes hostile nation, they might never have been able to appreciate what this nation does have to offer – freedom from persecution, opportunity to carve out a slice of the pie, hope for myself and my sister. Ethnic congregations are specially equipped and placed to serve their own demographics better than others.
But what often happens is that ethnic congregations become insular and difficult to approach for the sincere seeker. They become more invested in preserving their culture and bringing more of their own into the fold than in preparing Christian immigrants and citizens to serve Christ and their country (in that order). One’s culture can become a temptation to pride, the greatest separator. No church is free of this sin and I understand the usefulness of ethnic congregations. Only let us be mindful that the church is a platform for ministry and outreach to a world in need, rather than a social club.