Cultural church planting in spherical cultures

I think it’s safe to say that our commission is to reach the world with the truth of Jesus, and how we go about that will often be etched out in cultural groves that can be very complex and multi-layered.

I have the pleasure of being steeped in the church planting world in a major US metro, and because of that, I often find myself in meetings with others of a similar reality as mine. It wasn’t long before I started wondering if “Bearded White Guys” were the only ones that lived in the world of church planting. No matter the group of church planting leaders I was around, there seemed to be a common thread of little to no diversity present, especially in leadership.

“I want a multi-cultural church!” A noble desire, one that I generally only hear from Anglos (White people). That isn’t to say that others aren’t saying, hoping, and dreaming of this reality, but it is to say that I’m not entirely certain we (Anglos) grasp fully the diverse and complex realities in our cities or how tightly fixed our western Anglo view of culture is. I’ve spoken directly with and been around many that fall into the first generation category of other cultures, and I’ve heard and seen time and again that the most comfortable space for them is within their own culture including during worship.

In working with a Chinese church planter at the University of Minnesota attempting to plant a small church among the many Chinese students and their families, a friend wondered why we would plant such a church and why would it not just be a ministry of the church. The short answer is that ministries typically do not practice the sacraments, or what is more commonly known as communion and baptism for protestants, in their specific ministry nuances. The longer answer begins with highlighting the prevailing western Anglo exceptionalism that still drones on even in our growingly diverse metros. The assumption is often that this should be a ministry of one of our Anglo churches with a “multi-cultural” outreach. At best this thinking can rob those in a first generation category of a true and robust ecclesiological (Church) reality and experience, and at worst it is keeping many diverse cultures from the Gospel right here in our own cities.

“They don’t last”, one leader and friend in the church planting world exclaimed. Speaking of first generation churches and church plants. Just because we are having a difficult time understanding the complexity of first generation church plants shouldn’t lead us to the conclusion that we just shouldn’t do them. One example of a first generation church you might not want to plant would be of Slavic cultures. Why? In a recent interview of one of our Ukrainian pastors, he explained the three waves of Slavic immigration to the west and it’s reasoning. Slavic cultures came to US metros pre-WWII, in the 50’s & 60’s, and early 90’s, and it was during that time that Slavic churches formed throughout the US. Since then, immigration has tapered off radically. Most of this immigration was to escape oppression, an oppression that isn’t as present as it was before. In fact, there is even a growing nationalism that is occurring in Slavic cultures. Precisely because there is a limited replenishment of first generations into the Slavic churches in the west many of these churches are now transitioning into more English speaking worship services. However, among certain groups, like Hispanic, Asian, and African, we see constant flows of first generation replenishment coming into the US, and we also see continued growth among first generation type churches.

The steadier the flow of first generation into your city, the more probable and healthy the first generation church plant will be over time, but if that flow of first generation drastically slows for whatever reason you and the church must realize that the clock begins to tick for that church as it currently exists.

It’s important to see cultures in two buckets; linear and spherical. Linear cultures are those that experience little outside influence and move linear through their generations. China, as an example. There aren’t large numbers of immigrants flowing into the country, so you typically find the Chinese culture moving very linear. The US on the other hand is very spherical in its cultural movement. Many immigrants continuously flow into the US. This leads to a constant replenishment of first, second, and third generations for certain cultures within the US. Even in these cultures that are on constant replenishment in the US, they often retain deep cultural roots even at the third generation level.

It’s critical for us to understand the complexity of cultural flow within spherical cultures like the US, and as we seek to share Jesus and grow the church, we must work to continually make sense of how first generation cultures function best. We must be tirelessly unafraid and unashamed to create space for first generation worshipers in spherical cultures, and we must relinquish the exceptionalistic attitudes that pit us against making space for God to work robustly within US metros.

Within the network of churches I work with in the Twin Cities, we have 48 churches. 19 of those churches display cultural specificity. 10 of those worship in their indigenous languages and with their specific cultural nuances. These churches are some of our most active and healthy in our network, and we have plans to plant even more in the coming years to include churches reaching Oromo Ethiopians, Hmong, Hispanic, and Native Americans.

As cities continue to grow and evolve, so to will our approach to growing the kingdom in these differing and complex environments. The best approach is to be wisely aware of what God is doing and meet Him there, no matter how different, complex, and uncomfortable it may be.

By Joshua Whetstine – North American Mission Board City Missionary for Minneapolis/St. Paul.

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